Class Cruisin’

There are days that change you. One minute you are chasing what you thought was your dream, and then something comes along that changes your trajectory. Those days are rare, and can come to define one’s entire purpose in life.

For me that day was my first day at sea, working to unravel it’s mysteries aboard the R/V Pt. Sur. I had fallen in love with the ocean before, and knew that I wanted to become a scientist, but that day would come to change just exactly what aspect of Marine Science would become my life’s pursuit. Prior to this cruise, whales and dolphins had dominated my interest in the ocean. They are charismatic and graceful, and inspire wonder in anyone able to view them in their world. I had been involved in research projects with these wondrous animals armed with a camera lens and a fast boat. So it was strange that a day at sea lowering instruments into the water and pulling them back up could supplant the sense of adventure I had already experienced. This particular cruise, however, was for the Physical Oceanography class that I had enrolled in at Moss Landing Marine Labs. Physical oceanography is the study of the physical properties of the ocean, or more bluntly, it is the study of how energy is put into and distributed in the global ocean. I had never considered it as a field I was interested in, or that it could even be an option for my career, but by the end of that day at sea, I new that I was not the same person that had left the dock.  It turned out the mysteries that I was most interested in, that appealed to me the most were not the creatures roaming the depths, but the awe-inspiring forces that shape our planet.


dsc_8312Last week I served as the Graduate Assistant for that same Physical Oceanography class and was able to observe the students in my class going through this same experience that had such a profound impact on me. The goal of this cruise was not simply to expose students to the joys of working at sea, but to hunt for elusive giants in oceanography: internal waves.


Our cruise path for our day’s sampling. We samples this stations in order twice with a stop to change crews in between.

Internal waves are very similar to the surface waves you are most likely familiar with, with the exception that they oscillate within the ocean rather than at its surface, like the waves you may have surfed. The difficulty in studying these waves, however, is that they occur in parts of the ocean that are challenging to reach and require special instruments to be able to detect. One such suite of instruments is called a CTD (Conductivity Temperature Depth), which is lowered through the ocean via a winch and measures the key components of density in the ocean, namely temperature, salinity (extrapolated from conductivity) and pressure (depth). These properties are unique throughout the world ocean and determine how internal waves behave because just like at the surface, waves propagate along density boundaries. The second tool we use to detect internal waves is an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP), which in simplest terms is an underwater speaker and microphone that makes a sound at a known frequency (pitch) and then listens for the return signal. The change in that pitch is related to the direction and speed that the current the sound wave passes through. You’ve undoubtedly experienced this if you’ve ever been standing still when a truck passed you blaring its horn. The sound at the truck is never changing, but since it is moving away from you, you perceive a pitch change. As internal waves pass the ADCP the velocity of the water at various depths tells us a lot about the characteristics of the internal waves.


The data we get back from the ADCP looks like this. Its broken down into the Eastward(U) and Northward(V) components of the velocity. The instrument also records quality control information (percent good) as well as the strength of the return.

As I watched my class donning life jackets and hard helmets, fighting the roll of the ship and the occasional wave spilling over the aft deck, straining to guide the heavy instrumentation on and off of the deck, wet and tired but undaunted, I couldn’t help but return their beaming smiles. Working aboard an oceanographic vessel is no simple feat, but for some reason nobody ever sees it as work. Not the first time, and not the 1,000th. It is an endless adventure that will continue to reward the persistent. I can certainly appreciate that not everyone gravitates to the field of oceanography as I have. But I can say with confidence, having seen it in the eyes of my students, that there is something universally magical about one’s first research cruise. I experienced it and it changed my life. The beauty of this field is that, there’s always something new to learn and experience.


The view aft of the rising sun behind the iconic smoke stacks in Moss Landing. On the deck is our CTD Rosette, which is lowered through the water column at each station.





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The 100th Year of the Western Society of Naturalists

WSN 2016 Conference

2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the Western Society of Naturalists (WSN) meeting as well as the 50th for Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML). Fittingly, this year’s WSN conference saw MLML emeritus professor, Dr. Michael Foster, receive the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award for crucial work studying the population and community ecology of marine macroalgae.

Six of MLML’s specified laboratories were represented by students, past and present, as well as one faculty member at this year’s WSN conference. A total of 21 presentations were given with 10 being oral presentations and 11 being posters; 11 MLML alumni presented, 12 current students and 1 faculty member. They Phycology and Invetebrate labs led the pack with the most presentations. Below is a list of highlights from those presentations.


MLML faculty along with students, past & present, taking a group photo with Lifetime Achievement Award winner Mike Foster. (Photo Source: Heather Kramp).

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Micro is King

Hello dear readers. We realize things have been a bit scant lately here at the Drop In, but summer = field season and so many of us at Moss Landing Marine Labs have been off to the far corners of the globe tracking down some serious science. We hope you can forgive us, because what it means for you is a ton of great new content on the horizon!


A little preview. Is it a fly or a walrus? Who knows? (We do) Photo: Elizabeth Ramsay

First off, we’d like to invite you over to our new website, Microcosms, designed as part of a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) class being offered this fall. Microcosms will use SEM technology to turn the lens on the tiny. If you’ve ever wondered about the texture of a shark’s skin, or how sand from one beach might differ from another (and who hasn’t?), it will be a great resource. Our professor, Ivano Aiello, recently wrote a post on our anniversary blog explaining the history of SEM usage here at Moss Landing. As he explains

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Support ‘Lost’ Shark Research this SharkWeek

The diversity of sharks, rays, skates and ghost sharks has increased exponentially with nearly 20% of all new species described over the past decade.

Unfortunately, the majority of these sharks and their relatives have largely been “lost” in a hyper-driven media age whereby a few large charismatic shark mega-stars overshadow the majority of shark species, especially during SharkWeek!

While these mega-star’s, such the Great White Shark, receive much media adulation and are the focus of numerous conservation and scientific efforts, the “Lost Sharks” remain largely unknown not only to the public, but also to the scientific and conservation communities.

Please help MLML’s Pacific Shark Research Center to discover and name these ‘Lost Shark’ species. Our campaign is raising funds to do just that.

Check out the video about our project to learn more. Thanks to the support of so many, we have almost met our goal of raising $2,800. Any donation helps!

As a bonus, anyone who donates $100 receives a limited edition print of a new species of ghost shark recently described by the PSRC by world-renowned artist Marc Dando.

Thank you for supporting shark science!

marc dando blueshark

Marc Dando’s amazing illustrations were featured in the book Sharks of the World.

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Tacos, Takis, and Fish Diet: A Spring Break Saga

By: Holly Chiswell, Chemical Oceanography Lab

Andddd we’re back!

Over our spring break and the week after, 20 Moss Landing-ers drove down to Baja California Sur to conduct fieldwork on the island of El Pardito, off of La Paz…for class! The drive down took three days and we were equipped with: two trucks, a van, two large trailers, two boats, two kayaks, a metric crap ton of dive dear, camping gear, personal gear and food. The first night we glamped, aka stayed in a hotel in San Diego after a day of driving which included going through “fun” Los Angeles traffic trying to get truck drivers to honk their horns. Apparently this is what entertains a car full of students in their mid to late 20s. The next morning, we crossed the border into Mexico, filled out the visa paperwork and trucked on.

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By Catherine DrakeInvertebrate Zoology Lab

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.


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

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)

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Opening Up Open House: a Behind the Scenes Look

If you’ve been following the blog more recently, you’re most likely aware that our Open House is coming up this weekend, April 30-May 1, 8AM-5PM. This event is a huge draw for the community every time we hold it, and this year promises to be one of the largest ever as we are also celebrating the 50th anniversary of Moss Landing Marine Labs! I greatly urge you to check out the official 50th Anniversary blog, found here, for a bunch of great reads about how this small “lab that could” came to be the vibrant center of marine research that it is today.


The importance of this event cannot be understated. Open House functions as an excellent source of funding and outreach. It provides the students with a chance to project their research to a wider audience, while also providing the public with an interactive and fun way to see just what it is we do here at Moss. Most importantly, the money we raise at this event feeds directly back to the students in the form of student body events and scholarships such as the MLML Scholarship Award and the WAVE Award. The recipients of this year’s awards (funded by last year’s Open House) were awarded just a few weeks ago, and many recipients will be giving talks about the work this money is funding (see our schedule of events here). I think this is an excellent way to donate to the community in a way that is both tangible and meaningful.

Open House is also run entirely by the students. From the puppet show to the bake sale to the lab activities to the sea lion show, everything you see has been planned over many months. Even the logo on our shirts is designed and voted on by the student body. I realize that for most people, all they see is the shiny, finished product. But there is so much heart and sweat and pizza-fueled meetings that go into this event, that I thought it would be a fun thing to show you readers a bit of what goes on “behind the scenes,” while also giving you a little sneak-peak on the events you can expect to see this weekend!

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