Thirteen students defend thesis research in 2019!

By June Shrestha, MLML Ichthyology Lab

I'm happy to share that we've had a total of 13 students students defend their theses in 2019! Please join me in congratulating the students, and read below to learn a little more about their research.

  • Steven Cunningham, Phycology
  • Amanda Heidt, Invertebrate Zoology
  • Sharon Hsu, Vertebrate Ecology
  • Brijonnay Madrigal, Vertebrate Ecology
  • Cynthia Michaud, Physical Oceanography
  • Elizabeth Ramsay, Phycology
  • Katie Harrington, Vertebrate Ecology
  • Jessica Jang, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Melissa Nehmens, Pacific Shark Research Center
  • Stephen Pang, Ichthyology Lab
  • Patrick Daniel, Physical Oceanography
  • Heather Barrett, Vertebrate Ecology
  • Sierra Helmann, Biological Oceanography

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Listen Up! Brings Marine Science to Monterey-Area Schools

By Brijonnay Madrigal, MLML Vertebrate Ecology Lab

AR web Bri.jpgThis week's post comes from grad student Bri Madrigal. Bri recently started her own K-12 outreach program called Listen Up! to get kids interested in science and teach about the importance of acoustics in the marine environment.

I love working with children. They are enthusiastic and inquisitive, and I am always so amazed by how much they can absorb and learn. From a young age, I knew I wanted to become a marine biologist and inspire children to be interested in science by exposing them to new subjects and teaching them about the ocean. As marine scientists, we realize the importance of ocean conservation and we want people to make changes in their daily habits in order to maintain healthy oceans and healthy ecosystems.

But first, we need to make people care about the ocean. How do you do that? One way is by connecting people to the amazing animals that live in the ocean. I believe that marine mammals like whales, dolphins, and other charismatic megafauna, are an avenue to tap into peoples' hearts and inspire them to care about our oceans. When these values are established as children, I believe this will make a more profound impact on how they perceive environmental issues, influence their daily habits and influence their vote as adults to make an impact on ocean conservation.

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Who Are the People Who Run Towards the Stinky Beach Carcass?

IMG_6430By Sharon Hsu, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

My initiation to the MLML Marine Mammal & Sea Turtle Stranding Network was by fire. Actually, by a 200-pound dead harbor seal that we had to drag up Spanish Bay and load into the backseat of Jenni’s Ford Focus, amongst an onslaught of concerned tourists who had just paid to take a leisurely drive down one of Monterey’s most beautiful roads. Surprisingly, despite all the awkward and concerned staring, only a handful of people approached to ask what we were doing. I assume that, like me, everyone else was too shy to ask what the hell we were doing and will forever wonder about that big blue body bag that was suspiciously getting pulled off the beach by two women in flip-flops.

As official dead-thing-touchers (yes, we have the permits to do so – and yes, you have to have a permit to do so), we find that only a few brave individuals will approach to ask questions about what we are doing, and I can only assume that others might be left wondering why two people in a kayak were sampling blubber from that dead humpback whale off Lover’s Point or putting that dead sea lion pup into a plastic bag in front of a class of baby kayakers on Del Monte Beach. So here are the answers to the top six questions we get:

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Working with “mer-dogs” aka California Sea Lions

mason cole profile pictureBy Mason Cole, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

This post is part of Dr. Gitte McDonald’s marine mammal class blog series.

MLML Director Dr. Jim Harvey likes to say that harbor seals are the “cats of the sea”.  If that’s true, then California sea lions are the rambunctious young puppy dogs of the sea.  But not those little baby fluff-ball puppies; no, more like that almost-full-grown, 90-pound wrecking ball.

Many a commercial fisherman would cringe to read this, but I love working with sea lions.  They earned their place in my mind as “mer-dogs” for more than just their energy and enthusiasm: they are also particularly intelligent, with striking personalities and an impressive capacity to learn trained behavior.

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Nemo with his prize herring - good boy!  (Photo credit: Mason Cole.)

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A Day on the Water Tagging Whales

IMG_20170428_070106_011By Brijonnay Madrigal, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

This post is part of Dr. Gitte McDonald's marine mammal class blog series. 

Tagging marine mammals is a highly difficult procedure and a skill that requires extreme finesse from scientists. Due to the high speeds that large baleen whales travel and the short amount of time their dorsal side is exposed at the surface, it requires a quick deployment and impeccable timing. When a whale is at the surface, it usually comes up for a few breathes before diving down. Therefore, there are only a few moments when tagging is possible. Being able to participate in such fieldwork was very exciting for a group of MLML students. This April, students in MS 211: Ecology of Marine Turtle, Birds and Mammals had the opportunity to aid Dave Cade in his research in Monterey Bay.

We departed on the John Martin early on a clear, sunny morning. Our role that day was as the support boat for the tagging boat, the Musculus. Aboard the Musculus was a small tagging team comprised of Dave, the tagger, and John Calambokidis, the boat driver. John Calambokidis, a research biologist and founder of the Cascadia Research Collective, is one of the world’s most experienced whale researchers. The Musculus remained in close proximity to the Martin as the support vessel and we maintained corresponded with the tagging team as the day proceeded.

A group of students in the marine mammal field class enjoy observing whales from the top deck of the John Martin [Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson, MLML student]

The tagging boat is approaching two humpback whales to deploy a tag under the NMFS permit # 20430 and ONMS permit MULTI-2017-07 [Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson, MLML student]
We scanned the horizon for any blows to indicate the whale’s presence. Alas… there she blows!!! Once a whale was spotted, the Martin traveled towards the animal to see if it was a potential tagging candidate. A group of students were situated at the top deck of the boat with the best view in order to take photos for photo identification purposes. Pictures taken were compared to photos in a photo identification guide of known humpback whales in the Bay. Students were able to compare identifying features like dorsal fin shape and flukes patterns to identify specific individuals. Detailed notes were recorded on number of whales in the area, distance between whales and the boat and tag information.

MLML students Heather Barrett and SJSU student Olivia Townsend record data from the top deck of the John Martin [Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson, MLML student]
Although we were constantly on alert for whales, the students on the support boat had various roles. A few students ran the echosounder, an instrument that uses sonar to determine depth and produced pings at three frequency ranges in order to map the prey within the water column. Once a whale was found, the Martin traveled in small and large square shape tracks around the whale, echosounder pinging continuously, in order to map prey in the area around the whale.

dropping CTD_Mar2017
MLML student Jennifer Johnson and MLML faculty member and instructor of the course, Gitte McDonald, deploy the CTD [Photo credit Mason Cole]
During the day, we had the opportunity to witness the tagging process from a distance. As a whale surfaces, the boat must be positioned in a precise manner and approach the whale at a fast-enough speed to come alongside the whale parallel for the tagger to place the suction cup tag on an animal the size of a school bus. As the whale surfaced, the boat sped up to get in line with the whale. The tagger extended the pole with the tag attached to the end and…WHOMP! The tag hit the whales skin and detached from the pole. The suction cups on the bottom of the neon colored tag kept it adhered to the whale’s back. Success!! Once the tags were on the animals, students used telemetry to find the tagged animal. The tags emitted a ping at a specific frequency which the telemetry instruments could detect. With arm extended, students would move the instrument 360 degrees to hear beeps. When the beeping got louder, this indicated the presence and directionality of the tag. At the end of the cruise, CTD deployments were also conducted to collect salinity, temperature, and dissolved oxygen levels. As we headed back to Moss Landing harbor at the end of the afternoon, I think all the students could agree that it was a very fulfilling day. Not only did we contribute to ongoing whale research, but we had the opportunity to aid a fellow graduate student with his PhD work that will yield insightful information about predator-prey dynamics of humpback whales in Monterey Bay. This collaboration between Hopkins Marine Lab not only benefits the Moss Landing students that are able to partake in local research efforts but also gives Hopkins the opportunity to operate out of the Moss Landing harbor and have access to the MLML vessels. Goldbogen lab research is conducted in close collaboration with MLML director, Jim Harvey, and research faculty Alison Stimpert.

SJSU student Brad Wilkinson is stationed at the bow using telemetry to find the location of the deployed tag [Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson, MLML student]
Dave Cade, a PhD student in the Goldbogen Lab at Stanford, studies predator-prey dynamics of humpback whales and ecosystem ecology in Monterey Bay. The goal of his research is to study the kinematics and success of foraging Humpback whales on different prey types. To do this, he used suction cup tags to collect accelerometer, magnetometer, basic audio and gyroscope data. This is a collaborative project involving researchers from Hopkins Marine Station, Cascadia Research Collective, and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. This work was completed under permits NMFS permit #20430 and ONMS permit MULTI-2017-07.

Monterey is Expensive: The cost of disturbance

By Heather Barrett, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

Heather Barrett recording sea otter behavior during a disturbance scan.

The crisp morning begins with stretches, a barrel role here and there, and one of the members breaking off to search for a crab breakfast. The raft bobs as the distant boat wake lifts each otter in a wave; rocking them gently in a water cradle. There are five mothers with cotton-ball pups that begin the tedious nursing and grooming process, lifting the plush bodies and breathing warm air in to their Einstein frizz. But the calm morning routines will soon be disrupted and turn to disorder. The bright colored beasts have arrived, aiming the kayak bows towards the otter raft, paddles drumming as they hit the surface of the water.

Most human disturbance is unintentional. However, this naiveté does not eliminate the potential behavioral or physiological consequences for wildlife. Simply our presence, especially when too close, can impact certain species by initiating a stress response. Stress hormones release, causing an increase in heart rate, rise in blood pressure, suppression of feeding and reproduction, and modulation of immune function 1. This is critical in acute stress response, for it allows for a quick reaction during a potentially threatening situation. But what if this becomes chronic?

Sea otter raft that experiences high human traffic at Jetty Road, Moss Landing.

Chronic stress leads to prolonged exposure to these stress hormones, which can cause muscle wasting, bone thinning, reproductive failure, and immune deficiency 1. These physiological responses are usually undetected in wildlife, which can portray a false sense of acceptability for disturbance 2. Behavioral responses tend to be clearer since they are visually detectable. Individuals will become alert, move away, and show avoidance or even aggression 3. All which have an energetic cost. With these varying responses, why is disturbance particularly a concern for sea otters?

As a keystone species, sea otters have a disproportionate effect on their surrounding environment, enhancing local biodiversity 4. They exhibit this strong influence on their coastal community through their voracious appetite, controlling grazer populations 4. With little fat storage and only dense fur to keep warm, sea otters use their high metabolic rate to maintain their internal temperature in a cold marine environment. Since they use energy to keep warm, they must consume a quarter of their body weight in food each day to fuel this heat production 5.

So picture an exhausted sea otter mother: using energy for lactation, heat production, foraging, and pup care; imagine what it would be like to have constant disturbance from people recreating in the bay. If already living near physiological limits, what is the energetic consequence when human disturbance increases the cost? To answer this, it is important to understand the types of disturbance and create a baseline of behavioral response.

Abram_Sea Otter Photo
Female sea otter illustrating behavior to look for when recreating near sea otters: Head raised and alert. This means you are too close.

Sea Otter Savvy is spearheading the sea otter disturbance data collection with citizen science and educating the public through outreach programs. As a graduate student at Moss Landing Marine laboratories, I am thrilled to participant in the data collection and honored to use this information. I will couple this with the previously collected metabolic data from University of California Santa Cruz 5,6 to investigate the energetic cost of disturbance of sea otters in Monterey Bay.  This unique collaboration, and inclusion of graduate research, benefits the scientific community, the public, and can provide information to agencies making wildlife policy and management decisions.

If you are interested in learning more about Sea Otter Savvy and the current disturbance project, please visit the website:


  1. Hill, R.W., Wyse, G.A., Anderson, M. and Anderson, M., 2004. Animal physiology (Vol.2). Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates.
  2. Sorice, M.G., Shafer, C.S. and Scott, D., 2003. Managing endangered species within the use/preservation paradox: understanding and defining harassment of the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus). Coastal Management, 31(4), pp.319-338
  3. Gill, J.A., Sutherland, W.J. and Watkinson, A.R., 1996. A method to quantify the effects of human disturbance on animal populations. Journal of appliedEcology,pp.786-792.
  4. Estes, J.A. and Palmisano, J.F., 1974. Sea otters: their role in structuring nearshore communities. Science, 185(4156), pp.1058-1060.
  5. Thometz, N.M., Tinker, M.T., Staedler, M.M., Mayer, K.A. and Williams, T.M., 2014. Energetic demands of immature sea otters from birth to weaning: implications for maternal costs, reproductive behavior and population-level.
  6. Yeates, L.C., Williams, T.M. and Fink, T.L., 2007. Diving and foraging energetics of the smallest marine mammal, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Journal of Experimental Biology, 210(11), pp.1960-1970.

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.

Congrats to Fall 2016’s eight new Masters of Science!

By June Shrestha, Ichthyology Lab

Congratulations are in order for the eight students who successfully defended their research theses this past semester (Fall 2016)! Student research spanned from California to French Polynesia, from plankton to marine mammals. Read below to learn about the main points of their research, and if you have any questions or want to get in touch with the recent graduates, please leave a comment!

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Spring has sprung, the grass has riz


By Jackie Lindsey, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

We are just breaths away from the first day of spring, and the wildlife of Moss Landing, CA is in a flurry. High above the the heads of kayakers and sea otters in Elkhorn Slough, birds have started constructing their condos in the tall eucalyptus trees that line the shore of this estuary. Egrets, cormorants, and herons are gathering supplies and strength to begin chick rearing.  In just a few weeks these silent efforts will be rewarded with the arrival of fluffy chicks, clamoring for their next meal. These particular condos have reached surprisingly high densities in past years, nearing 200 nests!

Great Egret (Ardea alba) nest with three chicks at the in the Mo
Great Egret (Ardea alba) nest with three chicks at the in the Morro Bay Heron Rookery. 21 May 2009. Photo by Michael "Mike" L. Baird

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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!