• Kat

A Day in the Life: Eels and Plankton!

Updated: Nov 29, 2019


I am a fourth year PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, working with Dr. Rita Mehta and Dr. Tim Tinker. This is my third summer doing field research on Catalina, but my first as a Wrigley Fellow. It’s also my first year as a mentor in the two internship programs they have at WMSC. Join me on a typical day of work!

5:30 am – My alarm goes off, and I groggily stumble out of bed, throwing on a swimsuit and field clothes (not the most attractive articles of clothing, but they’re quick-drying and offer UV protection).

6:00 am – One of my summer interns, Ryan, arrives at my house at WMSC’s campus for a quick communal oatmeal breakfast. With the support of the Wrigley Fellowship, I’m able to live and work right on the WMSC campus – just a short walk from the places and people I’m working with every day.

6:30 am – We’re down at the WMSC waterfront, gathering our dive gear and research supplies. This morning, we’re headed out complete habitat surveys around four moray eel traps that we set the previous night, part of a summer intern project headed up by Ryan. The environmental data we gather will be used to examine if habitat correlates with certain skin color and pattern in California moray eels (Gymnothorax mordax). Skin/scale color and pattern has been commonly investigated for brightly colored tropical fish, but no studies have examined if the environment can select for certain colors/patterns in temperate systems. California morays are an especially interesting study system, because we know from years of trapping eels on Catalina that they exhibit a subtle but wide variation in color and pattern. They also show very little movement as adults and are ambush predators that depend on blending in with their environment.

7 am – We’ve loaded up the dive gear on our favorite WMSC research vessel, the venerable Loper. Our research equipment this year includes a (very) large whiteboard for photographing eels, three buckets, a crate of moray eel measurement tools, two black disks for measuring water turbidity, a transect tape, and a heavy reel of chain for measuring substrate complexity.

7:30 am – Ryan and I do a final buddy check, do a back roll off the boat, and are soon descending into the cool darkness of the kelp forest. Before we start taking any measurements, we’ll check each trap first to see if there are any morays inside. Then, we’ll take data on substrate type, surface complexity, and turbidity around the trap.

8:30 am – We’re back on the boat, and Ryan expertly navigates to each trap, and I haul them up. We’ll briefly anesthetize each eel before taking a variety of measurements. To make sure we don’t record the same eel twice, we put a tiny radio tag inside its tail. And most importantly for our project, we make sure to take a photo of each individual using a special camera!

10 am – All the eels have been released, and now it’s time to get back to Wrigley. Once back onshore, we’ll wash our gear and clean up the datasheets (and my stomach is telling me it may also be time for a snack!).

10:30 am – I spend some time finalizing and then presenting a 45-minute research talk to a visiting class of high schoolers. Being able to contribute to various Education & Outreach activities at WMSC is another benefit of being a Wrigley Fellow!

2:30 pm – Having finished my talk, it now time to turn my attention to my other intern, Elena. My main dissertation work at UC Santa Cruz focuses on the factors that influence dispersal of larval fishes. Last summer, I began a side project examining which environmental factors influence plankton community diversity (with a focus on larval fishes) in different coves. Elena is using the same plankton sampling technique to examine octopus paralarvae, the planktonic life stage of octopuses. To start our afternoon work off, we’re using dissecting microscopes to sort some of our plankton samples for larval fishes and cephalopods.

3:30 pm I’m showing Elena how to use the high-quality dissecting microscope and its attached microscope camera in Dr. Karla Heidelberg’s lab. Elena will be using the spot patterns on the paralarvae to age and identify individuals.

4:30 pm – As the sun slowly sets, Ryan and I reconvene, and make the 2.5 mile drive to Cat Harbor. Cat Harbor is the highly turbid, south-facing cove on the opposite side of the isthmus from Two Harbors (so technically on the other side of the island!). In past years, we have not trapped extensively for eels in Cat Harbor due to the logistical difficulty of getting traps over from Wrigley. However, of the few eels we’ve captured, several have had unusual color patterns. These individuals galvanized the coloration project, and so we’re determined to trap more rigorously in this site.

5:30 pm – With the traps deployed, Ryan and I return to the car and head back to WMSC. During the drive, we commiserate over our mutual exhaustion – field research is not for the faint of heart (or the short on sleep!). We both agree to get a good night’s rest -- tomorrow morning, we’ll meet again at 6:30 am to prepare for surveying the traps and eels in Cat Harbor.

6:30 pm – Over dinner, I spend some time completing my daily field notes, filling out my dive logs, and cleaning my gear. Another day is in the books!


Katherine Dale / 130 McAllister Way, Santa Cruz CA 95060 
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