Monday, February 1, 2010

Morro Bay Marine Biology Field Trip - Jan., 2010

My husband Garen works at Santa Monica College teaching Marine Biology. His winter term class got to go to Morro Bay, (Central Coast California), over the weekend and for the first time, I got to go along!
Our day started at Morro Rock to watch a family of Sea Otters. "But wait, that's a squirrel you say?" Yes. I wanted to include this photograph because the student pictured above came for his second time and brought tortillas just for this little fat guy he nick-named Rocko. I took his preparedness as a good omen for the day.
Obviously feeding wildlife should not be encouraged, but how could we resist the charms of Rocko? Who, as you can see, is doing pretty well for himself.
A 40 mile drive up the coast from Morro Bay led us to San Simeon where the once severly endangered Elephant Seals rest, and mate from now until mid-February. During the late 1800's it was estimated that there were as few as 20 Elephant Seals left along the coast. Once hunted for their dense blubber, they have now recovered to numbers that range in the 200,000 - 300,000 count.
It's good to be the King. A male Northern Elephant Seal can weigh in at as much as 5,000 pounds.
They are not the most graceful animals out of the water although when provoked to defend their "herem" of females, they move quickly and often draw blood.
Focused on one thing, males often run the smallest seal pups into the sand in their pursuit of females. It would be like parking a Toyota Corolla on top of a seal pup. I am glad I didn't witness this.
As Garen was giving a quick lecture to his students who were gathered in the parking lot, he taught them the official term for Bachelor Males who are herem-less, drifting off to the side waiting for the Alpha Male to turn a blind eye.
"Sneaky Fuckers." Yup. You read that correctly.
Garen mentioned that only about 30% of Elephant Seal Pups make it out of their first year. But while on the beach they gain up to ten pounds a day, feeding on their mother's milk that is 55% fat. Cows milk is 4-5% fat to give you a comparison. Essentially, if out of harms way, the pups lay in the sun, drinking mayonaise-like milk, then snoozing until their next feeding time.
Waves along this part of the Central Coast were pretty big over the weekend.
Another view of the coastline where the Elephant Seals come in to the beach.
Could be California, could be New Zealand. I love living here.
So I practiced a Daily Ocean Community Beach Cleanup with his class and I have never seen a cleaner beach than the one at Los Osos's State Park! I found 4 items of plastic. One of them is pictured above.
A fishing pole with the line still in the reel, tangling all kinds of kelp and other sea debris in it.
Fishing line seemed to be the most common plastic pollution found on this beach, but there was only very little of it.
Feeling foolish for sending 20 students out onto a nearly prisitine beach to collect trash for 20 minutes, I quickly realized that in fact this was a cause to celebrate!

I told them about my blog, and collection efforts in Santa Monica to contrast the beach they were on, inviting them to talk to me about beach pollution and the plastics saturating our oceans if they wanted to. But in the end, they had a 2 pound collection from a 20 minute stroll, giving them the chance to enjoy what a beach should look like.
Next we explored some tide pools, getting the chance to enjoy Sea Anemones like this one.
Or the chance to pick up this "Alien" as one student put it. Actually it is some kind of multi-armed starfish whose official name I have forgotten. Sorry Garen.

As Garen waited for his students to crawl over the last of the rocks to the final cove, he brandished a piece of Bull Kelp that he later taught is also called "Sperm Kelp."
A view of the tide pools at Los Osos (The Eyes)
If you eat this green algae off the rock, you get extra credit. Garen had one taker.
My time out at the tide pools ended by watching a Snowy Egret walk amongst the sea foam. Beautiful.