Marine snow & climate change

By Annie Bodel, Plankton Ecology & Biogeochemistry Lab

Endings are Beginnings

In a forest when something dies--a leaf, a plant, an animal-- it likely settles onto the ground where it begins a process of decay and integration into the layers of earth beneath. Unless it's carried far away by a scavenger, it mostly stays local after it dies, becoming a part of soil nutrient and mineral cycles at most a meter deep.

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Holly visits Cawthron!

Blog post from the MLML Environmental Biotechnology Lab

Credit: Marine Biosecurity Toolbox

Dr. Holly Bowers had an awesome experience as a visiting researcher at the Cawthron Institute in New Zealand in 2020! Although she has previously collaborated with some of their team, those relationships were expanded upon and new ones were formed during this visit. She worked closely with the Biosecurity Team to run two experiments testing different filter types and filtration times for efficient eDNA and eRNA capture, using the dinoflagellate Alexandrium as a model species. An eDNA/eRNA review paper with a biosecurity angle is in the works.

With the Safe New Zealand Seafood Programme she worked to expand geographic specificity testing for qPCR assays targeting four species within the toxin-producing genus Pseudo-nitzschia. A continuing collaboration with the team aims to characterize species diversity and toxin production of a subset of Pseudo-nitzschia species around New Zealand. She returns with an expanded knowledge base and heaps of ideas for future collaborations!

Check out this article from the Marine Biosecurity Toolbox to learn more about Holly’s trip to New Zealand!

Heading back to Picton after a successful dolphin watching trip!

Improving soil health on farms: better for the farmer, better for the planet

by Stefanie Kortman, CSUMB Haffa Lab

The author collecting soil greenhouse gas measurements on a farm during a cover crop season.

My research in sustainable agriculture practices was born from two passions: my love of food and my concern for protecting and preserving natural resources. I came into my role as an agricultural scientist in the world-renowned farming valleys of the Monterey Bay region. (One of these valleys—the Salinas Valley—is even called “The Salad Bowl of the World” for all the produce it exports.) In my work, I examine how different farm management practices influence soil and the production of greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Before I started my research, I never thought of soil as a source of greenhouse gas emissions and didn’t know how the process of growing food can cause more to go into our atmosphere than are naturally produced in the soil by microorganisms. I have come to learn that agriculture is in fact an important source of human-induced greenhouse gases. It’s estimated to contribute 19–29% of total greenhouse gas emissions, while transportation accounts for 14%. With agriculture soil management heralded as a top solution for drawing down global carbon dioxide levels to mitigate climate change, farmers are increasingly expected to adopt practices that reduce emissions and store, or sequester, carbon in soil while still providing our growing population with essential food products. The solution is in the soil. My goal is to help show farmers how to keep their soil healthy. It benefits both their farming and the environment.


Farm-to-Water, Farm-to-Air

What happens on farms does not always stay on farms. When farmers apply fertilizer and water to soil, plants don’t use all of it. Microscopic organisms (aka “microbes”) in the soil transform excess nutrients into other forms, such as gas emissions. One such gas is nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas”—the same gas dentists use for sedating patients. But nitrous oxide production from agriculture is no laughing matter; this potent greenhouse gas is 300 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat on Earth. Most nitrous oxide emissions caused by humans come from agriculture—mainly from applying more nitrogen fertilizer to the soil than plants can use.

Left: Monitoring soil greenhouse gas emissions on a farm participating in a 3-year Healthy Soils Program grant funded by the California Department of Agriculture. Right: Dark, rich soil with crop residues on the surface at a farm that has practiced management focused on soil health for over 30 years.
Agricultural runoff can carry topsoil and nutrients that pollute waterways and degrade aquatic ecosystems.

Nutrients can also be transported in water (think salt in water) down through the soil and into groundwater or out of farms through drainage channels that carry this “runoff” into rivers, streams, estuaries, and eventually the ocean. This can lead to contamination of drinking water, pollution of waterways, and negative impacts within aquatic ecosystems. Runoff often encourages the growth of harmful algae that use up the dissolved oxygen in the water and create “dead zones”. Thankfully, there are many opportunities for improving farm management practices and reducing air and water pollution.


Good for the Soil, Good for the Farmer

Improving crop production, reducing losses of topsoil and nitrogen, and storing carbon in soil are all achievable opportunities of soil-health focused farming, and it all comes down to the basis of managing soil health: soil aggregates. Soil aggregates are little clumps of soil bound by secretions from roots and enzymes from microbes, both of which act like glue to hold soil particles together. They improve soil structure by creating little pockets of space between clumps, which helps keep water in place so plants can use it. This, in turn, reduces topsoil erosion and runoff. When soil can hold more water, less irrigation is needed, and minimizing erosion and runoff reduces the loss of nitrogen and precious topsoil from farms. These little clumps also keep carbon locked away, or sequestered, and help promote conditions that reduce nitrous oxide production.

Practices that improve soil aggregate stability, and thus soil health, include planting cover crops and reducing tillage. Cover crops are crops that are planted in the winter or spring and provide many benefits to soil, including adding plant-usable nitrogen, keeping soil in place, extending roots into the soil to create pathways for water to move through, and much more. Common cover crops are legumes—such as hairy vetch, fava beans, and clover—and grasses—such as rye, oats and buckwheat. Reducing disturbance to the soil by minimizing tillage helps maintain soil aggregates that take time to build. These methods can help farmers promote healthy soil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Left: Hand-applying compost on a farm to improve soil structure is one of many techniques to promote soil health in agroecosystems. Right: Cover crops promote soil health by keeping the soil planted which prevents erosion, improve soil's physical and biological properties, supplies nutrients, suppress weeds, and improves the availability of water.

The future of food production is dependent on soil health-based farm management, but not all methods work for every farm or region. Researchers like me partner with farmers to monitor the impacts different crop and soil management practices have on soil health and crop production and learn which techniques work best for different situations. Through these collaborative efforts we can assess the efficacy and practicality of different management practices in terms of improving soil health and maintaining a successful farm business. The future of farming depends on partnerships to achieve the greatest benefit for feeding a growing population and protecting the resources that make this planet so unique. I am proud to be working for a better future.

🚨BREAKING NEWS🚨: Stressed graduate student studies stressed fish

By Alora Yarbrough, MLML Ichthyology Lab

What stresses you out? As a 24-year-old graduate student, I use the phrase “I’m stressed” at least once a day. I’m sure most readers can relate. Between classes, thesis deadlines, work, and rent, there are a lot of things that make my cortisol levels rise daily.

A blackeye goby next to its hole. Photo taken by Kristin Saksa at Stillwater Cove, Pebble Beach.

My personal stressors inspired me to study how stress affects a common Monterey Bay fish: the blackeye goby (Rhinogobiops nicholsii). I know what you’re thinking… what could possibly stress out a fish? Didn’t Sebastian from The Little Mermaid sing a whole song about how “life under the sea is better than anything they got up there?” Well, it turns out there are a lot of things that cause a fish’s heart to race and cortisol to spike. Anything from predators being nearby to a slight increase in temperature is enough to set off a full stress response.

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Tales from the Field: Rhodolith Ecology on Santa Catalina Island

By June ShresthaIchthyology Lab

I recently returned from a field expedition to assist PIs Dr. Diana Steller (MLML) and Dr. Matt Edwards (SDSU) research rhodolith beds on Catalina!

What are rhodoliths, you may ask? 

Rhodoliths exist around the world, yet not much is known about them. They are a calcareous red alga that provides relief and habitat in otherwise sandy soft-bottom stretches of the nearshore coastal environment, supporting invert and fish communities.
They have been a hot topic in recent years due to implications of ocean acidification on their structure, as well as the fact that they exist in areas with lots of boat traffic and moorings. Interestingly, they are not usually included in habitat characterizations or taken into consideration during MPA designations (which maybe they should!).
A rare rhodolith bed, found at only 6 bays/coves in Catalina. (photo: S. Gabara)

Collaboration in Action

The recent research trip was truly a collaborative effort between multiple institutions. Our team was composed of great minds and divers from MLML, SDSU, and even Kunsan National University in South Korea. The research team also featured the one-and-only Scott Gabara, previous grad student at MLML, who is now continuing his research on rhodoliths at SDSU in the Edwards Lab for his PhD (check out his previous Drop-In post about rhodoliths here!)

Further Reading

SDSU Graduate Student, Pike Spector, recently wrote a couple of fantastic blog posts about our work from this trip. I encourage you to check them out for more great pictures and descriptions!

Dr. Diana Steller (red BCD) and Scott Gabara survey the rhodolith bed community along a transect.

Adventures in Mexico!

By June Shrestha and Laurel Lam

Every two years, students and faculty of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories embark on a field studies course in Baja California Sur, Mexico. The field course is intended to give students the opportunity to lead independent field-based research projects in a new environment while promoting international exchange and collaboration. The 2018 class recently returned from Isla Natividad, located off of Point Eugenia on the Pacific coast, with many stories to share! Linked below are the blogs that each student wrote highlighting their experiences in Mexico.

1) Island Life on Isla Natividad

By Jackie Mohay, Fisheries and Conservation Biology Lab

"Imagine; you live in a small community on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean where a hardworking life is simple and fulfilling. One day you are told that a group of 20 will be travelling to your island to study it, using your resources and living amongst you for over a week. The people of Isla Natividad welcomed us with more than just open arms"  Read more...

2) And for something completely different... A healthy southern kelp forest

By Ann Bishop, Phycology Lab

"Like their terrestrial counter parts, kelp forests reflect the impacts of the human communities who rely on them. Isla Natividad looks the way it does today because of the careful management practices and intense love the people have for their island. The willingness of the co-operative to learn, flexibility to adapt, coupled, with their ability to exclude poachers has resulted in the rich underwater world we were permitted to visit."  Read more...

3) The Journey to Isla Natividad

By Vivian Ton, Ichthyology Lab

"Diving on Isla Natividad was an amazing experience. There were many habitat types such as rock reef, sandy bottom, surf grass beds, sea palm and kelp forests. There was kelp everywhere, the most they’ve had in the past 10 years. Along with the kelp, there were also so many fishes (especially kelp bass) to be seen and quite a few of them were massive in size."  Read more...

4) Catching Lizards... For Science!

By Helaina Lindsey, Ichthyology Lab

"Every inch of the island was covered in my chosen study species: Uta stansburiana, the side-blotched lizard. At first glance these lizards are unremarkable; they are small and brown, infesting every home in town and scattering like cockroaches when disturbed. However, if you’re able to get your hands on one, you’ll see there’s more to them than meets the eye. They are adorable, managing to look both impish and prehistoric, and have a brilliantly colored throat. They are heliotherms, meaning that they rely on the sun to maintain their body temperature. I aim to explore the nature of their behavioral thermoregulation, but first I need to catch them." Read more...

5) Life Was Simpler on Isla Natividad

By Katie Cieri, Fisheries and Conservation Biology Lab

"The simplicity of life that results from a unique combination of isolation and intense focus is one of the utter joys of field work. I had toyed with such bliss before... but my elation in Baja California Sur dwarfed that of previous excursions. Perhaps I have matured as a naturalist, or perhaps, as I suspect, Baja is a truly transcendent place."  Read more...

6) What does a Sheephead eat?

By Rachel Brooks, Ichthyology Lab

"For my project, I was interested in exploring the variability in diet of California Sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher) across the island. Once we were suited up, our dive guide Ivan, dive buddy Laurel and I flipped over the side and began our descent through the lush kelp canopy towards the bottom. It took only a matter of seconds before I saw my first Sheephead swim by. Eager to get my first fish, I loaded my speargun and zoned in with little success. It took what seemed like an eternity (20 minutes) before I got my first fish, but when I did, I was overflowing with excitement."  Read more...

7) Best-made Plans vs. the Reality of Adjusting to Field Conditions

By Hali Rederer, California State University Sacramento

"My fellow students and I were immersed in rich practical “hands on” experiences integrating scientific field methods with experimental design.  This course was comprehensive and the pace was fast. Designing and carrying out a tide pool fish study, in a very short time frame, in a place I had never been, presented challenges requiring flexibility and creative approaches."  Read more...

8) Vivan Los Aves!

By Nikki Inglis, CSU Monterey Bay - Applied Marine & Watershed Science

"It wasn’t until the last star came out on moonless night that we heard it. At first, it sounded like the incessant wind whipping around the wooden cabin walls. We heard wings gliding in from the Pacific Ocean and a welling up of some invisible kind of energy. Within minutes, the sound was everywhere. The hills teemed, wings flapped frantically around us. We couldn’t see any of it, but the soundscape was three-dimensional, painting a picture of tens of thousands of birds reveling in their moonless refuge. Isla Natividad’s black-vented shearwater colony had come to life."  Read more...

9) Recollections from a Baja Field Notebook

By Sloane Lofy, Phycology Lab

[Written from the point of view of her field notebook] "Hello! I would like to introduce myself; I am the field notebook of Sloane Lofy... As a requirement for the course each student must keep a field notebook so that thoughts, ideas, and notes from the field can be used in their research papers later. To give you a feel for what the trip to Baja was like from leaving the parking lot to coming home I will share with you some of her entries."  Read more...

10) From Scientist to Local

By Jacoby Baker, Ichthyology Lab

"Every day we worked with locals, spending hours with them in the pangas, learning the areas where we were diving and what species we may find. Our relationships quickly morphed from strangers, to colleagues, and finally to friends as we shared our dives and helped each other with our projects. The diving was fantastic, but the chance to be taken in by the town and being accepted so fully into their culture was an experience that you can’t find just anywhere."  Read more...

11) Snails and Goat Tacos: The Flavors of Baja

By Dan Gossard, Phycology Lab

"Science is not typically described as "easy". This trip to a beautiful, remote, desert island wasn't the easy-going vacation-esque experience one may have expected. Hard work was paramount to collect as much data as possible in a relatively short amount of time. Conducting science at Isla Natividad was a privilege that I greatly appreciated and I hope to return there one day to follow up on my research."  Read more... 

12) 600 Miles South of the Border

By Lauren Parker, Ichthyology Lab

"If there is one thing I have learned from traveling, it’s that nothing turns out exactly the way you plan it. Tires crack, caravans split up, radios fail, water jugs leak, and you realize that coffee for 20 people cannot be made quickly enough to satisfy the demand. However, beautiful things happen just as often as the unfortunate. Friendships form and others strengthen; new skills are discovered and developed. A flowering cactus forest turns out to be one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen. The wind slows and the sun comes out."  Read more...


Eager to reminisce about previous trips to Baja?? Check out our previous posts:


Adventures in Mexico 2018: Life was simpler on Isla Natividad

By Katie Cieri, Fisheries and Conservation Biology Lab

I stared around at my dusty colleagues, blinking stupidly under the fluorescent lighting of the In-n-Out. Freed from the van which had been my home for countless hours, I found myself suddenly conscious of my briny skin and stiff, desert-impregnated clothes. These trappings of nomadic life, which I had up to this point worn as a badge of honor, felt suddenly dingy and out of place next to the immaculate white and red of the establishment. While I gazed around in disbelief at the hustle and bustle of Southern Californians sneaking a hamburger dinner, a passage from John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez worked its way up from my subconscious.  He writes of himself and his fellow explorers: The matters of great importance we had left were not important….Our pace had slowed greatly: the hundred thousand small reactions of our daily world were reduced to very few.” Only now, amid the harsh reality of commercial America did I realize the truth of his words- during the past two weeks in Baja my reactions had indeed been reduced to very few.

I couldn’t tell you at what point I first began my transformation from frantic Moss Landing Katie into Katie the easy desert rat. It could have been in strolling in Cataviña among the Seussical wonder of boojum trees, or while floating next to a panga buoyed up by kelp and post-dive euphoria. Regardless of the timeline, I can tell you that the Katie of Isla Natividad had few concerns. Her most pressing questions were: When will I next eat? When will I next sleep? Where are the orange fish? What’s the Spanish word for that? (Luckily for me, on Isla Natividad, the word for Garibaldi, is, in fact, Garibaldi.)

The simplicity of life that results from a unique combination of isolation and intense focus is one of the utter joys of field work. I had toyed with such bliss before in the fanciful rainforests of Australia, or the bright turquoise waters of the Bahamas, but my elation in Baja California Sur dwarfed that of previous excursions. Perhaps I have matured as a naturalist, or perhaps, as I suspect, Baja is a truly transcendent place.

The sun sets over the whimsical skyline of Cataviña, Baja California Sur

On my boat ride out to Isla Natividad, as I drew ever closer to its brown crags, I must admit that the John William’s score of Jurassic Park was on infinite repeat in my mind. The massive Macrocystis mats stretching before me certainly gave the impression of the Land that Time Forgot. (My later encounters with nocturnos, otherwise known as black-vented shearwaters, certainly built upon this impression. These birds return to the island each evening under the cover of darkness to flap and stumble towards their nest holes. This activity is accompanied by calls that are, in a word, unsettling; they seem to have been inspired by a velociraptor with a sinus infection.)

Amid these splendors, my days on the island had a lulling simplicity. The warm southern sunlight streaming through my cabin window in the morning would wake me. I would stumble awkwardly out into the light and shuffle my way down to the dive locker which munching my morning meal. In an hour or so I’d scramble into the back of a white pickup with my classmates, awkwardly stabilizing SCUBA tanks with my feet as we descended the steep boat ramp. Once aboard a sturdy panga, I’d assemble my dive gear in its startlingly blue interior. Our boat captain, Jesus, would navigate the thick kelp beds with skill, occasionally raising the outboard motor to throw up a shower of water and kelp pieces. On our ride out to that day’s dive spot we might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a refreshingly shy sea lion or dolphin.


The view from a high hill on Isla Natividad

These rides were breathtaking, but my most treasured moments came in the unique silence that one can only experience on SCUBA. The rhythm of your breathing falls in time with the sway of the kelp and the pulse of ocean surge. As you weave through the kelp forest even the infinitesimal problems that remain with you on Isla Natividad float away with your exhaled bubbles. Emptied of my surface thoughts, I’d set myself to following the pugnacious, yet comical fish that California has chosen as its representative. I hovered above, and beside, and occasionally below these flamboyantly orange fish for countless minutes. Even now, I dream in orange. I timed the often clumsy, yet somehow beautiful dance between a territorial male and his would-be usurpers. My constant vigil was interrupted only by an occasional glace to scribble notes on my slate (white- what a revolutionary color!) or a brief interlude to find another unwitting subject. Garibaldi are, quite honestly, ridiculous, but their desperate self-importance gives them an endearing quality. Their willingness to attack other fish, their own kind, starfish, transect tapes, and even divers that may intrude upon their precious territory is nothing short of foolhardy. But you cannot help but admire their staunch determination. And, while I will never strive to emulate their pugnacious natures, I do hope that my brief time among them taught me something about focus and perseverance.

Eventually these submarine reprieves would be interrupted by my frustrating human need to breathe oxygen. I would haul my awkwardly burdened body back into the boat, rest, and repeat. My eventual return to land each afternoon was as reluctant, but not quite as jarring, as my return to California, USA. Looking back, I can comfortably say, life was simpler on Isla Natividad.

Adventures in Mexico 2018: Catching Lizards… For Science!

By Helaina Lindsey, Ichthyology Lab

I left Isla Natividad with six blisters on my feet, two ways to say “lizard” in Spanish, and thermal ecology data for thirty-seven impossibly fast reptiles.

Every inch of the island was covered in my chosen study species: Uta stansburiana, the side-blotched lizard. At first glance these lizards are unremarkable; they are small and brown, infesting every home in town and scattering like cockroaches when disturbed. However, if you’re able to get your hands on one, you’ll see there’s more to them than meets the eye. They are adorable, managing to look both impish and prehistoric, and have a brilliantly colored throat. They are heliotherms, meaning that they rely on the sun to maintain their body temperature. I aim to explore the nature of their behavioral thermoregulation, but first I need to catch them.

A more colorful example of Uta stansburiana, showing off his characteristic side blotch.

It is 9:00 AM, and I have already been awake for three hours. One of the many secrets to catching lizards is to wake up before they do. Like most people, they are sluggish and slow in the morning, and thus much easier to catch. I stalk around the edges of a dilapidated palapa that sits on the beach in front of our cabins. My lizard-catching partner, Mason Cole, circles around to the other side of the board that I am eying. We each crouch next to one end of the board, taking a moment to make sure that our lizard nooses are ready to go. The nooses in question are crudely constructed metal poles with a loop at the end to tie a slip knot of dental floss that can be slipped over the lizard’s head. We lift up one end of the board and I duck my head underneath it, scanning for movement. I see a small brown flash dart across the sand, and I yell “Lagartija!” We stick our nooses under the board, angling to trap the little guy between the two of us. He puts up a fight, fleeing under another board, then back to the original. Eventually I get my dental floss loop around his neck and jerk up, and the hunt is over. I gently take the loop off the lizard’s neck and flip him over, examining his underside. We record his sex and throat color, then I take the temperature of the lizard and the sand under the board with an infrared temperature gun. Before I take a picture of him, I pull out a tiny bottle of white-out and paint a “23” on his back, marking him as my 23rd lizard caught on the trip so far. I snap a few photos, then place him in the small cooler that is draped around my shoulder. The cooler is filled with the other lizards I have caught today, looking like a team of football players in numbered jerseys.

The result of a hard morning’s work: a cooler full of lizards

When we have caught enough lizards, we begin the familiar trek up to the research house where I have been running my experiments. I immediately get to work, setting up my row of wooden tracks with heat lamps at one end. As the tracks heat up, I measure and weigh the lizards before placing them back in the cooler, now with a frozen water bottle to cool them down a little. For my experiment, I am looking at how quickly the lizards heat up and how their behavior affects their body temperature, so I want them all to start at a similar body temperature. I place a lizard in the middle of each track, then cover the track with a sheet of mesh. Because of the heat lamps at one end, each lizard has a temperature gradient ranging from 25o C to 45o C, allowing them to move up and down the track to control their body temperature. After allowing them to acclimate for 5 minutes, I begin taking their temperature every 2 minutes for an hour while also taking note of their behavioral changes.

Taking the temperature of the lizards using an infrared temperature gun.

The last step, of course, is to release them back into the wild, confused but otherwise unharmed. With this data I hope to quantify how the lizards on this island thermoregulate, compare them to other populations of Uta stansburiana, and hypothesize how they may react to climate change and rising global temperatures.

Adventures in Mexico 2018: The Flavors of Baja

By Dan Gossard, Phycology Lab

The three non-"fish people" (Phycology Lab) in the Baja crew within an indoor abalone and seaweed aquaculture room (I'm on the right).

Life in the Field

After much contemplation, I decided to bring my laptop along on this journey to the unfamiliar coastal desert in Baja California. A laptop would facilitate more efficient data entry at our site and allow for statistical analysis on the return trip. The morning after our arrival at Punta Eugenia, however, made me question my decision. On that day, we packed all of our belongings on a number of panga boats and ferried them and ourselves from the mainland to Isla Natividad - and the journey was fairly bumpy.

Powerful currents and swell defined the "yellow" conditions that were the last categorical color for allowable transit. I was on the last of the boats and all of my gear was sent over on the first boat, which did not ease my nervousness. Once I was aboard the last panga and underway on the wavy route, my unsteadiness was quickly replaced by thrill, excitement, and anticipation. The opportunity to explore an unfamiliar place and dive into a rich and bountiful system is an opportunity not to be missed. If you are presented with that opportunity, prepare wisely, facilitate your safety responsibly, and journey into the unknown.

Our journey thus far had been filled with friendly interactions with the locals at every stop. We ate goat tacos and were pleasantly surprised to discover that they were some of the best tacos we've ever had. Our boat operator was no exception and pleasantly exchanged conversation with the few of us that also spoke Spanish. This conversation was multi-tasked over concurrent concentration and deft navigation through these dangerous waters. This most definitely wasn't his first trip. I wouldn't be surprised if he had thousands of these trips under his belt. Hindsight has provided me with multitudes of questions I would love to inquire of the islanders and their way of life. For someone who thrives in a coastal environment, someone like myself, it seemed to be a very enjoyable way of life.

At the end of the day, muscle soreness was a poignant reminder of the amount of gear we had hauled on these pangas. The local method of hauling gear utilized designated truck drivers to navigate pick-ups into the surf zone to connect with the pangas and transfer gear. As a reminder, metal and saltwater aren't the best of friends - one could say they have a corrosive relationship. The saltwater and the bumpy dirt roads are the likely culprits for the average island truck life expectancy of 3 years. If the amount of gear that was frequently transported throughout the year equated to anything near to what we brought to the island, that was likely another contributing factor.

Research Project

Two Eisenia arborea juveniles at differing developmental stages (the left is older).

Prior to the start of the trip, I decided to study the most abundant understory kelp (and the only observed understory kelp) at Isla Natividad: Ecklonia arborea. Ecological interactions between understory and canopy kelps have been well established; the niches of the two subtidal kelps E. arborea and the giant kelp (you may be more familiar with) Macrocystis pyrifera overlap along the California and Mexico coast. E. arborea and the giant kelp M. pyrifera compete for resources in the subtidal kelp forest within this range, however M. pyrifera favors  colder waters while E. arborea favors  southern, warmer waters. Additionally, E. arborea have the capability of persisting in high wave energy environments, which allow them to form forests within exposed areas and within the intertidal zone. Established forests of E. arborea can prevent the inside establishment of M. pyrifera. Oceanographic disturbances such as El Niño events ) favor the understory kelp as well by the combination of warm water exposure and heavy wave action.

I didn't know what to expect, but my 8 days of diving around the island introduced me to a new underwater world. Forests of Macrocystis pyrifera around the 7km by 3km island contained individuals with differing densities. Understory forests contained forests of Eisenia arborea as far as the visibility allowed and further (with exceptional visibility, keep in mind). Within both of these ecotypical forests, the dominant kelp was interlaced with its competitor. Assemblages with these two kelps appeared to vary in terms of the density relationship between the two species between sites (data pending). Field collections of whole individuals at non-protected sites were used to compare some of these appearance characteristics to see whether they vary between sites or whether certain morphological characteristics correlate with others. These collections were analyzed immediately following diving and typically lasted through dinner (even with the gracious help of my colleagues).

One of the morphological characteristics I was examining was stipe hollowing of Eisenia arborea. The exact mechanisms (both ecological and biological) for E. arborea hollowing are unknown, but an increased hollowing with decreased latitude relationship has been described.

The Flavors of Baja

A wavy turban snail (Megastrea undosa). These shells were all around the island, as the snail is one of the primary fished resources from the island. These yielded approximately 4 x 4 x 4cm worth of meat per individual.

The food at the island was understandably a delicious melange of various seafood. I experienced one of the most exceptional snacks between our daily dives. Surface intervals between dives were accompanied by delicious wavy turban snail treats courtesy of our divemaster and boat operator. The efficient and quick chopping apart of numerous snails' shells with an onboard machete yielded a small bucket's worth of tasty morsels. These snails were less like the escargot from the land and more like an abalone. This treat itself highlights the bountiful harvests that the ocean can yield. Further so, this treat highlights the necessity of managing these resources in order to preserve and allow for their continual use for future generations. The wise implementation of the islanders' Marine Protected Areas illustrates a clarity that I wish was more prevalent in American coastal communities.

Reflections on my experience

Science is not typically described as "easy". This trip to a beautiful, remote, desert island wasn't the easy-going vacation-esque experience one may have expected. Hard work was paramount to collect as much data as possible in a relatively short amount of time. My colleagues and I took apart and measured 137 individuals and conducted 16 dives in a total of 9 days on the island. Conducting science at Isla Natividad was a privilege that I greatly appreciated. I hope to return there one day to follow up on my research with Eisenia arborea.

DG_5Saying goodbye is also never easy. The relationships we've developed with the community on the island were very rewarding and positive. I also hope to return to the island just to touch base with the islanders there, be it the island's head of ecotourism, the island's divemasters and boat operators, restaurant owning family, head of aquaculture, our drivers, or the multitudes of others that showed us an amazing time. Our departure marked the end of our time at Isla Natividad, but just another step in our progression as aspiring scientists. We continue forward with our studies with the aspirations to explore and discover the unknown.

Adventures in Mexico 2018: The journey to Isla Natividad

By Vivian Ton, MLML Ichthyology Lab

It was thanks to the Baja class offered at MLML that I got the chance to travel to Isla Natividad. Isla Natividad is a beautiful place full of life, despite being a small island right off the point of the Baja California Sur peninsula. The people there made you feel welcomed and part of a family. It felt like a mini vacation rather than work as time slows down there as you sit in front of your cabin that is facing the beach and watching the dolphins swim by.

My cozy cabin for the week on Isla Natividad.

The Journey

While there are many ways to go down in Mexico and get to Isla Natividad, preparations must be made beforehand. It took months of planning and working out the logistics. Everyone had a role and a research project to conduct while on the island.

We left early from Moss Landing, stopping in San Diego for the night. From there it was a scenic route to Ensenada. Ensenada was a bustling city and it was there where we met Andrea and Jeremie, fellow graduate students from Mexico who’ve joined our trip. Jeremie showed us his favorite place for fish tacos and they were delicious!



Once we’ve had our fill we left for Cataviña, a desert valley full of endemic succulents and cacti.

Some plants during the trip. Boojum, lupin, busera (top); Boojum(closeup), unknown plant, cardon (middle); Poppy, octotillo, ocotillo flowers (bottom)

The trip there was quicker this time around passing into Baja California Sur by the afternoon. We were rushing a bit since conditions for the ferry weren’t looking good and would only going to get worse later that day. However, the fishermen from Isla Natividad managed to pick us up in the end. It was a little scary going full speed through the waves and there were times where I was lifted off my seat and my feet wasn’t touching the boat, but our driver was skilled and got us to the island safely.

Island Life and Research

Once we were onto the island, everything seemed to have calmed down, literally. The wind wasn’t blowing and the sun was out and shining. Our guide, Mayte, the head of ecotourism on the island gave us a tour of the island. The views were breathtaking and I love how everyone knew one another and chatted as we walked by.

Over the next week and a half, those of us with projects in the water dove practically every day. Diving there was an amazing experience. There were many habitat types such as rock reef, sandy bottom, surf grass beds, sea palm and kelp forests. There was kelp everywhere, the most they’ve had in the past 10 years. Along with the kelp, there were also so many fishes (especially kelp bass) to be seen and quite a few of them were massive in size. The Sheephead there were the largest I have ever seen. I was also lucky enough to see a couple rare and tropical fishes such as the longnose puffer.

My project was to compare total fish abundance and communities inside and outside of the MPA (marine protected area). Isla Natividad is special in that it has two MPA under its jurisdiction. These MPAs were created recently in 2006 and was set place by the people living there. The people of Isla Natividad are mainly fishermen where invertebrates are their main source of income such as abalone, lobster, octopus, wavy turban snails, and sea cucumber. Although there are fin fisheries around to a smaller extent, finfishes are mainly caught for subsistence. While Isla Natividad fishermen have exclusive rights to fish for invertebrates within Island waters, anyone can catch the fishes as long as they have a permit. MPAs are important in protecting biodiversity and the ecosystem within it. Some benefits for implementing MPAs include higher ecosystem resilience against storms, creating essential networks and refuge for fishes and invertebrates, and increasing total abundance and biodiversity of kelp forest organisms,  causing a spillover effect for fishermen.

Anyone with a diving certification should dive there at least once, you won’t be disappointed. By the end of our stay it felt like we have been living there for months as we got used to the island life and I was sad to go when it was time to leave. I had a lot of fun at Isla Natividad and would like to thank the people of Isla Natividad for helping and lending out their facilities to us during our time there. I hope to visit them again in the future!