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Bay Watch

At Hopkins Marine Station, scientists and students probe secrets of the sea.

Norbert Wu

SAFE HARBOR: Protected as a marine refuge since 1931, the waters around Hopkins provide a breeding place for harbor seals, who lazily go about their business as the scientists go about theirs.

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By Joe Hlebica

Carved into the Central California coast is the massive crescent of Monterey Bay, swept by beaches, limestone cliffs and granite outcroppings. Near the bay’s eastern midpoint, a slough fans out into an estuary of tide channels and mudflats. Sediments flowing from the slough have, over the eons, scoured the seafloor to create the bay’s dominant feature: a submarine canyon. This gorge—in some places plunging 3 miles down, or triple the depth of the Grand Canyon—is a conduit for cold, nutrient-rich waters that well up to feed the inhabitants of the bay.

The profusion of life here is overwhelming, from tiny red algae to giant kelp, from bloodbelly jellies to vampire squid. Shark, shrimp, egret, otter, abalone, anemone—all make their home in Monterey Bay.

At the bay’s southern end is a cove pocked with tidepools and shallows, home to the venerable Hopkins Marine Station. The third-oldest marine field station in the United States and the oldest on the West Coast, Hopkins was established in 1892 as a place where Stanford students and faculty could do field work in marine biology. Since then, thousands of undergraduate and graduate students have taken classes and conducted research at the station, which operates as a branch of the department of biological sciences. Hopkins scientists—neurobiologists, taxonomists, zoologists, molecular geneticists, ecologists, embryologists and more—have earned important research prizes, including the nation’s first Presidential Science Award in biology (1964), as well as a long string of teaching awards.

“Intellectually and geographically, we’re well positioned to contribute to the natural sciences,” says station director George Somero, ’64, PhD ’67, the Packard Professor in Marine Science. The 11-acre site along the shore of Pacific Grove, just west of Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, “is a field biologist’s dream spot,” says Mark Denny, the DeNault Professor in Marine Science/Biomechanics. Denny has a lab on the landward side of the Hopkins campus, “but this is the real lab,” he says, sweeping his arm toward the water. “The bay is a confluence for northern and southern species, and Hopkins is where many organisms described in the literature were first collected.”

Location, location, location. Protected since 1931 as a state marine life refuge, the area around the station offers a kaleidoscope of habitats for researchers to explore, including rocky shore, beach, reefs, pilings, sandy seafloor, kelp forest and open water. “Talk about diversity,” Denny says. “This property is a cross section of nearly every habitat you can find along this coast.”

His habitat of choice is the wave-washed intertidal zone, where colonies of black mussels cling to the rocks and crabs skitter through nooks and crannies. Denny uses engineering principles to learn how these and other tide-pool inhabitants endure the forces of breaking waves. “Nowhere on earth does water move as violently as on wave-swept coasts,” he wrote in the benchmark Biology and Mechanics of the Wave-Swept Environment (1988). “It’s pretty sheltered here [at the station],” he adds, “but we’ve had storm waves measuring up to 7 or 8 meters.” That’s as tall as a two-story house, packing a wallop comparable to a 1,000-mph wind (if winds could blow that hard).

How much of a beating can a black mussel take? A lot, says Denny, who calls the ubiquitous bivalve “the 800-pound gorilla of the intertidal” for its surprising stick-to-itiveness. Using data from his mussel research, he can now predict what amount of a mussel bed will rip out in a year anywhere in the world, based on wave forces typical in that area. Denny is also studying how waves affect kelp.

While Denny’s humble creatures hang on for dear life, swimming giants roam the seas under the watchful eye of physiological ecologist Barbara Block, who leads some of the station’s most publicized studies. In a global project called Tag-a-Giant, Block and her team have tracked Atlantic bluefin tunas migrating from North Carolina in winter to the Gulf of Mexico in spring and Nantucket in the fall. They have also pursued Pacific bluefin, the largest tuna species at more than 1,000 pounds, from Japan to California. “Tunas are the Olympians of the sea,” says Block, the Prothro Professor in Marine Science. “We’re interested in how their bodies work—their hearts, their muscles and their incredible swimming efficiency.”

In a separate study off the Monterey coast, the group discovered last year that “local” great white sharks can roam thousands of miles into the Pacific. “What we are seeing is that this is a cosmopolitan species: they go where they want to go,” Block says of the great white, previously considered a relative homebody.

Her team’s findings come from electronic “tags” implanted beneath the fish’s skin. The device, essentially a small computer, records information as the fish swims freely for months at a stretch. Transmitted to the researchers via satellite, the data include depths, swimming ranges, water and body temperatures and light levels.

Block’s research technician, Andreas Walli, describes a recent tagging trip aboard a long-range sportfishing boat out of San Diego. “We tagged about 50 in a few days. Bluefin are the most exciting because they’re the most powerful tuna. To shorten the fight time, we use heavy tackle, which stresses them less. Aboard the boat, we place them in a neoprene cradle that protects their skin, flush their gills with seawater to keep them breathing, and cover their eyes to calm them. Implanting the tag takes less than a minute, and then they’re right back in the water. We’re up fishing at 5 a.m. and at it until 9 p.m.; then we spend the night programming tags. It’s a hell of a fishing trip.”

Results from the Tag-a-Giant project are clarifying the physiology, population sizes and migration routes of highly elusive species that were nearly impossible to track before. The information may suggest ways to conserve stocks threatened by overfishing. “Block’s work is particularly important in this effort,” says Dave Wilmot, director of the Ocean Wildlife Campaign, a Santa Cruz-based coalition of six of the nation’s largest conservation groups. “The conservation of bluefin evokes a lot of passion, pro and con, because they’re so [commercially] valuable. There has been a lot of what we call ‘results-oriented science.’ The fishing industry in particular has manipulated data to support its overly optimistic assessments of bluefin populations. Block’s team is asking complicated questions to which there are no easy answers, yet research of this caliber coming out of Hopkins is something we can hold up to the public with all confidence.”

Invertebrate neurobiologist William Gilly studies a different kind of giant. The Humboldt squid, a legendary deep-diving monster reaching lengths of up to 14 feet, has some very strange characteristics, “including the ability to control the color of its skin,” says Gilly, a professor of biological sciences. “They seem to use skin color to communicate with each other, flashing messages in red and white.” Gilly’s studies may help decode those messages, and his work with Humboldt squid in the Sea of Cortez is the subject of a National Geographic documentary now under production.

Gilly also studies venomous cone snails, whose harpoonlike teeth inject paralyzing venom into prey. Though most cone snails live in tropical waters, he focuses on a species in the Monterey Bay. “We’ve learned that this cone snail is omnivorous and seems to hunt communally, much like ants, which is unusual. I’ve even seen them gang up on a squid, clinging to its tentacles. And it seems the snail can adjust its venom chemistry to subdue various prey. That’s neat, because no other higher-order organism that we know of can do that.”

It all started with David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president, whose scholarly passion just happened to be fish. Having studied at Harvard under Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, Jordan launched the field station in the spirit of his mentor’s famous pronouncement, which shook the foundations of American biology: “Study nature, not books.”

From the time he came to Stanford, Jordan wanted to establish a field station on the order of the premier Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass. Three years after the University opened its doors, some 35 scientists and students were probing nature’s secrets at what was then called the Hopkins Seaside Laboratory of Leland Stanford Junior University.

Jordan’s pet project found enthusiastic financial support. An acre of land and an initial $500 grant came from the Pacific Improvement Company (Southern Pacific Railroad), owned by Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington and C.F. Crocker. Jordan named the station in honor of Mark Hopkins’s son, Timothy, a founding trustee of Stanford who initially donated $1,000. Timothy Hopkins also paid for construction and later repairs on the first laboratory building, a rather flimsy structure on an outcropping now called Lover’s Point.

In the early days, students spent six-week sessions at the station, joining their professors on the 90-mile train trip from Palo Alto. Once settled in Pacific Grove, they’d rise at 2 a.m. each day to bicycle 10 miles down the coast to Carmel. In the tide pools of Carmel’s Point Lobos, pristine compared with those near Cannery Row, they collected specimens to study at the lab.

As the fledgling station grew and its once-quiet cove at Lover’s Point became popular with bathers and beachcombers, the University sought a more spacious and private location. In 1912, Stanford acquired five acres at nearby China Point, where the station’s first permanent structure, the stately Agassiz Building, was erected. The Loeb Building was added in the 1920s, providing much-needed lab space on the expanding campus.

Around that time and along these shores, a free-thinking naturalist created the field of marine ecology. Ed Ricketts wasn’t exactly a Hopkins scientist; he was a University of Chicago zoology dropout who came to Monterey Bay to open a business supplying prepared microscope slides. “Ricketts was a remarkable scientist and a remarkable character who probably invented modern marine ecology,” says Stuart Thompson, a professor of biological sciences at the station. Ricketts was also something of a maverick, scorned by academics in his time. “The first director of Hopkins didn’t get along with him,” says Mark Denny, “so Ricketts would have to wait until he was out of town to sneak into the library with the help of some sympathetic professor.” But the work Ricketts accomplished with the help of Hopkins resources gave scientists a new view of the marine world as a web of ecosystems, spurring later generations to study the interrelationships among organisms and their environment.

Over the years, Ricketts prepared countless specimens collected in local tide pools and on field trips to distant regions like the Sea of Cortez and the Alaskan Panhandle. He cataloged and classified them with specialists at Hopkins and wrote a groundbreaking paper about the effects of tides on ecosystems. During his forays up and down the West Coast, he kept meticulous notes, published in 1939 by Stanford University Press as Between Pacific Tides. This major work, now in its fifth printing as a standard desk reference, was the first field guide to classify species based on the physical characteristics of the coastal ecosystem, organized by constraints such as wave impact, tidal exposure and type of ocean bottom.

Ricketts, a close friend of John Steinbeck’s (see sidebar), inspired the gregarious “Doc” of Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s 1945 novel made Ricketts a reluctant celebrity and his lab an unofficial tourist attraction. Notwithstanding the flamboyant portrayal, however, colleagues described Ricketts as a quiet and thoughtful philosopher and a dedicated field biologist. Floris P. Hartog of Stanford Press called him “the best mind I have ever known,” and Steinbeck, in a foreword to The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951), memorialized Ricketts’s dedication to teaching. “Some he taught how to think, others how to see or hear,” Steinbeck wrote of his friend and collaborator, who died in a train wreck in 1948. “Children on the beach he taught how to look for and find beautiful animals in worlds they had not suspected were there at all.”

Today, a bust of the self-made scientist and mentor rests with raffish dignity atop the card catalog in the station’s library.

Teaching and mentoring remain at the heart of the Hopkins experience. In fact, researchers here are working with more undergraduates than ever as Stanford places growing emphasis on fostering creativity and career development through mentoring and small-group learning.

“One of the initial motivations for a student to come to Hopkins Marine Station is the exotic or even romantic notion of studying biology at the seashore,” observes Jim Watanabe, a lecturer in invertebrate zoology and kelp-forest ecology who teaches and advises undergraduates at the lab. “Students want to stand on a rocky shore amid crashing waves, asking how organisms thrive in this alien environment, or how the nervous system of a sea slug works, or how a sea urchin embryo develops.”

Courses are diverse, from biochemistry and molecular biology through physiology, neurobiology and biomechanics to population and community ecology. Instructors try to pull these topics together for a more comprehensive view of how things work, says Watanabe, ’75. The courses also provide lots of opportunities for hands-on science, blurring the boundary between teaching labs and research labs.

Classes are rigorous and small, usually 10 to 20 students. Faculty, rather than teaching assistants, lead the laboratory and discussion sections, and are readily available to meet with students outside of class. (“Official office hours are nonexistent, since our office doors are nearly always open,” Watanabe says.) Students typically get to know the faculty quite well and vice versa. “Here, learning and teaching take on a much more personal demeanor than most undergraduates are accustomed to,” Watanabe notes. “Most of our students respond by thriving. For many, this is their first opportunity to experience what working biologists really do.”

Undergraduates can complete many electives for the biological sciences major while living at the station, much as the earliest students did. Classes also are open to students in other majors and from other universities. Many undergrads who come to Hopkins arrive for winter quarter, continue with the spring course—conducting an individual project under close faculty supervision—and extend their studies through summer. For some, the results of almost a full year’s work at the station become an honors thesis or a publication in a scientific journal.

Jenny Marshall began focusing on the venomous cone snails in Gilly’s lab during her junior year. “Doing the spring project definitely gave me a taste of life as a researcher, including both the triumphs and setbacks,” recalls Marshall, ’01, who now conducts research for a biotech firm in Fremont, Calif. “And it was great to be sharing this experience with several of my peers, learning from their experiences as well. I decided to continue my work on the cone snails that summer and through my senior year, coming down about once a week as well as doing some work on equipment on the main campus.” Marshall shaped her findings into a senior honors thesis—and, this past August, published a collaborative research paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, the Biological Bulletin.

“I think it all boils down to a curiosity about the world and how it works,” Watanabe says. “We provide opportunities for students to exercise that curiosity. Learning new things, and seeing old things in a new light, are large parts of our stock-in-trade. Our students also find that learning about biology and doing biology are two sides of the same coin—an impression that’s hard to get from large lecture courses or scripted labs.”

That is, of course, if they can pull themselves away from the view. As Marshall says, “You can’t beat classrooms that overlook the ocean, where harbor seals sun on the rocks and whales and dolphins swim by.”


Joe Hlebica writes for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.

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