El Niño: the event of the season

Jackie LindseyBy Jackie Lindsey, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

In the past few months, I have been asked more questions about oceanography than in the entirety of my career at Moss Landing. Inquiring minds want to know: what is this "El Niño storm" that will save us from the drought in California?

What is an El Niño?

We can look at El Niño events in the context of the ENSO, or El Niño Southern Oscillation.  ENSO is a term for a "climate event" that is so large that it can affect global atmospheric circulation.  ENSO fluctuates between three phases, which we refer to as El Niño, La Niña, and Neutral.  How are they different? Let's talk about the Pacific Ocean.

Under La Niña conditions, the Pacific Ocean sees below-average sea-surface temperatures.  Strong trade winds blowing from east to west along the equator push surface water out of the way and allow deep, cold water to rise to the surface in the eastern Pacific.  December 1988 in the below figure is a good example of La Niña conditions (think colder than average surface temperatures) across the Pacific.

Data and figure from NOAA Climate.gov
Data and figure from NOAA Climate.gov

But check out the bottom image in this figure from December 1997:  the strong east-to-west trade winds that blow the warm surface water out of the way for La Niña phases have lessened or even reversed.  This allowed that warm water to pool on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean.  The water has sloshed back! The average sea-surface temperature is much higher than normal, and we call these conditions El Niño.

Notice how Peru is surrounded by warm water during an El Nino year?  South American fishermen were some of the first to notice the ENSO phenomenon, because this warm water around Christmas time could do some serious damage to their normally very productive fisheries!  They named this massive event "El Niño", in a seasonal reference to the "little boy" Christ child.

Enough about the ocean, what about the weather?

We cannot forget that what happens in the oceans is linked to what's happening in our atmosphere.  Warm water in the ocean leads to rising air and tropical storms.  La Niña phases usually have an increased amount of rainfall over Indonesia and decreased rainfall over the tropical Pacific.

http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/tao/elnino/nino_normal.html
http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/tao/elnino/nino_normal.html

El Niño years are typically the opposite, with increased rainfall over the tropical Pacific and decreased rainfall over Indonesia.

http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/tao/elnino/nino_normal.html
http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/tao/elnino/nino_normal.html

In addition to the atmospheric conditions, the above figures illustrate how water is pushed to the west in the La Niña phase and east in the El Niño phase.  Keep thinking of sloshing water in a Pacific-Ocean-sized glass.  The sloshing leads to warm or cold water at the surface and different atmospheric conditions as a result.

What does this mean for California?

I think you can see by now that El Niño is not a storm. It is not even a system of storms that will tumble through California, with enough water to save us from a series of drought years.  It is much, much bigger than that.  El Niño means changes in the ocean, which means changes in the atmosphere, which can affect atmospheric conditions and weather where YOU live.

Because we have been measuring and tracking the sloshing of the Pacific for several decades now, we can make some predictions about our atmosphere and our weather in an El Niño year like 2015. Scientists have seen the trade winds weakening and even sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific that are comparable to some of our strongest El Nino events, like November 1997.

Image fro NOAA
Image from NOAA

Some climate variables may be different from previous years, but what scientists have seen this year has lead them to predict that we might get lucky (with the rain) if El Niño conditions continue to strengthen.  In the past, El Niño has lead to wet winters in California.  Storms in the Equatorial Pacific (remember that pool of warm water?) have the chance to be swept north by a branch of the jet stream.  They might be carried far enough to the north that we will see rain in the northern parts of California.  However, there are no perfect models, and this year might be different.

Will it help the drought?

Even in this lengthy piece, I have not described all of the factors affecting our winter weather.  I simply cannot, and if you are curious, your research has just begun!  You may have heard of "The Ridge" and "The Blob" (aren't meteorologists great at naming things?), which have affected rainfall in California.  There's even a super-cool Pacific Decadal Oscillation that relates to ENSO, not to mention unknown effects of climate change on our global atmospheric patterns.

However our rainy season turns out, we should keep in mind that heavy rain on a dry landscape can mean dangers like flooding and landslides. California had trouble with this during our last strong El Niño of February 1998, so stay safe this winter!

You (and I) might want to do a little more reading:

ENSO climate.gov

Climate Patterns climate.gov

Rain in North America climate.gov

Keep the big picture in mind climate.gov

El Niño September update climate.gov

Ending the drought? news/opinion KCET

Take a deep breath, and dive in with our new Vertebrate Ecologist!

Dr. Gitte McDonald
Dr. Gitte McDonald

Next semester, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories will welcome a new faculty member: Dr. Birgitte I. McDonald.  She is replacing Director Jim Harvey as the new head of the Vertebrate Ecology Lab.  Gitte agreed to answer a few questions about herself in advance of her much-anticipated arrival!

 

Q: How did you first get interested in physiology and working with "air breather" marine vertebrates?

A: My interest in marine animals started at the age of 7 on a family trip to San Diego where the highlight of the trip was a trip to Sea World. This love of the ocean continued, leading me to study at UC Santa Cruz because of the opportunities for undergraduates to get hands-on experience through field classes and volunteering. As an undergraduate I volunteered at Long Marine Lab for the Pinniped Research in Cognition and Sensory Systems project, took many field courses, and volunteered for graduate students. Some of the most exciting field work I helped out with as an undergraduate was harbor seal captures with Jim Harvey and his students. The more I worked with marine mammals the more excited I got.

My love of physiology came a little later. When talking with Dan Crocker, my master thesis supervisor, about a potential masters project he suggested that it would be good if I expanded my “took kit” by adding a physiological component to my project since most of my previous experience involved animal behavior and ecology. I thought that was a great way to look at grad school – as an opportunity to learn new techniques and subjects - so I followed his suggestion. I am glad I did, because the more physiology I learned the more I loved it. I had always been amazed by the ability of marine mammals and birds to thrive in the marine environment and by studying physiology I was starting to understand how they were able to do it.

Gitte McDonald
Dr. Gitte McDonald

 

Q: Where are you now and what are you working on?

A: Currently I am a NSF postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University in Denmark working with Peter Madsen and Tobias Wang studying the diving physiology and energetics of harbor porpoises. I have just finished a project studying the diving heart rate in captive porpoises using modified D3tags that can measure heart rate in addition to recording sound, acceleration and pressure. This has allowed me to look at how porpoises regulate their heart rate in relation to dive duration, activity and feeding behavior. We are planning on deploying these tags on wild porpoises as soon as the field tag is ready. I plan to maintain this collaboration after I start at Moss Landing so there may be opportunities for students to use this specialized tag to studying diving physiology and energetics in wild animals.

Sea lion with data logger, San Nicholas Island
Sea lion with data logger, San Nicholas Island

 

Q: What new areas of knowledge do you bring to the Vertebrate Ecology Lab, and MLML as a whole?

A: I bring my expertise in physiological ecology of breath-hold divers. One of many reasons I am excited for the position at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory is because of the potential collaborations with the faculty. My research focus on energetics and diving physiology complements the research conducted by the existing faculty, while my expertise will provide new areas of concentration.

Additionally I hope to continue to conduct research in the Antarctic. I am excited about the possibility of introducing students to research in polar environments.

 

Q: What makes you most excited about joining MLML?

A: There are so many reasons I am excited about joining MLML it is hard to pick the top reason. I am excited to establish a research program taking advantage of the close proximity of the marine vertebrates located along the Pacific Coast. This will allow me to combine my love of field work and teaching by developing courses that provide students with a strong background in the fundamentals, while giving them opportunities to get hands-on experience.

Tagged Emperor Penguin (Photo Credit: Jerry Kooyman)
Tagged Emperor Penguin (Photo Credit: Jerry Kooyman)

Q: Do you have any special skills outside of marine science that we might like to hear about?

A: I am not sure if it is a skill, but I enjoying figuring things out. If there is a problem or something is broken I think it is fun to try to fix it. It is amazing what you can do with the help of google. I can’t promise the outcome will be the most beautiful, but it will usually be functional. I have found this skill (or stubbornness) useful in the field.

Q: When will you be moving back to the United States?

A: I fly back to San Diego on December 30 and plan to move up to Capitola the first week in January.

 

We can't wait to start working with you!

MLML Open House!

By Jackie Lindsey, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

openhouse_fbcover (1)

We know what you have been waiting all year to hear: our Open House is just over a week away!

Every year our facility opens it's doors and invites the public to come explore with us. This year we are open from 9 to 5 on May 3rd and 4th.  This event is completely free and great for all ages. We welcome you to check out our invertebrate touch tanks, watch our marine themed puppet show, check out our raffle, see the sea lion show, and participate in our other fun activities.

Open House!
Entry Way to MLML. Dive into Open House! 
Photo by: Scott Gabara

If you have been able to attend in previous years, you know that we will even cook for you!  Here is a teaser recipe from last year's table of baked goods:

Chocolate peanut clusters (gluten free & vegan)

By Jen Raanan

Shopping List:

1 bag chocolate chips (I use dark/semisweet)

1 cup peanut butter

1 large canister dry roasted peanuts (salted or unsalted, depending on your taste. I use salted because my peanut butter is low-sodium.)

Directions:
1) in a double-boiler, melt chocolate & peanut butter. Don't get water in the mixture. It ruins the chocolate!

2) Remove mixture from heat and stir in peanuts until they're completely coated.

3) Spoon mixture into bite-sized or cookie-sized drops onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper

4) Chill in fridge until chocolate sets

5) Clusters can be stored in fridge or freezer

Enjoy!

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!

One woman, one horse, and one dog: A 450-mile adventure!

By Angela Szesciorka, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

Warning, this is about horses — terrestrial mammals, yes. But as you may know, cetaceans did come from an ungulate lineage. So settle down kids.

I wanted to tell you all a little bit about my sister’s upcoming epic journey. On May 25, my sister, Samantha, will embark on a 28-day journey across Nevada on horseback. Why you ask? Because no one ever has!

This will be the first solo equestrian ride along the Nevada portion of the American Discovery Trail, the coast-to-coast trail across the United Stated from Point Reyes National Seashore in California to the Delmarva Peninsula in Delaware.

The American Discovery Trail cuts across Nevada in nine segments. It spans 496 miles across isolated backcountry wilderness. Check out the trail on the map below.

The American Discovery Trail in Nevada. Photo by discoverytrail.org.
The American Discovery Trail in Nevada. Photo by discoverytrail.org.

Samantha will ride Sage, a six-year-old mustang that she bought at auction from the Carson City Correctional Center. Sage had been part of the Center’s Saddle-Horse Training Program after the Bureau of Land Management rounded him up in 2009. He is originally from the Callaghan Herd Management Area, north of Austin, Nevada.

Sage has since become a well known ambassador — demonstrating the ability for wild horses to be successfully trained and ridden, overcoming many challenges. Samantha even rode him in the 2011 Nevada Day Parade, while carrying the Nevada state flag.

With Samantha on her journey through 14 mountain ranges, 4 state parks, and 8 counties, will be her dog Bella, a five-year-old mutt that she rescued from an animal shelter in Tacoma, Washington.

Samantha, Sage, and Bella have been doing endurance rides and training for the past two years while finding sponsors for the food and gear they will need.

Samantha riding Sage. Photo by Trevor Oxborrow.
Samantha riding Sage. Photo by Trevor Oxborrow.

She hopes to encourage wild horse adoption (many languish in holding facilities because they are not being adopted) and to highlight the American Discovery Trail, a route that cuts across Nevada’s most remote backcountry wilderness.

Her trip is being filmed as a part of an upcoming documentary about wild horses in the West, so stay tuned!

If you are interested in learning more about wild horse roundups in Nevada, watch Postcards from Nevada, a two-part series that Samantha produced while working at KTVN Channel 2, a CBS affiliate in Reno. You can find it here.

You can also watch Stampede to Oblivion, a six-part-series on wild horse roundups in Nevada can also be found here.

Samantha will have Spot Satellite GPS so you can follow her on her journey. You can read more about her trip or donate at: www.nevadadiscoveryride.com.

Donations will go to the Wild Horse Preservation League, a nonprofit in northern Nevada dedicated to preserving wild horses in the United States with other wild horse advocacy groups across the country.

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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Taking to the High Seas on the R/V Point Sur

By Angela Szesciorka, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

Last Monday, I bussed it to Santa Barbara then hopped a train to San Diego. One night in a hotel and an overpriced taxi ride later, and I was laying eyes on the R/V Point Sur for the first time since November 29, 2012, on it’s way back from its 17,000 mile round-trip journey to Palmer Station in Antarctica.

The majestic R/V Point Sur
The majestic R/V Point Sur.

By this time, what was once a full house was down to 11. The crew consisted of a mix of those who had spent the past five months on the boat and in Antarctica, and a few others who had boarded in Mexico two weeks prior to my arrival.

Much to my delight, I was not the only scientist on board. Ashley Wheeler, a master’s student in geological oceanography, had boarded in Mexico in April to work with the Naval Postgraduate School collecting oceanographic data.

Unlike the Antarctica crew, who were probably packed in, I had my own bedroom and bathroom. I was also privilege to three square meals a day, crafted by an amazing chef who had no problems making inventive and delicious vegetarian food.

We couldn’t have asked for better weather, which was great, as this was my first overnight trip on a ship. Land lubber no more! I had some nagging nausea the second day, but it passed after some time outside with the ocean breeze, a handful of ginger chews, and an iron will!

So why did I trek all this way to jump aboard the R/V Point Sur?

This trip was the kick-off of my thesis project, which, among other things, will include an assessment of the risk of ship-whale interactions in the shipping lanes off California. To do this I need to figure out where the whales are. And this of course is done with old-fashioned shipboard surveys.

Most of my time was spent standing in front of the bridge scanning the sea for whales with my trusty binoculars and Rite in the Rain data sheets. I stared patiently out into the expansive and seemingly empty blue ocean.

After about 16 hours of surveys, I saw 11 whales (mostly humpbacks), dozens of California sea lions, gangs of bow riding dolphins, and sea birds, which preferred wrack lounging to flying.

I was also lucky enough to have Ashley keep me company the whole time during my surveys. Thanks, Ashley!

Ocean life seems to agree with me. Of course I might get a little homesick after months at sea, but being on a ship in the middle of the ocean had a freeing feeling. And the crew made excellent conversationalists. (And did I mention the food!?!)

Next up: get on as many cruises as I can. Some one recently suggested cruise lines. Not a bad way to do thesis field work!

Humpys!
Humpys!

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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