“Wait, you still eat fish?” and other things marine science students are tired of hearing

by Grace Teranishi, MLML Ichthyology Lab


As marine scientists and scientists-in-training, we at MLML know we dodged a bullet in the decision against pursuing a career in, say, medicine—a path that inevitably leads to a hypochondriacal aunt listing her symptoms to you at the Thanksgiving table or to a patient of yours asking about his unfortunate toe rash when he spots you at self-checkout. Aren't you also glad you didn't major in studio art, which would have everyone and their mother wanting to hire you to illustrate a children’s book? Yes, we fish people, sponge people, seaweed connoisseurs, and sediment transport enthusiasts have it pretty good, but there are still a few comments and interactions we would prefer not to put up with on a day-to-day basis.

I asked MLML students, "What are you tired of people telling you because they know you are in the marine science field?" Here's what you had to say:


Some of you were frustrated that people underestimate the work you do.

1. "What an easy job/degree. You’re so lucky just hanging out at the beach all day." -Dylan, Ichthyology


Photo of beach waves at sunset
Credit: Grace Teranishi


Others of you have experienced that people vastly overestimate what you can do. 

2. "'Oh you're a marine scientist, you're going to save the world.'

–there's literally no paper I could publish that would suddenly make people take environmentalism more seriously. The change has to come from policy. Also, assuming that the tanks in the [Monterey Bay Aquarium’s] deep sea exhibit are pressurized. They're not." -Alex, Invertebrate Ecology


3. "Oh, so you're going to save the coral reefs, right?" -Keenan, Invertebrate Ecology


We would love to reverse centuries of environmental exploitation with a snap of our fingers, but unfortunately, that’s not how it works.



Some expressed fatigue at general ignorance.

4. "Challenging if the megalodon is truly extinct because we've only explored 30% of our oceans." -Sophie, Marine Biology major at SJSU


We love a good bad shark movie now and then, but please stop.



Or fatigue at the nonstop questions not even remotely related to what you actually study.

5. "This one time during a dinner rush I was serving a large table and they asked me if I was in school. Upon finding out I was at MLML, one patron asked me to enlighten the table about the local ecology of the bay. 'Tell us about the canyon!' he said. 'Tell them about the whales!' he said. 'Twas dinner and a show... we were very busy... and I study fish genes." -Nick, Ichthyology


6. "I participate in Skype-a-Scientist, where you match with classrooms to talk about your experiences as a researcher. I introduced myself as a student at the Marine Labs with a focus on fish/estuaries/ocean life; I matched with an elementary school teacher who wanted me to answer an eight year-old's questions about platypuses." -Grace, Ichthyology


7. "So do you like, train dolphins?" -Jackie, Fisheries & Conservation Biology


8. "When you type 'phycology' into a google search and get asked if you really mean 'psychology.'" -Shelby, Phycology


9. "What kind of fish is this?" "How long can whales hold their breath for?" "Does toilet bowl water really go down counter-clockwise?" -Victoria, Geological Oceanography 

Photo of black and yellow rockfish and purple sea urchins
Credit: Juliana Cornett


People just really love hearing all about the sharks.

10. "It has to be 'Have you ever seen sharks?' when I talk about diving or am spotted with dive gear at a beach.  Sometimes it is difficult to talk about them in a realistic, non-threatening way." -Kameron, Ichthyology


11. "Did you hear about the shark attack at [location]? What do you think happened?" -Matt, Phycology


Many of you were tired of talking to people about Monterey Bay sea otters and felt that the less charismatic ocean life deserved a little more love.

12. "*Looks at an invertebrate* ‘Wait, but they're not alive though right?'" -Noah, Invertebrate Ecology


13. "They always want to talk about sea otters and why they are so important here." -Amber, Vertebrate Ecology


14. "I'm tired of people thinking I study fish or mammals... or when people mention how their cousin studied marine biology in undergrad but now she's a *insert random unrelated profession*" -Jess, Phycology


There’s more to the ocean than whales and dolphins and otters, people!

Close-up photo of opalescent nudibranch
Credit: Juliana Cornett


And on a similar note, marine science encompasses so much more than just biology.

15."People asking what the difference [is] between marine science and marine biology" -Samuel, Ichthyology


16. "So you're a marine biologist?"' -Anonymous


17. "Everyone assumes I'm a 'marine biologist' when I tell them I'm an oceanographer :-)" -Marine, Chemical Oceanography

Photo of researchers performing a CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) cast at sea
Credit: Grace Teranishi


We are also not all out there telling everyone to stop eating fish. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite! We want to make sure that there’s still fish left in the ocean so we can keep eating them.

18. "Oh so fish science? Wait, do you still eat fish?" -Quinn, Ichthyology


19. "I study vertebrate ecology. People usually assume that I am extremely against all forms of fishing. I have a lot of respect for fishermen and want to help them as much as I want to protect endangered marine mammals and turtles."-Kali, Vertebrate Ecology


20. “If I eat fish and then [they] get surprised that I do. Of course I do they're delicious." -Konnor, Fisheries & Conservation Biology


Currently thinking about the trout I had for dinner last night.

Photo of cooked trout dinner
Credit: Nicholas Kolasa-Lenarz



And finally, this:

21. "'You will be paid in experience!' -with regard to any unpaid internship 'opportunity'" -Anonymous, Geological Oceanography


Thank you everyone for taking the time to respond to this survey!

Shifting Foundations

By Acy Wood, MLML Phycology Lab

When I was a child, I used to be mesmerized by seaweed swaying in the surf when I went tidepooling or kelp flowing back and forth in the currents at the aquarium. I loved finding underwater plants because it always meant that I was going to find some amazing animals, too. Whenever I went wading into a meadow of seagrass, I would place my feet cautiously to avoid the crab claws that could suddenly shoot up. If I brushed aside some sea lettuce near a cluster of rocks, a fish might quickly flutter away into a new hiding place. Aside from the plant properties that they all share, these seagrasses and algae also have something else in common: they served as foundation species for their communities.

Just like trees in a forest, these underwater plants are essential to the very identity of their ecosystems. They dominate them, shape them, alter them, define them. A kelp forest ecosystem doesn’t exist without the kelp, nor is a seagrass meadow a meadow without the seagrass. All the other members of their ecosystems directly or indirectly rely on the foundation species in some way. For example, young rockfish tend to gather in kelp forests to hide from predators.  I’ve always loved to learn about foundation species, even before I knew what the term was. It’s almost an instinctual thing that we already know. When you enter a new place or conjure an image in your mind, foundation species are usually the first to stand out, such as corals in a coral reef or evergreens on a mountain.

The reliance on a single species means that researchers need to give special attention to the conditions that species thrives in. Any changes that the foundation species experiences will inevitably trickle down to the other community members. Going back to our example, if the kelp that make the kelp forest are unable to thrive, then the young rockfish will have to go somewhere else to hide. Oftentimes, underwater plants are sensitive to specific temperatures or specific depths. They may grow very well in places that have the right mix of conditions, but will no longer flourish if those conditions happen to change from what the plants need. Similarly, if an area nearby changes to suit them, then they can move right in.

The combination of suitable conditions for underwater plants helps define their range, or the area an organism can be found. Over time, that range can shift. Our planet is experiencing a period of rapid climate change, which is predicted to shift the ranges of underwater plants as coastlines experience new sea levels, new temperatures, and more. Since so many underwater plants serve as foundation species, the range of the animals that rely on them may shift also.

By understanding what our underwater plants need to survive and flourish, scientists can model and predict where we can expect to find these foundation species over time. In general, since many underwater plants are limited by temperature, most are seeing a shift northward as global temperatures warm up. We can then predict that the organisms attributed to these foundation species could see a northward shift as well. This could mean in the future, if I want to wade out into a seagrass meadow and try to find my crabs, I’ll have to drive further north a little longer.

Could seaweed be a pollution solution?

By Shelby Penn, MLML Phycology Lab

As a child, I remember spending hours collecting trash from the street ditch, woods, and ravine around my house. It was something that I felt very strongly about even as an 8-year old. I’ve never been able to understand how someone could just throw their trash out the car window without a second thought. Today, as an avid outdoor enthusiast, tour guide, and lover of all things nature, or as I like to call it “neature”, helping out mother nature has now become a passion and life-long pursuit.

Chemical pollution is a huge problem across the globe and many contaminants are released into the natural environment daily. Concern over chemical pollution can be dated back as far as the 13th century when England’s King Edward I wanted to use penalties to reduce air pollution if the residents of London did not stop burning coal. This threat, however, had little effect, and it was not until after the industrial revolution that the concern of pollution resurfaced.

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Celebrating the art in seaweed science

By Ann Bishop
MLML Phycology Lab, Graduate Student
MLML Museum, Curator

Josie Iselin, artist, author & phycologist, providing instruction during the workshop.


SCIENCE often brings to mind measured and exact descriptions. But, often the process of conducting science requires curiosity, creativity, and a willingness to take an experimental risk. Qualities that are more often associated with art. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, these two fields collaborate more often than expected. A local artist, author, and phycologist, Josie Iselin, recently held a workshop at her studio where participants could explore the collaboration of seaweed science, art, and a little bit of history.


Different species of seaweed that were used in art and print making for the workshop.

The colors and textures of seaweed create a kaleidoscope of diversity along California’s coast that has drawn artists and scientists to the shore for decades. To preserve these species for study, they are usually pressed and dried. But preserving specimens in this way makes them difficult to incorporate into an identification manual. Photography, illustration, and printmaking offered solutions to this problem. In the early ages of photography, a type of print making, called cyanotype printing, began to expand how field guides could be created. Today, high color photos in books and on our phones or apps like iNaturalist make identifying and enjoying our beaches very easy. However, these classic techniques of pressing and printing are still valuable to studying seaweed.

Joise’s workshop focused on the cyanotype printing technique. Cyanotype prints are made by coating thick paper with two chemicals that react when exposed to sunlight. Objects, or seaweed, are placed on the paper. The sunlight reacts and turns the exposed paper a deep blue, and the paper covered by the object remains white. The paper is then rinsed in a water bath and dried flat. Simple straightforward process, except of course the weather, the day of the workshop it was raining in the Bay Area.

Under Josie’s kind and attentive guidance, we began a cyanotype first: experimenting under rain conditions. We began by placing delicate fronds and branches on paper. To protect the paper and seaweed from the rain they were placed under glass before being placed on a flat outside surface. It took between 20-40 mins for the print to develop, but it worked! Producing the prints in the rain resulted in some varying hues of blue, abstract shapes, and some beautiful pieces of art from the combination of sun and rain. The contrast of the white and blue reveal the playful and unique shapes algae and marine plants create.


To learn more about the history, science, and art tied up in seaweed explore Josie Iselin’s new book The Curious World of Seaweed, released in August 2019.

Kelp Forest Community

By Heather Fulton-BennettPhycology Lab

While every student at Moss Landing Marine Labs designs their own thesis, sometimes one comes along that really requires the entire community.

Phycology student Steven Cunningham is looking at the effect of giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera, detritus on the plankton community. Macrocystis is considered a foundation species because thousands of species that depend on it for habitat and food. Steven is constructing an artificial kelp forest to disentangle the impact of structure and nutrients on the kelp fores community. With so many plants to make, he rallied the labs this past weekend, complete with movies and BBQ to keep everyone fed and amused.

Kelp Helpers working through the weekend to get this forest built! Photo: Lindsay Cooper
Kelp Helpers working through the weekend to get this forest built! Photo: Lindsay Cooper

The artificial kelp is made from marine-grade polypropylene rope and tarp with concrete holdfasts that will be bolted to the substrate. With the artificial kelp being deployed at 25 ft depth and multiple stipes per plant, it came it thousands of feet of rope and thousands of individual tarp blades, each attached by hand. Over 30 people came to help and hang out, making the work go much faster. It was great to see so much of the MLML community come to support one thesis, and a good reminder of how we can never get through this degree by ourselves.

From the holdfast to the canopy, Steven Cunningham designed this kelp to mimic Macrocystis pyrifera
From the holdfast to the canopy, this kelp to mimic the structure of natural Macrocystis integrifolia beds. Photo: Lindsay Cooper

With all the help, Steven hopes to deploy his fake kelp in the next month!

Thousands of fake blades are attached to hundreds of polypro stipes to make up the plants. Photo: Lindsay Cooper
Thousands of fake blades are attached to hundreds of polypro stipes to make up the plants. Photo: Lindsay Cooper



To the End of the Earth (for Kelp!)

By Heather Kramp, Ichthyology Lab

Chile is dotted with volcanoes, and we
Puerto Montt is surrounded by farmland, volcanoes, and fjords, with the Andes looming the distance, making for amazing views on our flights in and out. Photo: Heather Fulton-Bennett

In early January of this year, I boarded a plane bound for Puerto Montt, Chile. It was my first time to South America and my first time crossing the equator. Though Chile is an amazing vacation destination, I was headed there for an even better purpose - research! Myself and five other MLML graduate students were fortunate to have the opportunity to take a ten-day intensive field course at the Universidad de Los Lagos in Puerto Montt. The course, Global Kelp Ecosystems, is taught every three years in partnership with MLML and the Universidad de Los Lagos. Five instructors co-teach the course, including Drs. Michael Graham and Scott Hamilton of MLML, Dr. Alejandro Bushman from the Universidad de Los Lagos, and Drs. Silvain Faugeron and Alejandro Pérez-Matus from the Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile. In addition to MLML students, four Chilean graduate students and one French graduate student studying in Chile also took the course.

The 2015 Global Kelp Systems class in Pucatrihue, Chile
The 2015 Global Kelp Systems class in Pucatrihue, Chile.

After a day-and-a-half of travel with an unbelievable amount of luggage (including dive gear) we all arrived in Chile.

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Beach Wrack: What is it and why is it here?

By Jarred Klosinski, Phycology Lab

If you’re like me and take long walks on the beach, you may have noticed more mounds of algae along the shore. These mounds are called beach wrack and can contain kelps as well as seagrasses. Other types of seaweeds including red and green algae are also found, but not as often.

Kelp wrack composed of the giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) and the feather boa kelp (Egregia menziesii) at an incoming tide near Monterey. Photo credit: Jarred Klosinski

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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!

Adventures in Phycology

By Heather Fulton-Bennett, Phycology Lab

One of the best parts of classes at Moss Landing Marine Labs are the field trips. The Biology of Seaweeds class makes numerous trips around the Monterey Bay area to examine different algal habitats and to learn more about the ecological niches of algae in the intertidal. Every year, Professor Mike Graham, leads the phycology class on a trip south of Point Conception to discover the similarities and differences in southern California algae. This year we camped at El Capitan State Beach and enjoyed some beach combing, s’mores, and late night Phyctionary, where we attempted to illustrate terms related to seaweeds.

Our teaching assistant, Sarah Jeffries, Professor Mike Graham, and phycology student Bobby San Miguel examine one of the boulders still visible above the sand.
Our teaching assistant, Sarah Jeffries, Dr. Mike Graham, and phycology student Bobby San Miguel examine one of the boulders still visible above the sand.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn chasing a very low tide to Coal Oil Point, on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara. This site was very different to our usual intertidal excursions around the Monterey Bay, as the area was highly inundated with sand, and only the largest boulders and outer parts of the rock reef were exposed.

Campus Point Boulders
Phycology student Jarred Klosinski examines the drift algae around a boulder covered in fucoids and mussels.

California, in terms of marine algae, is made up of two distinct floristic areas; a northern community that stretches from British Columbia to Point Conception, California, and a southern group of species that stretches from Point Conception to the Baja California peninsula. There are quite a few groups that inhabit both areas, but different oceanographic nutrient and water movement regimes mean that there are unique to the areas north or south of Point Conception.

Taonia lennebackerae, a brown algae commonly found south of Point Conception
Taonia lennebackerae, a brown algae  in the order Dictyotales, commonly found south of Point Conception


Zonaria farlowii, also in the Dictytales, that grows in the subtropical waters south of Point Conception

Along with some cool genera of algae we had not seen before, Taonia and Zonaria, it was also interesting to see different morphologies in algal species found both north and south of Point Conception. South of Point Conception, the ocean temperature is higher, there is less circulation due to upwelling, and nutrients can become limited during some parts of the year. These environmental differences can lead to local adaptation in morphology, physiology, and reproduction.

And for those less interested in algae, we also saw plenty of cool invertebrates.

A young Egregia menziesii recruit is grazed on by a sea hare (Aplysia) in the low intertidal.
A kelp crab, Pugettia, tries to hide in the Phyllospadix wrack.
A kelp crab, Pugettia, tries to hide in the Phyllospadix wrack.

And even a marine vertebrate!

A Gray Whale heads north towards Point Conception.

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!