Working with “mer-dogs” aka California Sea Lions

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Mason Cole of the Vertebrate Ecology lab authored this post on California Sea Lions as 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.)

Allow me to introduce Cali and Nemo, two California sea lions with the project SLEWTHS (Science Learning and Exploration With The Help of Sea lions, founded and directed by Dr. Jenifer Zeligs).   Continue reading

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Disentangling a Difficult Situation

This week’s story is a continuation of the MS211 Marine Mammals class series and comes to us from Bradley Wilkinson, a graduate student from San Jose State University.

I had never seen so many whales before in my life. Standing atop Southeast Farallon Island, bracing against the rails of a relic lighthouse, I commanded an unequaled view of the surrounding seascape. To the northeast, Pt. Reyes stood before Bodega Bay, forming an extreme limit to my far-reaching gaze. The Golden Gate Bridge was blatantly obvious to the east, framed nicely against the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. To the south and west, endless blue. Huge container ships waiting for port entry outlined the invisible lanes of industrial traffic.


The lighthouse on Southeast Farallon Island offers an amazing view of the surrounding Gulf of the Farallones for whale observations. Photo: Bradley Wilkinson

But the whales. The whales were everywhere, stealing the proverbial show. Spouts popped off in every direction, grouped in conglomerates of nearly a dozen on occasion. In total, I counted over eighty whales of three species that afternoon, in only one hour of effort. The extreme productivity of the Gulf of the Farallones had attracted this concentration of cetaceans, a predictable patch of food nested with the dynamism and variability of the oceanic environment. But just below the surface, sharing the water column with swarms of krill and schools of anchovy, lurked a lethal threat. I had seen them while onboard the sailboat to the island. Although only a small part of each one was visible at the surface, I knew much more lay beneath. This paradoxically obvious yet invisible threat was both insipid and borne of abandonment. Derelict fishing gear.

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A Day on the Water Tagging Whales


Brijonnay Madrigal of the Vertebrate Ecology lab authored this post on whale tagging as part of Dr. Gitte McDonald’s Marine Mammal class blog series. 




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]

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. Continue reading

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Monterey is Expensive: The cost of disturbance


Heather Barrett recording sea otter behavior during a disturbance scan.

Guest post by Heather Barrett of the Vertebrate Ecology Lab.

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. Continue reading

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Exploring the beach: A gateway to science

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Guest post by Tyler Barnes of the Geological Oceanography Lab.

To say that I was not intrigued by science as a teenager would be an enormous understatement. I despised science. I often attribute uninspired teaching and an inadequate education system for this reaction, but in reality I was just a moody teenager preoccupied by other interests (for the record, I have enormous respect for the teachers and administrators that have influenced my education). My disregard for science at the time is somewhat surprising. My earliest memories included being unwillingly dragged away from the beach after hours of exploration, or learning to cast a fishing rod just right so as not to snag a tree branch. These experiences morphed into forecasting swells with my dad before surfing and competing in local junior lifeguard competitions. So why was I so uninterested in science? Continue reading

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Environmental Changes are Influencing Individuals, Not Just Populations

Written by San Jose State University graduate student, Abram Fleishman.

Each December my news feeds, from Facebook and Twitter to professional listservs and
mainstream news sources, are inundated by a flood of stories about one bird. Not one
species of bird, but actually a single individual living on one of the most remote islands in one of the most remote archipelagos in the world. A bird that if it was not beautiful, elegant, and most of all old, no one would care about.


Wisdom preens her freshly-hatched chick on Midway Atoll. (Photo: Naomi Blinick)

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Life on the beach: My first field season as an elephant seal researcher

Third installment of the blog series by students enrolled in MS 211: Ecology of Marine Mammals, Birds and Turtles with faculty member Dr. Gitte McDonald. 

By Kate High, SJSU undergraduate taking classes at MLML


Mel re-sighting elephant seals. Photo source: Kate High


Interning in the Vertebrate Ecology Lab at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory this past year has given me countless opportunities to participate in activities most undergraduate students at SJSU might not know exist. I began training for elephant seal research at Año Nuevo State Park at the beginning of January. Even though I’ve had a lot of field experience, I can honestly say I have never been more nervous about a field day in my life. Continue reading

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