The sun was beaming down during our 15 minute commute to our designated “dive locker” near the abalone farm. I was on my way to get geared up for our first dive day at Isla Natividad. As I walked, a mixture of emotions ran through my head. I was excited to get in the water and explore the luscious kelp forests surrounding the island but I was nervous as well.
For my project, I was interested in exploring the variability in diet of California Sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher) across the island. To do this, I would be spearing Sheephead with a goal of collecting 20-30 individuals among three distinct areas for a total 60-90 fish. Being a virgin spearfisher (wo)man, my biggest worry was not being able to get one Sheephead, let alone 60+ across the seven days of diving…
As we began unloading gear off the truck and into the boat, I had the opportunity to meet our diving guide (Ivan) and boat captain (Jesus), who would be with us for the remainder of our diving expeditions. Our first dive site of the day was at Punta Prieta, one of the two Marine Reserves surrounding the Island. After a couple failed attempts to enter the water, we finally found a site where the current backed off and within minutes our team was in the water. Our first dive was strictly exploratory; we practiced our skills, got a lay of the land, and determined whether or not there was a need to tweak our projects before our next dive.
For our second dive, we ventured over to La Guanera, a non-reserve fishing site. This was the site where I would begin to collect my Sheephead samples. Before we hopped in the water, my dive buddy, Laurel, and I got a quick run-through (again) on how to use our speargun and sling. Ivan, who was either (1) interested in my project or (2) cognizant of our spearfishing experience (or rather lack thereof), was adamant on diving with us. Once we were suited up, Ivan, 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. This was the general theme for most of the dive: load, point, shoot, miss, and try again. It took what seemed like an eternity (20 minutes) before I got my first fish, but when I did, I was overflowing with excitement. Throughout my time on the island, I was able to hone in on my spearfishing skills progressing from collecting 5 fish a day to 20-40 fish a day.
Overall, I was able to collect a total of 80 fish for my project. I am truly grateful towards the people of Isla Natividad; not only were they eager to share their resources and knowledge for our projects, but they accepted a group of 20 gringos with open arms and made us feel like family. So, to the people of Isla Natividad, thank you and I can’t wait to see you again!
I can hear the waves crashing on the shore somewhere nearby and the bristle of polyester as someone shuffles in their sleeping bag. It’s not enough to make me open my eyes to check the time; I’m hoping its early enough for me to let the sounds of the ocean breaking on the sand lull me back to sleep. Then someone’s alarm goes off; someone else unzips a mummy bag. I open one eye, then the other. I resign to untangling myself from my sleeping bag and crawling towards the ladder that will let me down from the topmost bunk. I hit my head on the ceiling because it’s about a foot above my face where I sleep. Someone has started water boiling for coffee on the camp stove to keep the caffeine vultures at bay for the time being.
Island life is quiet, aside from the gulls and the waves. The town is nestled at the south end of the island where it is more or less protected from the prevailing northwest winds. It is characterized by colorful houses and even more colorful people. Everyone here has been more than willing to share food and drink with us, open their homes to us, and pick us up in the back of pickup trucks as we hike a mile from our cabins into town. Our boat captains and dive masters are indispensible aids as we adapt our class projects to the rotating dive teams and changing ocean conditions.
Our first dive was rough. Strong winds resulted in rough seas and a boat full of vomiting scientists. What is more, we jumped in the water and our carefully planned dive fell to pieces. Currents were strong, visibility was poor, and everyone was a little rusty. I surfaced from that dive thinking we all seriously needed to re-think what we were doing here. However, after spending a much-needed surface interval in the sun, we followed the recommendation of our crew and jumped back in the water somewhere nearby. I rolled backwards off the boat and into an aquarium. The kelp reached 50 feet from sand to surface in thick vertical pillars. Sheephead weaved in and out of the underwater forest and Kelp Bass stared at us from the darkness between the columns as we descended. Sunlight shown through the kelp fronds creating beams of yellow in all the green. It was beautiful, and completely unexpected.
We spent two weeks systematically planning, failing, and re-making our plans. 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. We stared with open mouths as the desert changed around us: from city to farmland to high desert to salt flats. We sped along cliffs dodging semi-trucks and stray cows, ate fresh fish tacos and slept among the boojum trees.
I hope other students took away from this expedition as much as I did. But for now, I will focus on lessons I have learned. Always talk to people and make as many new friends as you can. Each person is unique and can be learned from. If you do not speak the language, make an effort learn it. A word or two, even. Take advantage of every opportunity: go yellowtail fishing after no sleep, eat snails straight out of the ocean, stay an extra night in a foreign city, take a shower in the freezing ocean. You may never be here again. Lose your expectations. More importantly, if you have expectations, be OK with it when they are not met. It is my experience that, usually, things will work out.
I would like to introduce myself; I am the field notebook of Sloane Lofy. She is a student of Moss Landing Marine Labs, and this Fall 2018 decided to take the Marine Environmental Studies of Baja California, or as everyone at MLML calls it, the “Baja Class.” This is where I come in, 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.
By Nikki Inglis, visiting student of California State University Monterey Bay
Photos by Nikki Inglis unless otherwise indicated.
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. Then we heard it again; a growling rasp, a ghostly whisper and so, so close. 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.
We had been on the island for seven days and not heard a peep. Only two shearwaters had been spotted by our group - birds that had been trapped by daylight and forced to wait it out in hiding. I was starting to wonder if perhaps they hadn’t arrived yet, and only a few early-breeders were scoping out their seasonal nesting grounds. I tried to imagine what 70,000 birds might feel and sound like, but I never imagined this. The black-vented shearwater colony on a moonless night is a singular experience, but it’s not the only reason bird researchers and enthusiasts are interested in Isla Natividad. This remote desert island is a haven for seabirds and houses a myriad of rich desert habitats—largely free from human disturbance—that offer fascinating insight into distributional patterns, morphology and behavior of familiar and uncommon species.
Nesting black-vented shearwaters
Ninety-five percent of the world’s black-vented shearwater population nests at Isla Natividad. The shearwater colony covers about 2.5 sq. km. on the southern tip of the island, surrounding the town center and lining most of the roads on the island. You can hardly take a step without running into a shearwater nest, so those steps must be taken carefully. Walking off trail is strictly forbidden, and even headlamps at night are discouraged in observance of the bird’s extreme and almost pitiable sensitivity to light. Recent aerial surveys indicate that there are about 35,000 nesting pairs of shearwaters on the island each breeding season, which runs from March to August. On Natividad, the locals call them “los nocturnos.” The locals’ pride over the nocturnos is contagious. They are adamantly protective over the colony, and there’s even a shearwater mural in town emblazoned with the words “vivan los aves.”
The nocturnos are so sensitive to light that even bright moonlight will keep them underground or out on the water. Wait for a waning moon—when the sun sets before the moon rises—and sit on a dark beach. It’s worth a trip to the island just for a brief window of moonless night to wander through the otherworldly din. Quiet just won’t sound the same afterwards.
If the awe of the shearwaters’ immense but invisible presence wears off—and it might not—the island’s other bird-related curiosities offer endless exploration. I see massive flocks of brants offshore. Divers on the boats that rounded the northern tip of the island noted double-crested cormorants on the rocky cliffs. Brown pelicans strut indignantly around beaches and glide in squadrons over breaking waves. At one time, least and Leach’s storm petrels nested here. It’s still unknown if they’ve returned since nonnative threats (ie, feral cats) have been eliminated. Researchers are also interested in whether Xantus’ or Craveri’s murrelets are nesting there now. Circumnavigation of this wild island by panga could definitely yield some notable sightings to any intrepid birder.
The sunrise casts a pink tinge on the tide’s fizzy froth. With each ebb and flow, a flock of plovers forage in the wet sand, scattering as the water nips at their feet.
I spent several afternoons in the intertidal, where I watched great egrets forage in tidepools draped in kelp, and whimbrels sink their long beaks in the sand. I spotted a tri-colored heron, another bird for my life list, as they don’t make it much further north than this. There are several species and variations thereof on Natividad that can’t be found in central California.
There is a notable pattern in bird ranges in which some species from the east coast of North America snake around through the Gulf of Mexico and pop up over in the Gulf of California and the west coast of Baja, but rarely make it into southern and central California. For example, this pattern is why, on Natividad, the oystercatchers have white bellies. They’re American oystercatchers, and they’re commonly seen in the on east and southeast coasts. But further north in alta California, the black oystercatcher takes over. True to its name, it’s solid black as night. It’s perplexing, as the ecology of Baja’s pacific coast is much more similar than to California is to that of the Gulf of Mexico.
It almost seems as if some of these birds observe the U.S.-Mexico border, and want to avoid the Tijuana traffic as much as we do.
Desert birds and raptors
Ospreys rule the island. Nests occupy almost every power pole in town. During our visit, one osprey nest between the store and the laborotorio, was a constant source of entertainment. Mom, dad and two fledglings lived out a mini reality show that featured nest-building, the occasional argument and one confused teenager on the ground looking up at his nest in frustration.
Away from shore, the seemingly barren scrub and cactus forests come alive with lark songs. The horned lark will look familiar to California birders. Petite but statuesque, these songbirds are instrumental in the desert soundscape, balancing out the honks of the seagulls with their delicate tune.
Ravens patrol the skies over the island, roosting ominously at the lighthouse, making bold, throaty calls and sending the resident rodents cowering in their burrows.
Pack your binoculars and field guide and make the walk up to the lighthouse that crowns Isla Natividad. On the short hike, you’ll pass through seagull colonies and be subject to their insistent harassment. You’ll watch hunting raptors rocking in the sea breezes. You’ll see blue water in every direction and the flocks of seabirds beyond the breaking waves. And you’ll understand why these creatures fly so far just to be here.
After three long days of riding in a car through the desert the glint of sunlight on water was finally on the horizon. The energy in the van shot up as everyone shouted in excitement, eager to get out and stretch their legs. When the caravan finally pulled into Punta Eugenia we unpacked, made camp, and hoped that the wind would settle down enough that we could cross over to Isla Natividad the next day.
In the morning many, if not all of us, were skeptical on the conditions and thought it might be better to wait another day for the winds to slacken, however, we had put our faith in the locals, who knew the area better than any of us ever could. The boat captains seemed to laugh at us as our faces showed our apprehension to get into open water, and soon enough our apprehension calmed as we saw how masterfully he navigated the waves and we began chatting about the local waters and were amazed by the environment around us.
After we arrived on the island we met with the local fishing cooperative, and proposed our field projects to them to gain permission to dive and collect samples in their waters. The whole process was a little nerve wracking as our projects hinged on their decision to allow us to enact our research. Our “translators” (a pair of students from La Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC) in Ensenada, Jeremie Bauer and Andrea Paz) helped to relay our proposals to the locals. As each of us gained permission relief set in and we began planning our next steps. After the meeting we dove right into working on our projects, with help from the locals. The days seemed to fly by as we rose with the sun and went to bed well past dark.
It is easy to get caught up in the research and logistics while out in the field, constantly reminding yourself to not forget your data sheets, quizzing yourself on your field methods, and strategizing on what site would be best to sample next. Granted, the larger scope of the class is to learn, develop, and enact methods while in the field and learn how to adapt to situations as they arise. Something that pairs right alongside with that is navigating a new environment with locals who may, or may not, even speak the same language as you and is an experience that ordinary classes cannot prepare you for.
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. While on Isla Natividad, the cultural festivities of Semana Santa occurred and we were all invited to join the town on the beach to celebrate, share food, music, and company. As soon as we arrived on the beach we were ushered off to every tent and introduced to the families of our hosts and everyone offered us food and invited us to stay, eat, and visit, their generosity towards us was astounding. As the night progressed barriers broke and conversations blossomed all around the tent and fire. Even though most of us spoke very little Spanish (or some none at all) and they spoke very little English, stories were being told. This had to be one of my favorite moments on the island, sure, 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.
Seemingly just as quickly as we arrived our time on Isla Natividad drew to a close and we began cleaning up our camp and preparing to leave the island. On our last night on the island we invited those on the island who we worked closely with to dinner as a thank you and goodbye. The small restaurant was packed with good people, food, and conversation. And the tension of being in a new environment that we all felt the week before was no longer present as we all felt like we were now part of the community. It was with a heavy heart that we left the next morning, however, we did so knowing that we would be welcomed back any time and knew that we had found a second home on Isla Natividad.
This year the Baja field class traveled to Isla Natividad to experience a giant kelp forest at the southern end of Macrocystis pyrifera’s range. Looking from the surface, the waves of turquoise water and the tendrils of sienna scimitar blades mirror those of Monterey Bay and of Southern California. It’s only once you dive beneath the surface you can begin to understand that we are not in Monterey anymore.
The Monterey Bay kelp forest has its own structure of over story, understory, and benthic covering seaweeds. But, these layers and the species that develop them are not always so clear cut- based on a patchwork of substrate and exposure to the storms. Much like an eastern forest can be a mix of deciduous, conifers, shrubs, and meadows.
The kelp forest on Isla Natividad, is less this patchwork and more like standing at the bottom of an old growth rainforest. The kelp grows in thick stands, sometimes so dense that becoming tangled and un-tangled is a habit rather than an event. The understory Ecklonia grows in incredible abundance. Their waving blades create the impression that the bottom is right there, maybe not even a hands breadth away. But, instead it hides yet another layer. Underneath the Ecklonia, are a fascinating array of wine-red algae, feathery pink corallines, gorgonian fans, anemones, sponges, and most unlikely of all- rotoliths! These slow growing crustose coralline algae are often mistaken for rocks rolling across a sandy plane, but here they were, thriving under their towering brown cousins.
Like their terrestrial counter parts, these 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.
Yet, even the best laid plans and managers can face new challenges in the changing oceans. Other kelp forests, faced with warming seas have been heavily impacted by an increase in invasive species. Invasive seaweeds Sargassum horneri and an aquarium variety of Bryopsis to name some of recent new arrivals. The impact of invasive that may be familiar to Californians might be the difference that can be seen in the growth of S. horneri on Santa Catalina, off the coast of Los Angles, before and after the 2015 El Nino.
On Isla Natividad, both these invasive seaweeds are present but, fortunately have not been able to dominate the island. At least not yet. My project focused on identifying and quantifying where S. horneri was present around the island. While only a few of the sites we explored contained S. horneri, I am hoping the data from my project can assist with monitoring and future management. Knowing the baseline of an invasive species gives the managers important information and tools should those species begin to take the place of the native and endemic species. With knowledge, management, and a little bit of luck the community of Isla Natividad will be able to fish, share, and protect their underwater forests for generations to come.
By Hali Rederer, student of California State University Sacramento
This course broadened my field skills, and enabled me to research rocky intertidal ecology; specifically, tide pool fish. This is a new field of marine fish ecology for me. 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. Implementing a tide pool fish scientific study was one aspect of my experience. Importantly, and most enriching, was the opportunity to spend time with two university students from Ensenada and getting to know residents of Isla Natividad, and enjoying the food and culture of Baja. We were embraced by the local community and welcomed. A youngster named Lalo helped me collect tide pool data daily and we participated in local holiday celebrations. Facilities were made available to us including a comfortable house, cabins, and a laboratory to work out of.
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. We spent close to eight hours in the field everyday followed by laboratory work and discussions of our projects in the evenings. Topics for specific experiments, laboratory sessions, and discussions derived from our individual research questions, interests, and ideas emerging from our explorations and observations while in the field.
My scientific question: What are the differences between intertidal fish found in higher versus lower tide pool and related tide pool geomorphology?
My research site was a rock strip 400m x 60m. My study accomplished a survey of 30 tide pools for differences in fish abundance, diversity, and distribution patterns in higher versus lower tide pools throughout one MPA rocky intertidal site. I observed and recorded invertebrates, sea grasses, and algae using quadrats. Location, physical features (substrate roughness, water clarity) and physical dimensions of each tide pool were measured. Vertical and horizontal distance from shore was measured to establish the relative position of each tide pool I needed to be constantly aware of tidal influences as the major oceanographic process regulating this tide pool habitat. Integration of physical and biological data stands to capture a more comprehensive picture of Isla Natividad tide pool fish.
The tide pool fish study I had proposed [before departure] needed to change; I had originally planned to capture and measure the weight and length of each fish found in tide pools within one entire site. Turns out that it took too long to capture fish and therefore I adjusted and changed the methods of my study to a visual survey however the overall goal I had of studying tide pool fish remained unchanged.
Position, location, and quality of water in a tide pool is important to intertidal fish, invertebrates, algae, and sea grasses. Near shore coastal marine habitats are vulnerable to anthropomorphic disturbances and influences. Trash is apparent in the MPA site I studied including being found in the tide pools themselves. I roughly measured the debris field and describe its waste stream contents as a second rapid study since residents expressed interest in cleaning up the MPA.
Science as a Collaborative Social Activity
This experience reminded me of how rewarding teamwork in science can be. I was ill to various degrees during the entire trip and was unable to work on my project at all for the first three days on Isla Natividad. Lots of people pitched in to help me complete a tide pool fish study. Field biology works well when there is collaboration and sharing of ideas. I found it comforting when I observed some fish or invertebrate that I thought was different and fellow students or the professors concurred or disagreed and further discussed what might be the most probable explanation. Cheers to my fellow students and a heartfelt thanks to the Professors and teaching assistants. I am eager to apply what I learned on Isla Natividad by sampling tide pool fish in other places along the California current.
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. During our first meeting, they remained patient while some of us tried to speak our best broken Spanish, were genuinely curious about our projects and most of all, elated to help. Mayte, the island’s tourism director, was constantly making herself available to provide us transportation on the island and show us around. Captains Rafael and Jesus drove the SCUBA teams to their sites everyday accompanied by divemasters Ivan and Johnny. Needless to say, they wanted to be involved as much as possible, and it was much appreciated!
Studying on Isla Natividad was something that I didn’t want to end. Not only because of their way of life and friendly locals, but because there is so much more to explore. My intertidal project comparing invertebrate and algal cover inside and outside one of the MPA’s was barely the tip of the iceberg. After a week of exploring the intertidal, I was left with more questions than when I arrived. A workday consisted of sampling transects at low tide, then exploring tide pools to look for juvenile opaleye and sea hares while simultaneously birdwatching the osprey nested on “castle rock” as referred to by locals(basically multitasking at its finest).
I am truly appreciative for this experience and have learned so much in such a short amount of time. I hope my trip to Isla Natividad was not a once in a lifetime experience, but if so, I am grateful I was able to explore and contribute to the scientific understanding of this unique island.
What do you get when a wave hits a kelp bed? The attention of two different labs at MLML! To better understand wave behavior as it meets a kelp bed, graduate student Steven Cunningham from the Phycology lab is partnering with Physical Oceanography professor, Dr. Tom Connolly.
Understanding this physical process will help components of Mr. Cunningham's thesis work on kelp forest ecosystems. The instrument needed for this work is an Acoustic Doppler Velocimeter (ADV), which obtains high resolution water velocity and pressure. The ADV will allow Mr. Cunningham to see when waves pass over the instrument and then get direction as well as velocity of wave orbitals.
Mr. Cunningham and Dr. Connolly have recently built a prototype housing for kelp bed deployments. Their ADV's unique design includes legs that fold up to reduce entanglement when the instrument is retrieved by line. It is this feature that has led to the ADV's nickname- the Virus.
To say that I was not intrigued by science as a teenager would be an enormous understatement. I despised science. I often attribute uninspired teaching and an inadequate education system for this reaction, but in reality I was just a moody teenager preoccupied by other interests (for the record, I have enormous respect for the teachers and administrators that have influenced my education). My disregard for science at the time is somewhat surprising. My earliest memories included being unwillingly dragged away from the beach after hours of exploration, or learning to cast a fishing rod just right so as not to snag a tree branch. These experiences morphed into forecasting swells with my dad before surfing and competing in local junior lifeguard competitions. So why was I so uninterested in science?
Clearly, I have had a slight change of heart since then, largely due to my search for a major as an undergrad. In high school, science felt like an exercise in memorizing facts to pass a test. In college, I started making connections. I learned about how the tectonic history of continental margins influences ocean swells (and thus, my preferred surf breaks). I discovered the connection between watershed practices and water quality. Science became a system-based approach to explain natural phenomena that I cared about deeply, rather than a memorization drill.
Fast-forward a few years and I find myself part of the geological oceanography lab at MLML. So what do I do here? Basically, the same thing I did as a toddler—I explore the beach. To get technical, I assess small-scale beach variability using ground-based LiDAR. In 2009 the US Geological Survey completed a California-wide coastal change project, finding the highest long-term erosion rates in Monterey Bay, about -0.6 m/y over about 120 y (Hapke et al., 2009). This conclusion presents numerous local challenges as beaches and adjacent dunes function as the sole barriers between land and sea. In response to this finding, a terrestrial laser scanner, commonly known as ground-based LiDAR, is employed to create high-resolution 3-D maps. Change in terms of beach volume, mean seal-level contour, foredune position, etc. is assessed by surveying the same beach over time. My thesis research, as well as other research within our lab, strives to understand coastal change in Monterey Bay. This work is supported by various organizations through grants and scholarships, including the California State University Council on Ocean Affairs, Science, and Technology and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
I still have days when I despise science. I am a grad student after all. But those days are dwarfed by awe I experience when talking about the processes behind mountain building or the feeling of uncovering trends in my data for the first time. I do not think I will ever get tired of exploring the beach.
Hapke, C.J., Reid, D., Richmond, B, 2009. Rates and Trends of Coastal Change in California and the Regional Behavior of the Beach and Cliff System. Journal of Coastal Research, Vol. 25, No. 3 pp. 603-615.