Posted by: pointreyesscience | June 18, 2010

A day in the aquatic rodeo

I take a wide stance in the boat, tensing up my muscles like a farm-cat stalking a gopher. I dangle the orange-and-white buoy at my side. A good toss will go a long way toward proving my field chops.

Scientists with Moss Landing Marine Laboratories tag a red-coated harbor seal on Tomales Bay. Photo credit: Elizabeth McHuron.

I get the signal and huck the buoy with all I’ve got. It goes about six feet. So do I. Off-balance, I fall flat on my butt. Just as I regain my footing, we lurch to a stop on a sandbar, and I tumble into the prow. Everyone’s out of the boat and onto the sand before I can get up again.

The buoy marks the end of a massive net. We’ve spread it across a school bus-sized length of beach in Tomales Bay—a popular sunning spot for harbor seals. The net goes taut as we start to pull. Soon, five seal heads pop out of the water. As we tug them back to land, the seals slap the sand with their flippers and snort like cartoon bulls. This is my introduction to the extreme sport of seal wrangling.

Today, I join about 10 researchers and volunteers to help in the long-term monitoring of Point Reyes’ harbor seal populations. Jim Harvey with the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, Calif. has been tracking the behavior, feeding habits and health of these grunting creatures for many years. Back at our makeshift research camp, we weigh and measure the seals, clip dog tags to their flippers and take blood, blubber, mucus and whisker samples for later analysis.

Research Associate Liz Wheeler from The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif. also gives the seals a shave. The hairs we collect from small patches may help Wheeler and Harvey to learn why harbor seals have started to go ginger. Most harbor seals are gray-and-black but over the years, scientists have noticed a number of rust-colored individuals mixed-in. These redheads look elegant, but their coloring may hint at a hidden danger to the species. The team thinks that exposure to toxins may turn an ordinary seal’s fur red. In Moss Landing, researchers will test the follicles we collect for selenium and other metal poisons.

On our way back home, I sit in the boat feeling more seal than human. My back is mottled from an uneven sunburn, my lips taste like saltwater and I smell like fish. I’m invigorated, but I relish the thought of my wool socks back on shore. It’s good to have dry feet.

-Daniel Strain

Posted by: pointreyesscience | April 1, 2010

New Summer Paid Internships!

Students removing invasive mudsnailsWe have recently announced a few new paid internships this summer at Point Reyes National Seashore.  These internships are funded by the National Park Service Youth Internships Program (YIP), which is designed to provide internships within the National Park Service to youth aged 16-25, particularly those from minority or under-represented populations.

Compensation ranges from $1300-$1700/month, depending on education and experience.

To apply, send your cover letter, resume, and two references via email by April 16, 2010 to:

Jessica Luo
Ocean Education & Outreach Coordinator
Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center

Call Jessica at 415-464-5132 if you have any questions!

Natural Resource Internships:

Flyer for 2010 Youth Internship Program
Position Description for Youth Internship – Fisheries
Position Description for Youth Internship – Interdisciplinary
Position Description for Youth Internship – Giacomini Wetlands
Position Description for Youth Internship – Dune Restoration

Research Internships:

2010 Marine Ecology Field Research Internship Announcement
2010 Part-time Marine Ecology Field Research Internship Announcement (for undergraduates only)

For more information, see the PCSLC internships page.

Posted by: cassandrabrooks | February 15, 2010

Understanding the ecology of native Olympia oysters in Tomales Bay

Native Olympia oysters once flourished in Tomales Bay, but overharvesting and pollution caused their demise by the early 1900s.  Despite a century without fishing, the oysters still have not recovered.  Join me as I interview local oyster ecologist and UC Davis professor, Ted Grosholz, and his graduate students about what factors are preventing the oysters from rebounding.

To watch the audio slideshow, click here.

To listen to just the podcast, click here.

Posted by: cassandrabrooks | January 29, 2010

Death cap mushrooms at Point Reyes National Seashore

Deathcap mushrooms (also known as Amanita phalloides) are found throughout the Point Reyes region and are the most poisonous mushrooms in the world. But they’re fairly new arrivals here. They invaded the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1930s, likely brought over on cork trees from Europe for the wine industry.  By the late 1960s, deathcaps were found in Tomales Bay State Park and have since spread throughout the Point Reyes Peninsula.

Benjamin Wolfe, a graduate student at Harvard, is studying the mushroom’s invasion here in Point Reyes.  He’s using genetics to study their abundance and distribution, trying to understand what controls and confines their invasion.

I sat down with Ben in his mushroom lab at Harvard to find out more.

To watch the audio slideshow, click here.

To listen to just the podcast, click here.

Posted by: cassandrabrooks | January 18, 2010

New Findings about the Great White Sharks of the North Pacific

Just a couple weeks ago, I interviewed Scot Anderson, a local researcher who has studied Great White Sharks in the Point Reyes region and the Farallons for more than two decades.  Anderson described his recent findings about the sharks, including how they follow a strict migration path between the West Coast of the United States and the Hawaii region.  He and his colleagues with Stanford’s Tagging of Pacific Predators Program also found that the sharks off the North Pacific are genetically isolated, meaning they don’t mate with other Great Whites throughout the world. Watch and listen as Anderson describes the incredible details of how to tag a Great White Shark.

To watch the audio slideshow, including some fantastic Great White Shark images, click here.

To listen to just the podcast, click here.

Posted by: cassandrabrooks | January 6, 2010

Climate Change and the California Coast

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I drove down to Pacific Grove, California to meet with NOAA oceanographer Frank Schwing to talk about how climate change is impacting the California Coast, including changes in upwelling patterns, dead zones, and how many of the native California marine species may begin moving north.

Listen to this special two part Natural Laboratory podcast to learn more. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

The Natural Laboratory is also on iTunes.  Just search “The Natural Laboratory” on the iTunes Store and subscribe or listen for free!

Posted by: cassandrabrooks | January 6, 2010

In Search of the Humboldt Squid

In late fall of 2009, I joined scientists off Monterey Bay on a fishing adventure in search of the  Humboldt squid, Disodicus gigas. These voracious deep-water predators, which can grow to up to ten feet long, are new arrivals to the central California coast.  Scientists from Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station are studying the squid, trying to understand why they’ve moved into the northeast Pacific coast and what affect they might have on the local ecosystem.

View my audio slideshow “Fishing for the Humboldt Squid” which includes fantastic pictures of the squid and squid scientists, including some underwater images by MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute).

Or click here to listen to the audio podcast.

The Natural Laboratory is also on iTunes.  Just search “The Natural Laboratory” and subscribe or listen for free!

Posted by: cassandrabrooks | January 6, 2010

The Natural Laboratory teams up with KWMR

The Natural Laboratory podcasts are now being aired on the local West Marin radio news station KWMR!

Visit and search “Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center” or “Cassandra Brooks”to listen.

Posted by: cassandrabrooks | November 12, 2009

Local endangered tidewater gobies making headlines

In late October, I stood on the banks of a lagoon just off Indian Beach in Tomales Bay State Park with a bucket of endangered gobies in my hands.  We had collected the fish a few days prior, from the recently restored Giacomini Wetland, one of the few places in the region that still has a tidewater goby population.  We moved them here to the State Park with the hopes of re-establishing a goby population in a place we knew would be protected from coastal development.

To learn more about the gobies and their release, check out my narrated audio-slideshow:

The return of the endangered tidewater goby!

On the day of release, it appeared that every news outlet within a fifty mile radius was there to record it.  My favorite part was when a couple journalists asked, “So where are they?”  As we walked towards the dozens of cameras, carrying a few gobies inside small glass jars, they said  “That’s the endangered goby??” Yes indeed, gobies aren’t the magestic bald eagle, or the sleek and hefty coho salmon, but they are an important part of the ecosystem nonetheless.


Photo by Mason Cummings/PRNSA

Its not every day you get to be in the news and writing the news.  Here are a couple links to some of the local stories.

ABC-7 News in San Francisco

Rare fish gets helping hand in Tomales Bay

In the Marin Independent Journal

Tiny rare fish with a grand plan in West Marin

Local radio station, KWMR story on the gobies, as reported by Jacoba Charles.

And here’s my story in published with the National Park Service

Parks work to protect endangered goby

Also keep an eye out for our story in the West Marin Citizen weekly newspaper, which will hit newsstands Thursday Nov. 19.

Go gobies!

gobyjar VII

Photo by Mason Cummings/PRNSA

Posted by: cassandrabrooks | October 22, 2009

Visit to Tomales Bay Wetland

wetlandscape II

Tomales Bay wetland, Point Reyes National Seashore (photo credit: Mason Cummings/PRNSA)

It’s another gorgeous fall morning at Point Reyes National Seashore and a perfect day to be out monitoring one of the many lush wetlands in Tomales Bay.

Donned in waders and weighed down with buckets and fish seining nets, we tromp through the thick marshland vegetation doing our best to avoid getting sucked into the many mud puddles.  The tide has receded enough for us to cross Fish Hatchery Creek and to continue trekking across the marsh, which would be buried under a foot or so of tidal water during high tide.

netting V

Seining for fish (photo credit: Mason Cummings/PRNSA)

Our first site is a small flooded pool, which serves as a refuge to fishes and other marine creatures when the tide recedes.  We monitor the pool by taking water quality measurements, including temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and conductivity, all of which serve as indicators of how healthy the pool is.

We then dip a fish seine net into the little pool to see what fishes occupy this refuge.  Little sticklebacks and Arrow gobies, not more than one to two inches, flop in the net. We quickly measure and jot down the size of each fish before returning them to their home.

work IV

Tomales Bay wetland water quality and fish seine sampling (photo credit: Mason Cummings/PRNSA)

We move on towards Lagunitas Creek, slowly trudging through the mud.  With each step the air fills with sucking and slurping noises as the mud tries to wrestle our boots from us.  We make it to the edge of the creek, boots caked in mud but still attached to our feet and clamber down the slippery bank to do another water quality assessment and fish seining.  Here we find very little but a Bay pipefish among the eelgrass.

The landscape is gorgeous today, with the vast wetland stretching out in all directions under a clear blue sky.

work V

The field team sorts fish from the net (photo credit: Mason Cummings/PRNSA)

Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems on earth and provide food, shelter and nesting areas for a wide array of bird and fish species.  Many juvenile fish find a safe have here, before making their way out to the open ocean.

Because of their high productivity, however, many wetlands here in the Point Reyes region were converted into farmland.  Developers built levies and dykes to obstruct the water flow and created ripe agricultural land, primarily cattle farms.  As resource managers learn more about the importance of wetlands in maintaining regional biodiversity, some are being restored.

One year ago this weekend (Oct 25 and 26, 2009), the Giacomini Dairy Ranch here in Point Reyes had its levies knocked down and has since been gradually returning to marshland.  The new Giacomini wetland has restored roughly 560 acres, which amounts for more than 50 percent of the original Tomales Bay wetlands. Many birds and other animal species have now returned.

Today we are assessing a specific region of the Tomales Bay wetlands that has never been stopped up with levies or dikes.  It will serve as a comparison for the Giacomini wetland, so we can monitor its restoration progress.  Among the species we hope will return are the endangered tidewater gobies, Steelhead trout and Coho salmon, none of which we have found in our sampling today.

We move on to another small pool, where we pull up more sticklebacks, arrow gobies and Plainfin midshipmans.

netting III

Seining for fish in Fish Hatchery Creek (photo credit: Mason Cummings/PRNSA)

The tidewaters are flushing back in, quickly filling and covering the marshland.  We wade across Fish Hatchery Creek, stopping to make one last water quality and fish assessment.  As we drag the net through the creek, the cold water presses the waders tight against my legs and chest.  I pull my suspenders as high as possible to keep the rising waters from spilling over the rim of my waders.

We pull in the net and find a small school of topsmelt, their long silvery bodies shimmering in the sunlight. Among the larger topsmelt are a few more sticklebacks and Arrow gobies, but none of the endangered gobies or salmon.  We didn’t expect to find any of the endangered fish, as they are so infrequently found in the regional surveys.  But hopefully with the newly restored wetlands, these endangered fish will begin their recovery.

fish I

Measuring the length of a top smelt (photo credit: Mason Cummings/PRNSA)

For more information on the anniversary event this weekend, visit

For more information on Giacomini Wetlands Restoration Project, visit

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