1989 Earthquake History at MLML


Thirty years ago, on 17 October 1989 at 5:04 pm the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the MLML world. Mary Yoklavich and I wrote a short blog about our experiences as we rode that wave at the lab. As we approach the 30th anniversary of that day, it seems appropriate to take a look back and see how that event shaped the future of MLML and also to capture some other people’s recollections of that fateful day.

Here are some of the stories:

Greg Cailliet:

I really don't have direct memories of that day AT MLML. I was in Europe, touring around, after having been at a sturgeon conference in France. I heard the news in a motel in England after crossing the English Channel and driving (on the wrong side of the road) to see an Aquarium there in Weymouth.

We called our house and found out that it was fine - only one wine glass fell into the kitchen - Monterey is on granite. Moss Landing is not.

When I returned, I found all of my important office things in my house. Linda Martin and other Ich Lab grad students had emptied my destroyed office and saved everything. That is what good graduate students do!

That's all I can offer, but I do have memories of other things, second-hand. That will be interesting to hear on that day. I hope Sheila comes to tell the story about the electric clock stopping in the Library.

John Heine:

When the earthquake struck central California in October of 1989, I was at McMurdo Station in Antarctica for the first of many seasons there.  It was an MLML project with PI Jim McClintock, and MLML students Marc Slattery and Jim Weston.  We were eating lunch in the galley when someone came up to us and said “did you know that your marine lab was just destroyed in an earthquake?”.  Of course, we were in shock.  In those days (pre- e mail) we couldn’t even make a phone call from the research station.  We would normally have to travel a few miles to the Kiwi station at Scott Base. Phone calls could be made from McMurdo, but we weren’t allowed to make them as scientists. I remember that John Pearse from UCSC was also there at the time, and we all went into the station manager’s office, where John demanded to make a call home to check on his wife and family.  I have never seen him so irate, and rightly so.  Phone calls were granted. It was a strange feeling to be so far away during this stressful time, and only getting sporadic reports of the situation at home.  But we were glad to hear that nobody was hurt.

Figure 1. View of Beaudette Foundation building in background and future home of MLML.
Nicole Crane:

I was sitting on the beach at Moss Landing earlier that day with a friend, having a sandwich.  It was strangely warm and still; very un-moss landing like. The day before had been warm too, and I had commented to my Aunt Sally about that.  "This is earthquake weather" she had said, "it scares me". As I ate my sandwich on the beach, my friend looked out at the water and said "wow, it's so hot and glassy today - weird".  "I know" I said, "my Aunt Sally says this is earthquake weather". I left the Lab later that day at around 5 pm.  I made it across the bridge just in front of the Lab, and felt my car wobble in a totally unfamiliar way.  I looked up and saw the stacks of the then PG and E power plant literally swaying like trees.  I looked across the road and saw someone get out of their car and look at the tires - then others stopped and did the same. It took me what seemed like a really long time to realize that the swaying stacks, wobbling cars and moving road were not as they should be.  I turned around to look back at the Lab, and under the bridge crossing the slough there was a rush of water as if someone had pulled the plug of a huge bathtub.  I started to hear people yelling and it pulled me out of what was a strange trance as I took it in.  All I could think about was my Aunt Sally, and I headed for Santa Cruz by way of Elkhorn Road where I was living.  I needed to check my dog and our house. I passed some horses running on the road, and some dogs running too.  it was surreal.  The road to Santa Cruz was closed.  I tried calling but all the lines were busy.  My terrified dog was glad to see me.  I wanted to head back to the lab to check on it, of course by now I was fully aware of what had happened.  The road was closed and I couldn't get through.

Figure 2. First building for MLML bought from the Beaudette Foundation in 1965 for $210,000.
Mike Foster:

I was in Salinas shopping for a birthday present when it hit. Sheltered in a doorway and then raced home to see if our house had slid down the hill. It hadn't, just a few cracks in the foundation. Then to the Labs, parking land-side of the bridge which was out of commission. Labs looked ok from a distance except for the tilting sea water tower but up close: what a mess! Even the v-ball court suffered as mud boiled up through a crack in the sand. Fortunately, no one was injured. The most lasting memory is how all MLMLers pulled together to quickly get us up and running in Salinas, in my opinion the greatest expression ever of the MLML spirit.


Matt Burd:

It has been 30 years…wow…life is amazing.  I remember it like yesterday….

I was a young Midwesterner on the move and California was the place to be.  I was headed to MLML and arrived in Monterey on a hot and dry afternoon where my used Subaru wagon broke down and I rattled into the nearest gas station.  I got out and was looking around thinking about my next step as I really had no idea where I was.  Something caught my eye;  standing just outside the booth of the payphone, (yes I mean pay phone), there was a tanned young woman with long dark black hair, a cowboy hat and mirrored sunglasses,  wearing cutoff jeans and a white bikini top.  But that’s not what caught my eye.  What did was the flag colored red white and blue tattoo in the outline of the state of Texas on the outside of her thigh;  below it read “Don’t mess with Texas”. Wow,  I said to myself and I contemplated not attending MLML.

I did arrive for first day of class foregoing finding out the meaning of Don’t mess with Texas.  I walked into the lab, looked around, saw all the people quietly working, studying, playing beach volleyball and basically, at all times, enjoying the ocean not even steps from the lab.  I smiled and realized this place was quite uncommon.  This small town boy was going to spend the next three years (I did say three and not seven Tommy Norris) of my life on the beach of MLML.  Boy was I wrong.  On a gorgeous early autumn afternoon in October, I was studying (true) in the Monterey library as I lived in Monterey my first year…I would eventually move to the Blue House….. but that is another story.  I was at a table with 4 other people that I did not know when the walls started shaking and the floor was rolling like a wave.  Next thing I knew a strange woman had jumped in my lap and was clinging to me, shrieking.  Coming from Illinois,  I really had no idea what was going on, but quickly thought this must be what it’s like to be in an earthquake.  Suddenly, I realized for the first time in my life, and unfortunately not the last time, how quickly  life changes.  I got out of the library and drove to the MLML lab in my newly repaired Subaru…..my heart sank;  it was over.  My new life was gone before it even started….I thought a lot about Texas.  I figured I wouldn’t get a chance to experience Moss Landing Marine Labs, marine science, the waves, breathing underwater, the ocean.   I could not have been more wrong.

What I did not realize was that very foundation of MLML was not damaged at all;  it was unshakeable…..Dr. John Martin applied CPR to all of our broken hearts.  Like garden eels in the sand, the faculty of MLML emerged, the staff welcomed the students back, the community stepped in to help,  and our hearts were transplanted to Salinas….where I would be fortunate enough to live out my Moss Landing life with such extraordinary people…. the likes of Mikey, Tommy, Shred, Di, Pete, Dan, Steve, Sal, Jim, Mike, Nick, Cheryl, John, Cary, Mary, Mary, Cassandra, Tom, Karen, Jim, Greg, Sheila, Alan, Gale, Jim, Mike, Terry, JD, Ross, Mark, John, Tony,…..the list continues to grow.  Which is the most remarkable thing about MLML….its people….none of us missed a beat….and, with zero regret (Ok maybe just a little),  I have never thought of Texas again.

Sandy Zeiner:

Wow cannot believe it has been 30 years since the quake. That was a crazy day.

Rich and I were out doing some shark tagging on Elkhorn slough that morning, Rich got hurt, spine by a bat ray in his forearm, and we had to rush to the urgent care clinic. On the way back to Moss Landing was when the earthquake hit. We were just out of Castroville, heading down Hwy 1. Could not control the car. We made it back to Moss Landing, I parked the car by the place I was renting and ran to the marine lab. The one lane bridge was buckled so I had to jump across. The water was rushing out of the marina and percolating up through the cracks in the marine labs parking lot. It was a crazy sight to see. I was so worried about the sharks and rays in the holding tank that I just ran past everyone standing in the parking lot, to the court yard and grabbed two leopard sharks by their tails from the drained holding tank and ran back out the loading dock area to toss them into the slough. Well the water had receded so far down that it mostly mud, so I just ran as far as I could in the mud and tossed them to the water. They went in, so I ran back to grab two more. I got a ray and a smooth hound the next trip. I was going back for one, a large torpedo ray when Ralph stopped me. He grabbed be by the shoulders and said, “Sandy, you cannot safe them, there are power lines down and you have no shoes on.”  So sadly, the torpedo ray died. Not sure how I was going to carry it without getting shocked anyways. Right after that the fire department made all of us stay out of the buildings. Small aftershocks kept occurring and they were afraid the buildings were going to come down.  I walked home that evening, muddy, not sure where my shoes were, what happened to Rich and if I even had a place to go to. I did, my place was not damaged. Ended up with 5-6 other people staying with me, who could not get home.  It was a day to remember.

Lots of stories about that day and the weeks, months that followed.

Figure 3. Southwest corner of the building that enclosed the library.

Dan Watson:

Weeks after the Loma Prieta quake, I came to Moss Landing to inspect the “New Lab.”  As pictures show, the exterior walls on the Lab were wracked at bewildering angles; the place abandoned, belying its young age of just a few years.  What boggled the mind was there was a crevasse in the sand dunes near the lab wider than 12 inches and plunging to darkness.

Only native dune plants grow now where the whaling station once stood, where we played volleyball on the sand court, and where Morejohn’s cetacean bones tainted the sea breezes.

Jim Curland:

I was just beginning my journey at MLML in 1989, having started my classes that year.  One memory I have is of an assembly type line of students starting outside the window of the library and handing books and possibly other items from the library to get them out of the building at Sheila's direction.  I do remember, despite the jarring interruption of an earthquake, and a large one at that, there didn't seem to be chaos at the lab, rather a very concerted team effort to help out where needed!


Tom Okey:

A window to the edge of ocean knowledge: October 17th, 1989 was another sunny exciting day as a grad-student at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML)—a world leading ocean research institute of the California State University System. On that day, and for over two decades, MLML was an organically growing assemblage of old and new buildings erected directly on the sandy spit and beach that defines the shoreward rim of the head of Monterey Submarine Canyon. Our marine lab home was ‘floating’ on slabs of cement over a beach shaped by the power of waves, currents, runoff, continental shelf erosion, and occasional earthquakes.

Just a few steps to the west of our beloved original buildings, annual storm-induced sediment flushing events trigger turbidity currents that re-suspend and carry sediment and accumulated organics down our submarine canyon (the continental slope) to abyssal depths. These events could be observed from the windows of our cozy library on the beach, which was front-row seating to these awesome storms that come between October and January. It turns out that this shallow and dynamic canyon head is an ideal and accessible location to understand how biological communities are simultaneously regulated and structured by multiple dimensions of chemical, physical, and biological disturbances and resources.

I learned that minimal fancy equipment was needed to find the edge of human understanding just outside our window. Just add a community of impoverished grad-students, some diving gear, a small boat, some coffee-can cores and creative fabrications, a microscope or two, and a few other odds and ends. Key ingredient: sprinkle with some of the deep knowledge that our professors carried forward and connected us to, some access to amazing facilities including research vessels, and incredible magic will happen—sometimes solving big problems faced by society and nature.

The marine lab facilities: The main facility at MLML was the marine lab itself—a legacy of the whaling and fish processing history of Moss Landing. The addition of new buildings over time, in just the right configuration, made MLML the world’s greatest marine lab community. The different ‘labs’ of students led by professors specializing in different disciplines of marine science were perfectly complementary both intellectually and socially. It was an incredibly exciting place for a group of curious 20-somethings to spend our days. We were grateful to be there. Most of us stayed extra-long, ostensibly just for a master’s degree.

Figure 4. Cracks in one of the lab's floor.

The buildings were arranged in the shape of a horseshoe with the somewhat open-end facing east—creating a courtyard that was protected from the onshore winds from the west. This was an ideal microclimate and habitat for students to gather each day at lunchtime. This physical architecture was the foundation of a uniquely bonded and cooperative community, which was essential given that most thesis projects required collaborative field work. By intent or good fortune, our perfectly designed marine lab was the cooperative and collaborative glue that bonded our science community.

Unbeknownst to students of my cohort, Dr. Jim Nybakken—MLML’s original invertebrate zoology professor—played a leading role in establishing, designing, and creating these facilities and this unique community of learning.

A sampling adventure and Dr. Nybakken’s invertebrate zoology class: I was literally underwater for a portion of most days during my time at MLML, but on October 17th, 1989 I was anticipating an oceanographic adventure with my fellow students in Dr. Nybakken’s invertebrate zoology class. That day, we would sample ‘benthic’ invertebrates in the soft sediment habitats of Monterey Bay (at the 60 m station) using a ‘benthic sled’ towed behind the Research Vessel Ed Ricketts—named after the famous marine biologist friend of John Steinbeck.

That afternoon, we brought our samples back to the laboratory classroom located on the courtyard-side (south side) of the original marine lab building shown at the top of this photo, located in the middle white building in this photo (both photos from the mid-1960s). The courtyard was eventually created on the south side of that building with the construction of newer lab buildings to the south and a lecture and administrative offices on the west end of the complex.

It was after 5 pm, and Dr. Nybakken and our entire invertebrate zoology class were still in the lab classroom examining our interesting specimens—making notes and drawings and sharing our discoveries. These invertebrate taxa that Dr. Nybakken had shown us with meticulous detain during his lectures were so engrossing that no student had begun to pack up.

Figure 5. Removing cement pad at the Firehouse (Small Boats).

Suddenly, the earthquake: At 5:04 pm, a mild west-east swaying shake made all of us students look up from our microscopes and notebooks at each other’s faces and the slightly swaying lights in the classroom. No words were spoken; all of us were realizing it was an earthquake and like me most were probably expecting it to subside when suddenly there was a huge movement from the west as the Loma Prieta quake intensified. Walls cracked, water pipes burst and started spraying, and some plaster started falling.

Our hero Dr. Nybakken called for the students to come to the double doorway separating the lab classroom from the hallway of the main building because most students were on that side of the classroom. He is remembered by myself and others with arms outstretched to the doorframe, like superman holding it together, coaxing us from the classroom and hallway. The last to make it to the group, I will never forget the sight of Dr. Nybakken standing over his huddled students with his arms over and around them as our shared home shook and crumbled around us.

Dr. Nybakken then instructed us to leave through the outer classroom door to the courtyard, where we moved to our lunch spot in the middle---to the warm heart of our community---which Dr. Nybakken had also helped to create over years of planning the growth of our marine lab since its founding in 1966 when he became MLML’s first faculty member. Whether we knew it or not, Dr. Jim Nybakken was our hero through thick and thin, protecting his students from the Loma Prieta earthquake and as a pioneer in helping to create the world’s greatest marine lab.

Disturbance and opportunity: The years immediately after the earthquake saw the various labs relocate to disparate locations in Salinas, Castroville, Monterey, and Moss Landing. This physical separation of the labs caused social separation and an erosion of our famous and characteristic social and scientific cohesion and cooperation. Those were grey years in some ways for the marine lab, and for some students. But alas, people like Dr. Nybakken, and many other devoted leaders of our community, worked to establish the amazing “new” lab facilities on the hill overlooking Moss Landing and its spectacular natural setting. This new critical habitat has put emerging generations of graduate students, faculty, and staff in an even better position to understand our changing oceans and help find solutions to the enormous global challenges ahead—thanks in large part to Dr. Jim Nybakken. When I wandered away from Moss Landing, I never did thank him for everything he did for us. Thank you Dr. Jim Nybakken and Bette.


Sheila Baldridge:

Mary’s memories of being in the library just after the earthquake echo mine.  I felt the building begin to shake – an earthquake. Then it really shook – an EARTHQUAKE! I got under my desk and hoped for the best.  I remember being especially impressed by the gap which opened between the floor and the wall showing the sand beneath.  We were very lucky that the shaking did not go on longer or the building would surely have collapsed.  I was so grateful when Mary and Danny (Heilprin) appeared and we scrambled out of the window – I wasn’t alone. Thoughts of a tsunami crossed my mind but there wasn’t much we could do about that except head out.

I remember gathering at the Blue House, someone playing a guitar and the rest of us sitting in stunned silence. The strange “dusty” quality to the light as the sun was setting.  It was as though we had been transported to another world.  I think at that point we were still too shocked to realize what it all meant for the future of the Labs.

The next day reality set in as we gathered at the land side of the bridge and gazed across at our battered home as decisions were being made.  Would we be allowed in to salvage the labs. and the library? Or would it be raised to the ground and the research and work of so many be lost forever?  But permission was given, and eventually we all trooped in with our hard hats, boxes (where did we find so many boxes?) and rented trucks. The books and journals were packed in boxes, handed out of a window and everything disappeared down the dirt road behind the dunes to Salinas and our new home at San Jose State’s Satellite Campus. The library ended up in two classrooms with the rest stored in an old sugar factory in Spreckles.  It was an unreinforced brick building and gave me the creeps every time I had to go there. What if there is another earthquake? Not to mention the resident pigeons and their propensity for pooping on everything.  I love birds but … There was one more move across the parking lot to “temporary” buildings where, in spite of all the drawbacks, we thrived and prospered for 10 years.

Apart from the event itself, one of the most moving memories for me was the support we got from students and friends, some long graduated.  These never to be forgotten people bringing spouses, children, friends just appeared without being asked, rolled up their sleeves and set to work.  They will never know how much this meant to us when we were so overwhelmed by the magnitude of what needed to be done. They boosted our badly bruised morale and gave us hope that a future for the Labs. was possible.  The MLML spirit would indeed live on.


Sal Cerchio:

I was sitting in the main classroom that looked out onto the Bay through a wall of windows, what a beautiful venue that was. It was the statistics class that was being taught by a new professor, named Jim Harvey, who had just started that semester at the lab after the departure of my first advisor, Bernd Würsig. My memory is that we were mid-class and Jim was up front lecturing…. and then we felt the first movement. These were the P-waves, the compressional waves of the quake that move fast and radiate out first, shifting you back and forth laterally. At this point everyone seemed to stop, and look around at each other… that moment seemed to linger for a long time, at least for me, and the thought going through my mind was, “Ok, this is an earthquake… is it just a tremor (like so many felt before)? Is it going to stop soon?...” And then the S-waves hit. These are the shear waves that move more slowly and arrive second, and move you up and down vertically, as well as laterally, and are much more violent. At this point, Jim yells “Earthquake, everybody out!!”, or something to that effect, and we all jump up and pour out of the door into the courtyard. The next moments were surreal and seemed to last forever. The group of us stood in the middle of the courtyard, away from the three long buildings that defined the space on the north, west and south sides. Everything that you think is permanent and solid suddenly becomes ephemeral and plastic. The hard ground moved so much that it was difficult to maintain balance and stand, as we all “surfed the ground”. The concrete pad on which the lab sat, and which itself sat on sand undergoing liquefaction, began to crack through, and so did the buildings that sat upon it. Fissures opened from ground to roof in several spots in the walls of the buildings around us, and in turn split the buildings in half, moving apart, and then closing and then opening again. Ruptured water lines sprayed water out of the fissures in the walls into the courtyard. The sea water tank, which towered above the 1-story buildings in the southeast corner of the courtyard, shook back and forth violently, and water came splashing over the top of it in waves, as if some giant took hold of it and shook it violently like a glass of water on a table top. I had to look up the duration of the quake, and found 8-15sec… it seemed a lot longer than that. Some other enduring images:

Realization that the slough was rushing out to the harbor, to the bay, like a running river; the thought that this could mean a tsunami, and the concern that the epicenter may have been out in the bay; recognition that the bridge to the “island” had been taken out in the quake, so no possible exit by car; and Mike Ledbetter, our marine geology professor, exclaiming, “I’m a Geologist, and I’m scared…. I’m a Geologist, and I’m getting out of here!!”

Sandy Zeiner carrying those two leopard sharks, one in each hand, from the holding tank to the slough, and those sharks wriggling and twisting to get a bite out of her in the process; and later, the dead torpedo ray in the bottom of the drained tank that was not so lucky.

Sleeping in the blue house that night, since I had no way to get home to Santa Cruz, along with several other MLML refugees; and through the night waking in a panic with aftershocks, that sent a terror through me and made me jump up and run for the door.

The days that followed, the unity and bond that formed among all the MLMLers, students and profs and researchers, returning to the lab to help with the salvage operation, forming lines to pass equipment and data and specimens out of the labs. And waiting for evaluators to come to inspect the lab and eventually red tag it, so that no one could go in again, I think it took a few days before they came.

A deep sadness about the loss of that landmark.

These experiences became such a part of me, and remain still, even if I do not talk of them very often. I think decades ago, I used to tell the stories more often, but now in 2019, I cannot recall the last time I described these events. And yet it still seems so near to me, so recent, and real … and oddly mythical at the same time. I believe these are the characteristics of trauma. And I suspect that we all went through some level of what is now so commonly known as PTSD, but was less well-known or recognized then. Here is to my MLML brothers and sisters who all shared that experience on that day, and who came together in the aftermath to support each other and the lab, I’ll raise a glass to us all tonight!!



All of you know the story. Earthquake in 1989 destroys the main buildings at MLML, in short order operation moves to trailers in Salinas, 10 years go by before new building is constructed on hill in Moss Landing and dedicated in 2000, and now we have enjoyed 19 years occupying the new spot. So how did the earthquake impact the trajectory of MLML.

Well one of the obvious consequences of the 1989 quake is that the main building is in a new location. We likely would not have sought this location if we had not been displaced, and the new site has some excellent advantages. These include a spectacular view of Monterey Bay, new LEED Gold facilities, greater usable space, and elevation (think sea-level rise). It takes a little longer to get your toes in the Pacific, but the new digs are fabulous.

After we were displaced to trailers in Salinas, a few groups found spaces in Moss Landing to retain the feel of a marine lab. One of the consequences of our displacement was a desire to find other facilities we could use at the shore. So, the Norte facility was found. Lou and John Ottone, who owned Salinas Tallow, also owned a 1.7-acre parcel across from Small Boats and Diving (the Firehouse). First, we rented, then we bought the property from the Ottones in 2000, and this location is now home to the Marine Pollution Studies Labs and many other researchers and programs. We affectionately call it Norte, as the most northerly property we have in Moss Landing.

The new building was largely funded by FEMA and the State of California, but the Packard Foundation also supported the rebuilding process. Some of those Packard funds generated by proposals initiated by Kenneth Coale also were used to create a new aquaculture facility that was dedicated in 2014. Certainly, the need for funding to rebuild the lab positioned us to get into aquaculture more rapidly. Our entry into aquaculture research has expanded quickly, requiring us to increase seawater pumping (now at 450 gallons per minute), hire a new aquaculture specialist (Dr. Luke Gardner) in collaboration with CA Sea Grant, and start down the path of a possible future degree or certificate in aquaculture.

Although the earthquake was a devasting event, the resiliency of MLML allowed us to come out with a new building, new programs, and new plans for the future. Change is almost always disruptive but it can be good. I hope you can take a moment at 5:04 pm on 17 October to remember the Loma Prieta and make sure change is good.  Shake it up!