A Day In the Life of an Elephant Seal Biologist at Año Nuevo State Park

By Jenni Johnson, MLML Vertebrate Ecology Lab

Today, we have another post courtesy of MS 211: Ecology of Marine Mammals, Birds and Turtles, this time from Moss Landing student and author Jenni Johnson. She is going to talk about the hectic but rewarding work involved in elephant seal research at Año Nuevo State Park. -Amanda Heidt Blog Manager

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

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


Grabbing the gear, we hike to the beach, maneuvering through streams, marshes, and dunes along the way. Various animal tracks crisscross over the sand, reminding me that I am merely a guest. The elephant seal calls fill my ears, and I know we are close. We emerge onto the beach as the sun makes its morning debut atop the Santa Cruz Mountains and casts light onto the awe-inspiring scene before us. Pelicans and cormorants congregate on the western point, paling in comparison to the demanding presence of the elephant seals. Nursing females, defensive bulls, dozing juveniles, and curious weanlings cover the beaches and play in the surf. We appreciate this scene for only a moment before setting off to find our first weanling.

20160211_Weaner bleach mark

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

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


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

All elephant seal research is performed and photos taken under National Marine Fisheries Service research permit #19108.

Art and Science: A Symbiotic Relationship

By Olivia Townsend

Today's post was provided by San Jose State student Olivia Townsend. Olivia is currently attending Moss Landing as an auxiliary student in MS 211: Ecology of Marine Mammals, Birds and Turtles. Lucky for us (!), she is also an amazing artist, and in keeping with our mission of interdisciplinary collaboration she has written this piece about scientific illustration and its role in supplementing traditional scientific observations.


Art and science. Conventional thought places these two fields on opposite ends of the spectrum and some people still polarize them today. Science is data-driven and technical, while art is expressive and compelled by emotion. In fact, the process that happens in the laboratory is very similar to what happens in the studio. Both scientists and artists are investigators—they ask the big questions, scrutinize over detail, and strive to convey information and ideas. Moreover, art and science have a profound and historically rooted connection in which one undoubtedly cannot exist without the other.

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Whalefest Wrap-up 2017

By Vicky Vásquez

Last weekend marked the seventh annual Whalefest celebration in Monterey, California. From ocean mascots and graduate students to one very obedient pup named Obi, the outreach table for Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML) was well staffed all weekend long. For a full set of photos check out the Whalefest photo album on MLML's Facebook Page.

Thanks to all the talbers who particapted at Whalefest 2017! Photo Source: Vicky Vásquez

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By Catherine DrakeInvertebrate Zoology Lab

This fin whale was photographed in our bay on May 2, 2016. Photo by Giancarlo Thomae. Check out more of his photographs at: http://www.thomaephotography.com/

These are some exciting times in the Monterey Bay! Recently, five different species of whales have  been spotted within our bay! We all have probably seen the humpbacks that have been hanging around since there is still available food for them. Normally, they are only here April to October and are otherwise migrating south to their calving grounds, but the last few years they’ve been staying put as the water has been warm and the food has been plentiful.

Additionally, as straggling gray whale moms with their calves head north to Alaska (usually they're here in January and February), orcas are chasing the moms in hopes of separating them from their calves. "When I find a dead gray whale the first thing I do is I go look at the tongue, and if it is missing, I know it was killed by a killer whale," our very own director Jim Harvey told the Monterey Herald.

These three species of cetaceans (science-y word for dolphins, whales, narwhals) have also been joined by blue whales and fin whales. It's not uncommon to see blue whales along our coast, but they are often seen further offshore. However, this week a blue whale was spotted only a mile or two offshore of the Monterey Bay Aquarium eating krill.

As for fin whales, not much is known about this elusive species. They are said to have a “cosmopolitan” distribution, meaning they can be found in most oceans around the world. As a result, their migration patterns aren’t well known. Scientists believe that the North Atlantic population may migrate south past Bermuda and into the West Indies. On our coast, fin whales are more often seen in the Gulf of California year round, with more appearing in the winter and spring.


Fun Facts About These Five Cetaceans:

  • At least 3 different species of barnacles are commonly found on both the flippers and the body of the humpback whale.
  • The Gray whale was designated as the California State Marine Mammal in 1975.
  • Gray whales used to be known as Devilfish. They were named so by early hunters who noted the gray whale’s intense fighting behavior to protect themselves and their young while being hunted.
  • The orca, also known as a killer whale, is actually the largest member of the dolphin family. They have the second largest brain of any animal, and it is almost four times the mass of a human brain (the sperm whale has the largest brain).
  • The blue whale is the biggest animal that has ever lived! And the fin whale is the second largest!
  • Fin whales are notorious for their speediness, and naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews once called it the “greyhound of the sea for its beautiful, slender body is built like a racing yacht and the animal can surpass the speed of the fastest ocean steamship.”

Also, did you know that you can tell the difference between whales by their “whale spouts” or “whale blows”? Check out the photo below to see the different types, some of which are the whales you’ll see in the bay. Not in the diagram is the gray whale, which actually has a blow in the shape of a heart! Of course, on a really windy day, it would be harder to tell, but otherwise it is a great tool to use and, I can tell you from experience, it actually works!

Looking at whale "spouts" or "blows" can help identify different species. Not pictured are gray whales, which have a heart shaped blow, much like the Southern right whale in the diagram. (From North Atlantic Society)

MLML at the Marine Mammal Conference

By Jackie Lindsey, Vertebrate Ecology Lab smm-2015-logo

This week marked the 21st Biennial conference of the Society of Marine Mammology (SMM) .  For any budding marine mammologist, this conference is a dream come true - many of the great authors and researchers that we read in class and cite regularly are HERE in San Francisco. We have the chance to make some great connections for current and future research.

Moss Landing Marine Laboratories was well represented this year, with many former and present students giving poster or oral presentations.  Those that did not present were in attendance, lending support and enthusiasm.



Jackie Lindsey presenting on her sea otter habitat study

One of the unique things about the field of marine science is that it is so interdisciplinary. I was able to attend talks that discussed everything from paleontology to acoustics. I tried to spend a lot of time listening to topics that I am unfamiliar with - when else will I get to hear a complex topic explained by an expert!

Keith Hernandez - presenting on his sea lion diet study

Of course, no conference would be complete without evening events to level out our science-filled brains after a day of talks.  This year was spectacular, and we only left when we could no longer stay awake.

View from the top of the hotel - LGBT mixer

Second only to all of the cool science, my favorite part of the conference was a workshop put on (in part) by our own Gitte McDonald and Alison Stimpert.

Gitte McDonald, presenting the results of her porpoise heart rate study

The workshop addressed a myriad of topics under the umbrella of work-life balance.  I don't know a single graduate student (in any field) who wouldn't benefit from putting a little thought into this topic. The theme of the 21st SMM was "bridging the past towards the future", and I was proud to see MLML scientists helping to do just that.

I leave you with a picture of our fearless leader, director Jim Harvey, getting into the spirit of the conference.

Jim Harvey in his role as poster pod leader and sea lion "supporter"

Let's do it again soon - I'll see you at SMM Halifax 2017!

Sea otters participate in coastal restoration

by Jackie Lindsey, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

There's a new reason to love the world's smallest marine mammal species - so let's talk sea otters!

These voracious predators are again making headlines in the science world as a new paper comes hot off the (virtual) presses.  Hughes et al. (2013) published an article in PNAS entitled "Recovery of a top predator mediates negative eutrophic effects on seagrass".  This paper is truly a local collaboration, with scientists from UCSC's Long Marine Lab, the Elkhorn Slough reserve, USGS, CSU Monterey Bay, and MBARI.

The headline? Sea otters may have saved the Elkhorn Slough seagrass habitat by doing what they do so well: eating crabs.

Photo credit: Ron Eby http://www.vcstar.com/photos/2013/aug/26/307245/
Photo credit: Ron Eby http://www.vcstar.com/photos/2013/aug/26/307245/

To fully understand the premise of the paper, here's a little ecology review:

When we think about the health of a marine ecosystem, we often think of two major ways that the system could be controlled.

1) Top down:  A classic example of top down control is sea otters consuming urchins in a kelp forest.  These three trophic levels depend heavily on one another, so that if the sea otters in the kelp forest are removed by a predator (humans or killer whales) and can no longer keep the sea urchin population in check, the urchins will become overpopulated and consume so much of their prey (the kelp) that the kelp disappears, taking with it other creatures in the ecosystem that depend upon it.  If the sea otters are returned to the system, they consume enough sea urchins that the kelp is released from predation pressure, and the ecosystem can return to normal balanced levels.  Here's a figure by Estes et al. (1998) to illustrate this classic example.  Focus on the cartoons and the arrow sizes to track who eats what in each scenario.

Estes et al. 1998
Figure 1 from Estes et al. 1998

2) Bottom up: Think of bottom up control like the workings of a traditional garden.  If you over-fertilize your tomato plants and they start to die off as a result, this bottom up forcing will impact the aphids that depend on the tomato plant for food, and in turn their ladybug predators.

Ladybugs consuming aphids on a tomato plant http://extension.umd.edu/growit/photos-aphids
Ladybugs consuming aphids on a tomato plant http://extension.umd.edu/growit/photos-aphids

Was that example not "marine" enough for you?  Let's get back to the sea otter news!

It is well known that Elkhorn Slough, an estuary located right next to MLML, is a nutrient-loaded system due to nearby agricultural activity.  In the past, biologists noticed that nutrient loading was having a negative impact on the estuarine reserve's seagrass beds, when algal epiphytes bloomed and overtook the seagrass.  (That's bottom up control!)  Hughes et al. showed that in the last 30 years, that trend of declining seagrass beds was reversed, even as agricultural runoff increased!

How??  Hughes et al. noticed that another thing happened about 30 years ago: southern sea otter populations recovered to the point that otters began colonizing Elkhorn Slough habitats.  Was this a coincidence?  The authors think that this is an example of an interaction between top down and bottom up control.

Figure 2a from Hughes et al 2013
Figure 2a from Hughes et al. 2013

Hughes et al. (2013) demonstrated that the interaction between sea otters and their prey species in Elkhorn slough created a 4-level trophic cascade that released the seagrass from top down control pressures, allowing it to flourish even in the presence of high nutrient loads.  In short, the sea otters ate the crabs, which in turn consumed less algal epiphyte grazers (snails, slugs), which in turn consumed more algal epiphytes (blanketing the seagrass), which allowed the seagrass to grow. This well-timed trophic cascade was lucky for the seagrass, and all other marine critters that depend on it for habitat in Elkhorn Slough.

The sea otters are helping to restore our coastline, and you can too!  Just five days until California's Coastal Cleanup Day, and it's not to late to volunteer!

My citations, in case you want to do a little more reading,:

Brent B. Hughes, Ron Eby, Eric Van Dyke, M. Tim Tinker, Corina I. Marks, Kenneth S. Johnson, and Kerstin Wasson (2013) Recovery of a top predator mediates negative eutrophic effects on seagrass. PNAS: 1302805110v1-201302805.

Estes JA, Tinker MT, Williams TM, Doak DF (1998) Killer whale predation on sea otters linking oceanic and nearshore ecosystems. Science 282(5388): 473-476

“Tails” from The Field

by Angela Szesciorka, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

Since May, the mammal lab has been as quiet as a post-apocalyptic library (yep, that quiet). For the marine mammologist (and birder), summer time is all about fieldwork — followed by lots and lots of data crunching and thesis writing. So with fall drawing ever closer (noooooo!), I wanted to check in with my labmates to see what they have been up to. Below is a quick summary from each of us. We’ll see you soon!

Ryan Carle: Ryan continued working on Año Nuevo Island, finishing data collection for his thesis on Rhinoceros Auklet diet and reproduction. He spends most of his waking hours on the Island identifying prey, restoring habitat, counting burrows, collecting boluses — you name it. When he’s not on Año, he’s trekking about California and making apple cider!

Casey Clark: Casey has been fervently writing up his thesis as he prepares to defend in the fall. Draft one? Check! Falling asleep on your keyboard? Check! He has also been helping out with seabird research in Astoria, Oregon. He did save time for fun too — camping, hiking, and kayaking. Jealous!

Marilyn Cruickshank: Marilyn spent the summer analyzing BeachCOMBERS data. She’s looking to see if the residence times of stranded birds on Monterey beaches can help with damage assessments and as a predictor of where most birds will wash ashore in future oil spills. Marilyn continued working for the stranding network and learned how to program in Matlab. She even found time to carve a new banjo. Nice wood-working skills, Marilyn!

Emily Golson: Emily has been doing nothing but data analyses. Her sea otter movement model has been developed and now she is fitting parameters of the model using otter re-sighting data. Oil spill forecasting data (from the DFW and NOAA) will allow Emily to run a simulation of sea otter movements to estimate the number of sea otters that could be oiled (using various severities, different surface current circulation patterns, and times of year). Stay tuned, because this fall Emily will be presenting posters at the Oiled Wildlife Care Network’s Annual Rehabilitation Conference (Oilapalooza) and the Society for Marine Mammology’s 20th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. We can’t wait!

A resting sea otter. Photo by Nicole LaRoche.
A resting sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Photo by Nicole LaRoche.

Keith Hernandez: Keith started his sea lion diet study this summer. He’s been collecting scat off Año Nuevo Island with his collaborators and working with his summer intern, Ross Johnston, to process the scat; that is, removing and quantifying the hard parts and blending the remaining feces. Strong stomach, everyone, the poop room has returned!

Deasy Lontoh: As some of you may have read, Deasy traveled to Papua Barat, Indonesia (where she did her thesis data collection) to teach Indonesian school children about the threats that the endangered leatherback sea turtles face while nesting in Indonesia. Safe travels, Deasy!

Deasy with Indonesian school children. Photo from MLML.
Deasy with Indonesian school children. Photo from MLML.

Suzanne Manugian: Suzanne’s summer update: writing, writing, writing! She’s on chapter two of her thesis and expects her first draft to be done by September. She continues to monitor her seal haul-out sites, count seals for NPS, and will monitor marine mammals for the Bay Bridge project. A defense and marine mammal conference are looming in Suzanne's future. In her spare time, she’s been training for a few triathlons, a bike road race, and a half marathon... She also wrestles bears. Or so we hear. Kick-ass, Suzanne!

Melinda Nakagawa: Melinda is finishing up her thesis using remotely sensed oceanographic data to better characterize the California Current region (and the habitat of Sooty Shearwaters and their prey). Outside of that, her summer was spent chasing her little one around!

Gillian Rhett: Gillian is finishing up data collection and plans to graduate in the fall. She is using an epifluorescence microscope and scanning electron microscope to quantify and meiofauna (really small benthic invertebrates) from sediment cores that MBARI collected at whale fall sites in Monterey Bay. Gillian hopes to determine whether the meiofauna community is different under the whale bones versus the regular seafloor. Sooo cool, right?!?

Whale fall in Monterey Canyon from February 2002. Photo by MBARI.
Whale fall in Monterey Canyon from February 2002. Photo by MBARI.

Jacqueline Schwartzstein: This summer Jackie bade us farewell and moseyed up the Pacific Northwest to the evergreen state — Washington. Once there she kicked off her fieldwork, collecting gray whale prey data (benthic invert goodies, yum!) and got married. All in a days’ work. Congratulations, Jackie! Now get home because we miss you and your new hubby.

Angela Szesciorka: I started shipboard surveys in April. I’m basically a glorified ocean hitchhiker, riding vessels that are going between San Francisco and Los Angeles to survey for whales. Just me and the binos... well, and datasheets, food, and a helper, if I’m lucky. I’m hoping to do hotspot analysis with whale and ship distribution data to predict where ship-whale interactions might occur. Keith and I had an amazing journey on R/V Point Sur when we traveled from Oregon to Moss Landing in June. This August and September, I’ll be teaming up with John Calambokidis to tag humpback whales in the Traffic Separation Scheme off San Francisco. I hope to find out if humpback whale dive and foraging behavior is affected by the presence of large commercial vessels.

Surveying for humpback whales off California. Photos by Angela Szesciorka.
Surveying for humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) off California. Photos by Angela Szesciorka.

Lisa Webb: Lisa spent her summer working on her thesis on the foraging ecology of Brandt’s Cormorants in Monterey Bay. A thesis defense is in her future. Stay tuned!

*Update from Lisa: Between trips to the beach with her almost two year old daughter, Lisa has been preparing to present her thesis results on Brandt’s Cormorant diet in the Monterey Bay area at an upcoming workshop, Predators and The California Current Preyscape. The focus of the workshop is to gather information pertinent to management of forage fishes in the changing California Current System. Presentations will span a wide spectrum (invertebrates, fishes, seabirds, and marine mammals) and will highlight short and long-term changes observed at the scale that predators forage and compete. The adequacy of ecosystem based management will be discussed at the end of the workshop. The Brandt’s Cormorant is endemic to the California Current, forages nearshore, and the central California population is increasing, yet only a few diet studies have been conducted in Monterey Bay. Lisa’s study indicates a major shift from rockfishes and squid in the 1970s to a coastal pelagic, northern anchovy, and sanddabs in the 2000s. Additionally, due to greater sampling frequency than previous diet studies, Lisa has documented short-term prey switching in Brandt’s Cormorants, exemplifying their ability to capitalize on a sudden influx of prey.*

Kristine Williams: Kristine is finishing up her thesis looking at the effects of different health conditions on hematology and serum chemistries in California sea lions. She worked with The Marine Mammal Center, collecting her data from their Sausalito facility while becoming a registered veterinary technician. Way to go, Kristine! She is currently working on final revisions of her thesis. Expect to see her defend in the fall!

A Visit to Año Nuevo Island

By Angela Szesciorka, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

In March the MS211 class (Ecology of Marine Turtles, Birds and Mammals) climbed onto a small inflatable boat, pointed offshore, and ran a half mile obstacle course through rocks, waves, and seals to Año Nuevo Island.

This tiny boat (named Dragon Rojo!) carried us to the island. About an eight-minute boat ride though, so not bad. Photo from Oikonos.org.
This tiny boat (named Dragon Rojo!) carried us to the island. About an eight-minute boat ride though, so not bad. Photo from Oikonos.org.

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Chronicles of a Curious Beachcomber

by Angela Szesciorka, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

A few Sundays ago — Super Bowl Sunday, in fact — I took a three-hour walk along the beach at Fort Ord in Monterey, CA with Don Glasco, a systems engineer and former cartographer.

This wasn’t a leisurely pursuit, but my volunteer service to the Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network’s (SIMoN) Coastal Ocean Mammal and Bird Education and Research Surveys, also known as Beach COMBERS.

I meet Don at Fort Ord Dunes State Park in Marina around 9 a.m. After downing the last of my coffee, we head out into the foggy morning.

Don Glasco referring to the almighty bird book to identify an unknown species by its toes. Photo by Angela Szesciorka.
Don Glasco referring to the almighty bird book to identify an unknown species by its toes.

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