Underwater Diversity

By Scott Gabara

It is amazing how many different ways organisms can survive in the ocean.  One of the most interesting is the many different strategies to try to get food from the water (filled with phytoplankton, zooplankton and detritus (particles of decaying algae and animal material)), from larger algae growing on the bottom, or from the organisms that consume these sources.


Kelp Rockfish

We see Kelp Rockfish associating with, surprise...kelp!  They eat different crustaceans on the kelp and even eat small year-old rockfish.

LingcodThis impressive Lingcod is a predator around the kelp forest, they eat invertebrates like squid and crustaceans and many different fishes.

Fish-Eating Anemone

This Fish-eating Anemone eats crustaceans and fishes.  It would not be pleasant to be captured by one of these and digested slowly!

Sunflower Star

This Sunflower Star is a surprisingly fast moving predator in the kelp forest.  They, like other seastars, extrude their stomach and digest their prey using acids, another not-so-fun way to be eaten.

Kelp Greenling

This beautiful Kelp Greenling male eats different invertebrates and even fishes when they become available.

Lined Chiton

This lined chiton moves along the bottom scraping the surface, getting foods like coralline algae, detritus (decaying algal and animal material), attached invertebrates, diatoms (algae), red algae, and green algae.

These species are just a preview of what we see each dive around the Monterey Bay area.  I am grateful people before us have studied these organisms so we are able to construct food webs to try to understand how all of this diversity we see interacts over time and space.

Happy Halloween!

By Melissa Nehmens

This time of year offers the chance to provide a romanticized explanation of autumn on the central coast. I could explain how here at Moss Landing the weather is turning colder, the leaves are changing color, and the storm clouds bring a scented promise of the rains to come.  However, we have more important things to discuss: Halloween!

This past weekend was Moss Landing Marine Labs’ annual Halloween Party. Everyone came in costumes and as part of the tradition, each lab or group brought their pumpkin to be judged by the student body in the pumpkin carving contest. Though officially there was only one winner, I think everyone did a great job. What do you think?

assorted pumpkins
Front Desk, Biological Oceanography lab, Shop, and PSRC pumpkins
scuba pumpkin
Scuba Pumpkin

sponge bob pumpkin
Plankton is finally bigger than Spongebob
Voting for best pumpkin!
Voting for best pumpkin!
Photo Credits: Catherine Drake

Halloween, however isn’t just about carving pumpkins, it also calls for sweet treats and telling tales of the unusual and scary! Ghosts, ghouls, and goblins may be the usual topic of conversation when talking about things that go bump in the night, but my favorite scary creatures to discuss are those truly unusual, and of course, found in the ocean!

One of my favorite “scary” species is the Goblin Shark. Though it is no threat to humans, as it lives very deep, those jaws are a bit spooky!

Goblin Shark
Goblin Shark Photo Credit: George Burgess

Another favorite spooky creature of mine is a Bone Worm. These worms feed on skeletons of dead whales! How’s that for an evolutionary adaption?

Bone worm
Bone worm Photo Credit: National Geographic

And last, but certainly not least is the Blobfish. While in water the blobfish has a fairly normal appearance, but out of water – due to low tissue density – its appearance is a bit unusual!

Blobfish Photo Credit: Mother Nature Network

Happy Halloween!

Diving the MLML Seawater Intakes

By Diane Wyse, Physical Oceanography Lab

Earlier this week I volunteered to dive on the MLML seawater intakes, located about 200 m due west of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and 17 m below the surface.  The intakes supply seawater to multiple sites around Moss Landing, including the aquarium room at MLML, the Test Tank at MBARI, and the live tanks at Phil’s Fish Market.

Location of the intake pipes offshore. Image: MLML/Google Earth (2013)
Location of the intake pipes offshore. Image: MLML/Google Earth (2013)

The purpose of the dive was to attach a surface float to a subsurface float located at a depth of about 15 feet.  A secondary objective was to visually inspect the intakes, which can be viewed in the video below.

The view from approximately above the intakes. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)
The view of Moss Landing from approximately above the intakes. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)

So how do you find an intake system 50 ft below the water?

To execute the operation, Assistant Dive Safety Officer Scott Gabara and I took a whaler from the MLML Small Boats with the assistance of boat driver Catherine Drake.  We used the best GPS coordinates previously called upon to locate the intakes, then threw a spotter surface float attached to a line and weight that unraveled to the seafloor.  We followed that line to the bottom and practiced our circle search skills until we found the first of the two intakes.  While anchoring the search line I saw a pipefish, a couple flatfish, and not much else.  During our descent and ascent we spotted half a dozen sea nettles, but on the sandy bottom it appeared pretty desolate.  The intakes, on the other hand, provide a hard substrate for sessile invertebrates and their predators to form a lively little oasis in the sand.  The first thing you notice when you come upon the intakes are the large white Metridium anemones.  If you take a closer look at the video, around 15 seconds in, you can spot a little octopus scurrying for cover.  After inspecting the first intake we moved to the second, that’s right, completely submerged by sand, with the line extending up to the subsurface float.  Though the video is short you can see some of the organisms residing on the line include seastars, Metridium, caprellids or “skeleton shrimp”, and my favorite marine invertebrate: nudibranchs.  Hermissenda (opalescent) nudibranchs, to be exact.  I wish I had a chance to take still photos while I was out there, but we had a job to do.  We successfully tied the surface float to the line and removed old line, thus making it much easier for future divers to study sediment movement and perform maintenance on the intake pipes.

I'll admit had another motivation for volunteering for the dive.   Beyond helping out and increasing my scientific diving experience, I was curious about the system.  In 2011 and 2012 I worked as a research assistant for CeNCOOS, and helped maintain the oceanographic instruments at the MLML shore lab and ensure that the public data portal was operational.  That system is dependent upon water flowing in from the intakes.  I learned even more about the seawater system in my chemical oceanography class, so it was really cool to see the pipes from under the sea.  The visibility for most of the dive was much better than it seems in this video, as we spent most of the time working further up in the water column away from the fluffy layer composed of detritus and fine-grain sand.

When my dive buddy and I returned to the surface we met back up with our boat, reeled in the line for the first float, and cruised back to the harbor.  Another day, another successful dive!

Diane Wyse and Scott Gabara with the new surface float for the seawater system. Photo: Catherine Drake (2013)
Divers Diane Wyse and Scott Gabara with the new surface float for the seawater system. Photo: Catherine Drake (2013)

Tidepooling Take Two

By Diane Wyse, Physical Oceanography Lab

Earlier this week, three graduate student volunteers and I ventured to Bay View Academy in Monterey to talk with the fourth grade class about trophic levels and intertidal zonation.  I had the unique opportunity to lead the trip again this year, you can learn about the first iteration of this trip in one of my very first posts for the Drop-In.

Sara Worden, Heather Kramp, Dorota Szuta, and Diane Wyse lead a classroom safety briefing and intertidal lesson. Photo: Erika McPhee-Shaw (2013)
Sara Worden, Heather Kramp, Dorota Szuta, and Diane Wyse lead a classroom safety briefing and intertidal lesson. Photo: Erika McPhee-Shaw (2013)

I volunteered for the trip again this year because it is the sort of educational outreach experience that to me really embodies the spirit of MLML; sharing resources and experiences from multiple labs and teaching in our beautiful marine backyard.  The student volunteers represented the Physical Oceanography Lab, the Phycology Lab (Sara Worden), the Benthic Ecology Lab (Dorota Szuta), and the Ichthyology Lab (Heather Kramp). Another reason I volunteered again? Try passing up an opportunity to geek out science on one of the prettiest beaches in the world.  Yeah, it’s tough to do.

Benthic Ecology Lab student Dorota Szuta teaches a group of fourth grade girls about intertidal invertebrates. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)
Benthic Ecology Lab student Dorota Szuta teaches a group of fourth grade girls about intertidal invertebrates. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)

Working off an intertidal food web lesson plan developed by the Teaching Enhancement Program at MLML, the grad student volunteers introduced the fourth grade class to the organisms in tidepools at Asilomar State Beach.  We were impressed by the knowledge the students shared with us that their teacher Alicia Doolittle had introduced in previous lessons.  At the beach it was hard to tell who was more excited to explore the intertidal – the elementary students, grad students, or even the parent chaperones!

Ichthyology Lab student Heather Kramp shows some intertidal organisms to an interested chaperone and the youngest field trip participant. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)
Ichthyology Lab student Heather Kramp shows some intertidal organisms to an interested chaperone and the youngest field trip participant. Photo: Diane Wyse (2013)

This year’s trip was especially cool for me as my graduate advisor, Dr Erika McPhee-Shaw, who serves as a board member for Bay View Academy, was along for the trip and helped to photo-document the field lessons.  I’ll admit it was a bit intimidating to be on the other side of things – here’s a highly-regarded physical oceanographer who has taught me equations of motion, coastal dynamics, and guided me through the steps of a Master’s research thesis, and here I am fielding questions about the inner workings of the ocean to a class of fourth graders while she listens in the audience.  It reinforced something I’ve learned time and again through graduate school, that the more simply and elegantly you can describe a complicated process, the more completely you understand it.  With the students’ healthy appetite for knowledge our conversation ventured from why ocean water is blue to a comparison of ecological zonation on a beach versus a mountain.

Recognize those t-shirts? The 2013 Open House tshirts were designed by our very own Dorota Szuta! Photo: Alicia Doolittle (2013)
Recognize those t-shirts? The 2013 Open House t-shirts were designed by our very own Dorota Szuta! Photo: Alicia Doolittle (2013)

From the closing discussion it was clear that invertebrates were the crowd favorite: the hermit crabs, the purple pisaster (ochre) seastar, even the tunicates were getting some love thanks to the students’ curiosity about the round little chordates.  Will student leaders from MLML lead the trip again?  You better believe it!

99 bottles of fish on the wall? Try 200,000!


By Kristin Walovich

Fellow grad student Catarina Pien and I were lucky enough to visit to the California Academy of Science in San Francisco to check out their extensive museum collection, home to nearly 1.2 million specimens!   We were on a mission to observe a variety of sharks, rays and chimaeras and to bring back specimens on loan from the South African Museum. We were greeted on a foggy San Francisco Friday by Dave Catania, the senior collections manager for the Department of Ichthyology.

The California Academy of Science (CAS) Department of Ichthyology houses one of the largest and most important research collections of fish in the world. There are nearly 200,000 jars of preserved fish in the collection, representing nearly 11,000 different species. That is more than a third of fish known to science!

By looking up the unique identification number assigned by CAS,  our guide Dave was able to bring us a whole cart of jars filled with old and unique animals. Catarina is working on a project to describe the sharks and rays from Oman, a country to the south east of Saudi Arabia. She photographed several specimens, including this Gulper Shark, to compare to other specimens from the region.

This species of Gulper Shark (Centrophorus granulosus sp.) is found worldwide, living at depths of over 3,000 feet.

Just like a library, scientists can check out specimens from the museum like a book on loan. I was lucky enough to do just that with a new species of chimaera from the South African Museum.  Chimaeras, or ghost sharks, are deep water fish with a skeleton made of cartilage, making them close relatives of sharks and rays.

When a new species is discovered a single animal is chosen, called the holotype, to represent the entire species. From this one animal I will record dozens of body measurements, take photographs and make observations in order to identify this chimaera to other scientists.  After the specimen is described it will be added to a museum collection like the one at CAS for other scientists to observe in the future, a process called accession.

ImageProper identification and detailed observations are very important when describing a species. Take for example these two species of small catsharks from the Indo-Pacific Ocean. They are very similar in size, color and shape, but because they are available for scientists to look at, subtle differences start to emerge. Without detailed records and a holotype, identifying sharks (or any animal for that matter) can be difficult.


With jars in hand and our camera memory cards full, we make our way back to Moss Landing Marine Labs for more photos, notes and measurements.

Life After MLML: News from the tropics

By Michelle Marraffini. Invertebrate Zoology and Molecular Ecology Lab

After graduating from MLML, former students go on to do great research at their new jobs or in PhD programs.   One of these former students is Paul Tompkins of the Phycology Lab, who took a phd position at Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology (ZMT) in Bremen, Germany.  Paul is conducting research the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos.  Beyond the famous finches and the oldest tortoises, the Galapagos also boasts an impressive marine system protected by their national park.   As part of a larger, ongoing project Paul is studying the role of algae in the food web and the response to climate change including El Nino events.

Spotted rose snapper (Lutjanus guttatus) and other Galapagos reef fish during a dive at Punta Nunez
Photo by: David Acuna

While collecting preliminary data of the system, using underwater transects and estimates of percent cover, a diver (David Acuna) helping Paul monitor Punta Nunez came across a fish species he did not recognize.  The possible identity of this fish is the species Lutjanus guttatus, Spotted rose snapper, which was cited for the first time in the Galapagos from catch data in Puerto Villamil in pervious years.  If the identity of this mystery fish is confirmed it would be a new record of the species and help scientists monitor populations of fish in the area.  It just goes to show that you always have to keep your eyes open for new discoveries.

A close up shot of the spotted rose snapper. Photo by: David Acuna (Charles Darwin Foundation)

A Point Sur Adventure

Marine Ecology students on the Point Sur cruise sort and record organisms from the Monterey Bay.

By Kristin Walovich

The Marine Ecology class embarked on a seafaring adventure last Monday on the Moss Landing research vessel the Point Sur to observe the biota of the Monterey Bay. The class was joined by members from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, MBARI and even Professor Emeritus Greg Cailliet who arrived bright and early for a 7am departure time.

After braving choppy water and a bit of rain we began our day with a beam trawl, designed to sample creatures from the ocean floor at 600 meters depth. Unfortunately we were left empty handed when the net returned to the surface with a hole caused from large rocks lodged in the net.

Despite our first strikeout, our second mid-water trawl yielded a wide array of fish, crustaceans, jellyfish, and a plethora of other gelatinous creatures. Once on board the Point Sur, each animal was classified into separate glass dishes and recorded, giving the students a chance to practice their species identification and exercise their Latin nomenclature.

The highlight of the trawl (quite literally) was a group of fish called the Myctophids, or Lanternfish. These fish have light emitting cells called photophores that help camouflage them in the deep ocean waters in which they live. Lanternfish regulate the photophores on their flanks and underside to match the ambient light levels from the surface, rendering them nearly invisible from predators below.

Lanternfish emit light from cells called photophores that help camouflage them from predators.

The last tow of the day was called an otter trawl; but don’t worry, we didn’t catch any sea otters.  This net is name for the ‘otter’ boards positioned at the mouth of the net designed to keep it open as it travels thought the water. The animals are funneled to the back or ‘cod’ end of the net and are brought to the surface for the class to observe.  We saw several species of flatfish including the Sand Dab, Dover and English Sole, several dozen octopuses (or octopodes depending on your dictionary) and even a pacific electric ray.

After a long day of sunshine, high seas and amazing sea creatures the Marine Ecology students were excited with their discoveries, but also ready to be back on solid ground.


Volunteer Angling with CCFRP

By Jeff Christensen, CSU Stanislaus

In 2011, I had the opportunity to participate in a California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program (CCFRP) fishing trip.  When I received a message from Andrea Launer, CCFRP Volunteer Coordinator, this spring about the summer data collection schedule, I knew I wanted to go out again and be part of this amazing project.

With one of my classes starting on the first day of sampling, I wasn’t able to make the Monday, August 6th date but I was aboard F/V Caroline at Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf before sunrise on Tuesday with hot coffee in hand ready to do some angling.  After a safety briefing by Captain Shorty we headed out along the Monterey coastline as Cannery row began to stir in the light of the pre-dawn sky.  The sea was a bit rough and the wind waves made the trip out to the Point Lobos State Reserve a small adventure in and of itself.

Cheryl Barnes, CCFRP Field Coordinator and MLML graduate student, gave the anglers an amusing briefing about the specifics of the collection protocols of the catch and release program.   In order for this work to be helpful in determining if the Marine Protected Areas (MPA) are effective in propagating the species within these areas since their inception in 2007, a variety of anglers were assigned different lures and/ or bait similar to fishing techniques used on guided recreational fishing trips from the area.

By the time Captain Shorty announced over the loud speaker to drop our lines in the water of the first research cell of the day, the rolling waves were already taking its toll on our balance and stomachs. The port side “fish feeding station” was busy early on but as the fog receded, we all got our sea legs and the fishing improved.   The boat as a whole ended up catching and releasing a total of 176 fish from 14 different species, including a 84cm lingcod (Ophiodon elongates) caught by Chris L., fishing next to me.  We must have been in some big fish because not too long after Chris’s lingcod, I hooked another giant fish, I estimated at over 100 cm (due to how hard it was to pull up) but after a perilous fight, the “Big One” got away as it neared the surface.

MLML grad student Katherine Schmidt measures a Lingcod.  Photo courtesy of Starr Lab

While the anglers were pulling up their catch, the scientific staff was busy collecting the fish, measuring them, tagging some, and making sure they were returned to the bottom as soon as possible.  I was thoroughly impressed how each staff member tried to make sure every fish was returned to their home with human stories to tell of their own.  One sea lion, however, was happy to accept a free lingcod h’ordurve as it took a large bite out of an angler’s catch as it was reeled up.  That lingcod, too, was returned to the ocean making a meal for the fish, crab, and sea stars that would finish the work of the sea lion.  The seas were rough as we headed back in and even tossed a few of us out of our seats to the deck (Ouch!).

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Fish Feeding Frenzy

By Scott Gabara

In the southern California bight, the Channel Islands archipelago sits in warm subtropical waters brought north along the coast from Mexico to the islands.  Toward the east, Santa Catalina Island supports many different fishes living in these warm waters.  On a recent thesis sampling trip, frenzied fish behavior was observed.  Similar to people gathering at a popular eatery, small orange cigar shaped fish called Senorita, and speckled kelp bass, schooled near disturbances created by divers.  You may see the small grayish crab in the photo just underneath the fish's mouth (see below).  These fish would say that algae mats provide a home for many tasty invertebrates!