Heather Barrett

Heather Barrett

My interests in ecology began at a young age as I interned with the Lawrence Hall of Science and Berkeley Botanical Garden, teaching youth biology classes. I took a more marine focus as a student at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) where I joined the Sea Otter Research and Conservation program (SORAC), partnering with UCSC, US Geological Service, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. After receiving my Bachelor of Science in Ecology and Evolution, I continued with SORAC and pursued a career with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. For six years I performed field-work and developed the photography catalogue for the long-term diversity database of Northern California.

During this time I was fortunate to live and work abroad. I assisted with a variety of research programs including whale shark photo identification in Bahia de los Angeles, Mexico, and participate in Wildland Studies Program of CSU Monterey Bay throughout the country of Belize. I am thrilled to be a member of Dr. Gitte McDonald’s Vertebrate Ecology Lab at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and am interested in the use and development of remote monitoring systems to better understand marine vertebrate behavior and physiology. For my thesis I worked with Sea Otter Savvy to assess the energetic cost of human disturbance on the southern sea otter.

Heather defended her thesis titled "The energetic cost of anthropogenic disturbance on the Southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis)" in 2019. You can read her thesis manuscript here.

Mason Cole

Mason Cole

I graduated from UC San Diego in 2010 with a degree in General Biology (physiology focus) on a pre-med track. I soon decided I liked ecology more than people biology, and set out to South America with a one-way ticket and almost no plan. 1.5 years and my full savings account later, I returned to the US via many buses, taxis, and a couple planes, and sporting a handful of conservation/biology experiences. A few outdoor education and field biology jobs led me to pursue my own career in marine biology (particularly concerning large predators), and in 2014 I began an internship in this lab.

For my Master’s thesis, I am investigating the underwater movement and foraging patterns of wild California sea lions. I am approaching this goal from two angles. First, I am working with trained sea lions at SLEWTHS (here in Moss Landing) to understand how accelerometers can be used to identify when sea lions make feeding attempts.This study will provide a method by which researchers can figure out where, in a dive, wild sea lions catch prey.Second, I am analyzing movement, energy expenditure, and foraging data from wild California sea lions at San Nicolas Island, CA. The idea here is to get high-quality instantaneous measurements of metabolic energy expenditure from movement data (acceleration, magnetic compass bearing, rotational velocity) recorded by a small animal-borne datalogger. I hope this research will improve our understanding of sea lions’ underwater movements and foraging patterns, and how these patterns relate to energy expenditure during foraging trips to sea.

Stephanie Schneider

Stephanie Schneider

My interest in ecology is broad and I enjoy working with a diversity of organisms, both terrestrial and marine. I began my Master of Science at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory in Fall 2014.  As a graduate student, my research has focused on the interrelations between the local prey community, foraging effort and the ability to produce young for Common Murre nesting at Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge over the last decade. This island is one of the largest seabird breeding colonies in the Pacific Ocean south of Alaska and is in an area of the California Current System where seabirds have rarely been studied.

Since 2009, I have supervised all aspects of seabird research at Castle Rock and have been fortunate enough to focus on an aspect of this larger project for my thesis project. Preliminary analyses show that Castle Rock is unique relative to other breeding colonies in the California Current System; the diet of murres nesting at here differs from other locations and murre behaviors suggest it is challenging to obtain adequate food to raise young. Access to the island is prohibited while seabirds are nesting and, to make detailed observations, I rely on a unique system of remotely operated cameras that are broadcast to the mainland using wireless technologies. You can watch live video of seabirds nesting at Castle Rock 24 hours per day during the breeding season (April to August)

If you want to learn more about seabirds nesting in northern California, including Castle Rock, check out the most recent and comprehensive report ever made for this region. And for an overview of environmental conditions of the California Current System and biological impacts to plankton, fish, and top predators read the most recent State of the California Current report.

Although I have dedicated a majority of my time to Castle Rock over the last decade, I have also assisted with various wildlife projects at Humboldt State University, Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and H.T. Harvey & Associates Ecological Consultants.


Stephanie defended her master's thesis titled "Reproductive performance, foraging effort, and diet of an apex predator, the common murre, at one of the largest nesting colonies in the California Current System" in 2018. You can read her thesis manuscript here.


A day in the life of an elephant seal biologist at Año Nuevo State Park

BEEP! BEEP! I roll over to turn off my alarm and read the clock: 4:30 a.m. Begrudgingly I arise, slip into my field clothes, and head to the kitchen to make breakfast before beginning the forty-five minute commute to Long Marine Lab (LML). As I drive north, I mentally prepare myself for the day ahead. Today our focus is assisting with the annual weanling weighing effort. Upon arrival at LML, the field crew assembles all necessary gear, electronically checks into the park, and then piles into the truck. As we cruise up Highway 1 the sky begins to lighten, gradually revealing the charming California coast while the truck buzzes with conversation.

Twenty minutes later the truck pulls into the entrance of Año Nuevo and turns right down the limited access road. The progression is slow as we carefully survey the dirt road for endangered San Francisco garter snakes.I take this opportunity to observe the magnificent landscape, hoping to catch a glimpse of deer, coyotes, bobcats, or the elusive cougar. Alas, no such luck today. Instead, I admire the soft glow of the early morning light and the captivating shades of pink and orange spilling across the sky, signaling the eminent arrival of the sun. I feel excitement start to build as we park the truck.

Grabbing the gear, we hike to the beach, maneuvering through streams, marshes, and dunes along the way. Various animal tracks crisscross over the sand, reminding me that I am merely a guest. The elephant seal calls fill my ears, and I know we are close. We emerge onto the beach as the sun makes its morning debut atop the Santa Cruz Mountains and casts light onto the awe-inspiring scene before us.

Pelicans and cormorants congregate on the western point, paling in comparison to the demanding presence of the elephant seals. Nursing females, defensive bulls, dozing juveniles, and curious weanlings cover the beaches and play in the surf. We appreciate this scene for only a moment before setting off to find our first weanling.

Scanning the beach for a good candidate, I can’t help but notice the diversity of rocks, shells, and bones that decorate the sand; untouched by human hands and I absorb the beauty. Within minutes we find a prime candidate, indicated by its unique bleach mark. We set down our gear, delegate tasks, and establish a plan emphasizing the safety of the researchers and animals is paramount then get to work.

One group begins to set up the tripod, attaching the scale and come-along winch to the tripod before anchoring its feet into the sand. Meanwhile, I am tasked with capturing the weanling. For this, a custom-made canvas bag is used to help protect the seal and the researchers as we collect our measurements. Rolling back the seam of the bag, I slowly creep toward the weanling. Suddenly aware of my presence the weanling raises its head to maintain visual contact. Using this to my advantage, I swiftly sweep the bag onto its head. Another researcher steps in and together we carefully wrestle the seal into the bag taking extra care not to harm its flippers. In the process, we expose its belly and identify thesex as male before securing the bag. With impressive coordination, three people position the tripod over the weanling while I connect the bag to the come-along winch via a metal weigh bar. I crank the winch lever slowly lifting the seal until he is completely suspended, record his mass, and then immediately lower him to the ground. Once the weigh bar is removed one pair of researchers relocates the tripod assembly while I assist my field mate collect body measurements and a fur sample. Next, we add green flipper identification tags. Two tags are inserted to indicate he has been measured and weighed. Finally, I release the weanling from the bag and estimate percent molt as he galumphs across the sand. Despite what it may seem, the process lasted only ten minutes.

Nine weanlings later, my watch reads 9:15 a.m. and it’s time to depart. On our return hike we encounter a ranger, stop momentarily, say hello, and summarize the morning. Once again, the truck is filled with chatter, this time with questions and lingering thoughts regarding our morning. Upon returning to the labs the gear is cleaned, bags are restocked, and samples are stowed. For the team, this marks the completion of our morning. However, before my morning concludes, I must enter the data. Another forty-five minutes in the car flies by as I reflect on my Año Nuevo morning and silently appreciate the opportunity to experience this wondrous place.