Skip to content

The strongest El Niño event on record has now been declared officially ended. For the past year and a half or so El Niño and a separate oceanographic phenomenon known as 'The Blob' have been battling it out for supremacy over weather and productivity in the northeastern Pacific, particularly in the California Current Ecosystem. It seems that The Blob, an area of unusually warm water stretching across the north Pacific from Japan to North America, had been in effect since 2014, and the arrival of El Niño combined with it to further depress productivity along the west coast of North America.

I've been recording temperatures in my seawater table at the marine lab for many years now. It has been only in the last year or so that I've made a concerted effort to record the temperature every day, but in general I have temperature data for at least several days a month going back to 1994. This morning I thought it would be interesting to compare 2016 temperatures with last year's elevated El Niño temperatures. These are the data from 1 January through 26 July of both years:

Temperature in my seawater table at Long Marine Lab. 26 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Temperature in my seawater table at Long Marine Lab.
26 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The data are discontinuous in both years, but there are a few things to note. In the winter and spring there isn't much difference in temperature between 2015 and 2016. Things change in April, when the 2016 temperatures are higher than in 2015. The El Niño was still in effect this past spring, which is reflected in the water temperatures. In May things get interesting. Starting in about mid-May 2015, the water temperature rose up to 15°C and remained at least that high for the next few months, with a handful of recordings as high as 18-19°C (data not shown). So far in 2016, the temperature has not exceeded 16°C in my table, and since mid-May has been averaging in the 14-15°C range.

A difference of 2°C may not seem like a big deal at all. One of my goals this summer was to collect plankton samples periodically and see if I could detect any biological signs that El Niño was abating. Of course, those plans got waylaid by the accident; I haven't looked at a plankton sample since 27 April 2016. On the other hand I did manage to get out into the intertidal a few times after the accident, and noticed some differences from last year:

  1. Okenia rosacea, the pink slugs that were everywhere in the intertidal last year, were much less abundant and a lot smaller this year. Last year it seemed that everywhere I looked I saw what looked like blobs of pink bubble gum spattered all over the rocks, along with their egg masses. This year I've seen Okenia but they aren't nearly as conspicuous as they were last year.
  2. Same goes for the large sea hares, Aplysia californica. Last year they were big weighty animals, common enough to make it hard not to step on them, and their spaghetti-like egg masses were everywhere. Seriously, many of the sea hares last year were two or three times the volume of my cupped hands. I did see several of them at Franklin Point last week, but they were much smaller.
  3. I don't have any quantitative measures or species-specific observations, but the algae seem more lush this year. And judging by what has been washing up on the beaches, the diversity is up, too.

We're in that time of the year when the good low tides disappear for a couple of months, so there won't be any more tidepooling excursions for me until October. Given the non-functioning condition of my brain, it's probably just as well. I hope that some time this fall I can do some real science again, as it would be very interesting to see first-hand how the biota responds to the end of El Niño. Brain health must come first, though. For the time being I will have to content myself with eavesdropping on science and doing the little bits that I can.


This week saw the last of the good morning low tides of 2016. By "good" I mean a minus tide that hits during daylight hours. There are two more minus tide series in August, with the lows occurring well before dawn. After that the next minus tides don't happen until mid-October; these will be late in the afternoon so loss of daylight will be an issue. I wasn't intemperate enough to risk the health of my concussed brain on this week's low tides but did want to get out if possible. And I'm so glad I tried, because having been out on the past few days' low tides I feel more myself than I have since the accident. My head hurts a little, but not nearly as much as it would have if I'd done any significant driving two weeks ago. And, I have pictures to share!

Wednesday 22 July 2016—Davenport Landing

I went up to the Landing to collect some animals that I'll need for my Fall semester class. The full moon was still visible, as the sun hadn't yet risen above the bluff.

Full moon at dawn over Davenport Landing beach. 20 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Full moon at dawn over Davenport Landing beach.
20 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A month after the summer solstice and the algae are still nice and lush. Here's a nice combination of mostly reds and greens, with some brown kelp thrown into the mix. How many phyla can you spot?

Mishmash of algae at Davenport Landing. 20 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Mishmash of algae at Davenport Landing.
20 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

One of the two local species of surfgrass, Phyllospadix torreyi, was blooming. A month ago I'd noticed the congeneric species P. scouleri blooming at Mitchell's Cove. These surfgrasses are vascular plants rather than algae, and as such they reproduce the way the more familiar land plants do, by pollen transfer from male to female flowers.

Flowers of the surfgrass Phyllospadix torreyi at Davenport Landing. 20 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Flowers of the surfgrass Phyllospadix torreyi at Davenport Landing.
20 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

In the case of these obligately marine surfgrasses, the pollen is carried by water rather than wind. Not having to attract the attention of animal pollinators, the flowers have not evolved elaborate morphology, color patterns, or nectar rewards. They actually don't look like much more than swellings near the base of the leaves. Some day I'll remember to take one of the flowers back to the lab and dissect it to see what it's like on the inside.

Thursday 21 July 2016—Franklin Point

This was the day I was most worried about. The drive up to Franklin Point takes about 30 minutes, and I hadn't driven that distance since the accident. To make things even scarier, I couldn't find someone to go with me. In the end I decided to try getting up there and back on my own, figuring that if my head wasn't happy with the driving I could always turn around and come home.

When I got there it was cold and very windy, and I was glad I'd worn an extra thermal layer. Up on the exposed coast it is often windy on the road but can be less windy below the bluff on the beach. Yesterday it was windy on the beach, too, more typical of an afternoon than a morning low tide. The wind rippled the surface of the tidepools, making visibility and picture-taking difficult. I tried and didn't have much success.

Coming over the last dune down to the beach I noticed four or five gulls and a couple of turkey vultures milling about at the mid-tide line. Something must be dead, I figured. And yes, it was very dead.

Scavenged elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) carcass on the beach at Franklin Point. 21 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Scavenged carcass of a California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) on the beach at Franklin Point.
21 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

During last year's El Niño we saw lots of sea hares in the intertidal up and down the coast. And they were big, heavy football-sized monsters. Yesterday I saw many sea hares, but none of then were larger than my open hand and most were quite a bit smaller. Nor were there any egg masses on the rocks. This guy/gal combo (they're both, remember?) was about 15 cm long.

Sea hare (Aplysia californica) at Franklin Point. 21 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Sea hare (Aplysia californica) at Franklin Point.
21 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

By far the most unusual thing I've seen in the intertidal this year was a swarm of shrimpy crustaceans. Last year at about this time I witnessed a huge population of small sand crabs (Emerita analoga) in tidepools at Franklin Point. Yesterday the swarmers were swimmers, not burrowers. I think they had gotten trapped in this large pool by the receding tide. Not having any better idea of what they were, I'm going to say they were mysids. Mysids are quite commonly encountered in local plankton tows but I'd never seen them in the intertidal before.

Swarm of mysids in a large tidepool at Franklin Point. 21 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Swarm of mysids in a large tidepool at Franklin Point.
21 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

All those brown, orange, and white streaks are mysids. They are about 2 cm long, zooming around super fast. See for yourself:

Swarming mysids at Franklin Point
© Allison J. Gong

My first, rather idiotic, thought was that these were krill. They're about the same size as the krill species most common in Monterey Bay, so perhaps the thought wasn't quite that idiotic. (but krill in the intertidal? yeah, that's idiotic. although stranger things have happened and the animals is always right even when it does something that seems idiotic) However, it didn't take me long to realize that these critters didn't actually look like krill. They didn't have the feathery gills under the thorax that krill have. I also noticed that some of them were brooding eggs in a ventral pouch on the thorax, making them members of the Peracarida. Okay, then. Definitely not krill, so maybe . . . mysids? They look like mysids and so far nobody has told me that they're not mysids, so I'm going to call them mysids.

The sun came out as I finished up in the tidepools. I hiked back up the very steep sand dune and looked back at where I had come from. Wow. Talk about stunning vistas!

View of Franklin Point from atop the last (and steepest) sand dune. 21 July 2016
View of Franklin Point from atop the last (and steepest) sand dune.
21 July 2016

Friday 22 July 2016—Natural Bridges

Today was by far the best day this week for picture taking in the intertidal. However this post is getting long so I'm going to showcase the crabs I saw this morning.

Pachygrapsus crassipes is the common shore crab, ubiquitous in the intertidal and at the harbor. It lives in the mid-tide zone and hangs out among the mussels. It is a shy beast, not aggressive and is more likely to drop into the nearest pool if it detects movement nearby. However, if you sit still for only a few minutes, you'll find yourself noticing many small crabs coming out to bask in the sun.

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges. 22 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges.
22 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges. 22 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges.
22 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Here's a little tidbit about crab biology. All crustaceans breathe with gills. Any gas exchange structure, even your own lungs, functions by providing a surface across which oxygen can diffuse from the surrounding medium into the animal's blood. Aquatic animals breathe with gills (if they have any specialized gas exchange structures at all, that is) and air-breathing animals breathe with lungs.

These crabs are often seen out of the water, in the sun. How then, you may reasonably ask, do they breathe with gills? The answer is, they foam. They produce bubbles that keep the gills moist, allowing oxygen first to dissolve into a thin layer of water and then to diffuse into the blood. I'm not entirely certain exactly how the crab forms the foam, but suspect it has to do with manipulating a thin layer of secreted mucus to capture small air bubbles. You do see the crabs massaging the foam over their sides, where the openings to the branchial chambers are.

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) bubbling at edge of mussel bed at Natural Bridges
© Allison J. Gong

Hermit crabs are the undisputed clowns of the tidepools. Around here we have four species that are commonly seen in the intertidal, all in the genus Pagurus. Many other species in different genera can be seen subtidally.

The most easily identified hermit crab in these parts is, in my opinion, Pagurus samuelis. They have bright red unbanded antennae, and often have bright blue markings on their legs. This species usually inhabits the shells of the turban snail Tegula funebralis.

Blue-banded hermit crab (Pagurus samuelis) in tidepool at Natural Bridges. 22 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Blue-banded hermit crab (Pagurus samuelis) in tidepool at Natural Bridges.
22 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The other species that I saw today was the much smaller P. hirsutiusculus. The common name for this animal is "hairy hermit crab" but they don't seem all that hairy to me. They may be found in small Tegula shells, but I most often see them in shells of smaller snails such as Olivella biplicata.

"Hairy" hermit crab (Pagurus hirsutiusculus) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges. 22 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
"Hairy" hermit crab (Pagurus hirsutiusculus) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges.
22 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

There's another P. hirsutiusculus in that other Olivella shell in the right-side of the photo, but it did not want to have its picture taken.

All told it has been a very satisfying week. I may have overtaxed my concussed brain a little bit. My plan for the weekend is to revert back to the rest-and-do-nothing routine to let my brain recover. Totally worth it!

I sort of assume that people appreciate the importance of honey bees. And then, every so often I am forcibly reminded that, even in the fairly ecologically savvy city where I live, there are those who would rather destroy honey bees than live with them. Fortunately, sometimes I am also reminded of the resilience of honey bees and the remarkable ways that they have adapted to living with humans.

Case in point. About a year and a half ago one of my students told me about a colony of bees living in a eucalyptus tree in his neighborhood, on a corner two blocks from the ocean. I went to check it out, and indeed there were bees coming and going from a hole about 3 meters above the ground. They seemed to be perfectly happy in the tree, and I was happy to know that they were there. I looked in on them every once in a while and noticed that in the early fall the entrance to the colony had been sealed up with some gunk that looked like white foam.

Given the stresses on honey bees these days—pesticides, varroa mites and other parasites, as well as some of the practices of commercial beekeeping—one of the most valuable things a hobbyist beekeeper can come across is a locally adapted feral colony. Local adaptation means exactly what it sounds like: bees that have evolved to survive and thrive in the conditions of a particular area. They will have survived multiple winters and whatever parasite load comes along with the location. While there would be a change in the royal regime every 2-3 years on average, the lineage of queens would be producing viable, vigorous workers. Beekeepers want to know that alleles from these locally adapted feral colonies are in the gene pool in which our queens are mating. Most of us would love to catch a swarm thrown by one of these locally adapted colonies (we may have done that earlier this season, in fact).

Yesterday I got a third-hand phone call about a "swarm of bees in a tree in such-and-such a neighborhood" and did I want to capture them? Mid-July is late for swarms, and after the caller mentioned what street they were on I realized we were talking about the feral colony I'd kept an eye on for the past year. I went down and looked at the tree, and noticed that the bees were in the same tree but had moved within the tree.

Feral colony of honey bees in a eucalyptus tree. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Feral colony of honey bees in a eucalyptus tree.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The bees are coming in and out of that orange blotch on the trunk. More about that later. This is a new opening as of this year.

Old and current openings to a feral colony of honey bees. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Old and current openings to a feral colony of honey bees.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

There was zero activity around the 2015 entrance. The two entrances are less than a meter apart on the outside of the tree, but there is no way to know whether or not the internal cavities are connected. The absence of bees near the door they were using last year suggests that the spaces are not connected. I wish I had a fiber-optic camera, because I'd love to see what's going on inside that tree.

What's going on outside the tree is a lot of coming and going.

While the neighbors and I were watching all the coming and going, I got a little of the backstory of this colony. The neighbors next to the property where the feral colony lives told me that there have been bees in that grove of eucalyptus trees for the 15+ years they've lived in their house. Last year, when the bees were in the lower entrance to the colony, the owner of the house on the corner called in an exterminator to poison them. The bees died but the cavity in the tree still contained wax and honey, which would be very attractive to a swarm looking for a permanent address. It appears that the bees currently residing in the tree either found or made themselves a new door, which at some point in recent months had been sealed up with foam (the orange stuff). They chewed through the foam and are carrying on as if nothing had happened.

Honey bees returning to a feral colony in a eucalyptus tree. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Honey bees returning to a feral colony in a eucalyptus tree.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Why would somebody pay to have an exterminator poison a colony of honey bees that is posing no threat? The reason must be fear and ignorance. This colony is high enough that the bees' flightline is well above head height, and I imagine most people walking right next to the tree don't even realize that the bees are there. However, fear is a powerful motivator, with ignorance coming in as a close second. The property owners decided that the bees were either a nuisance or a danger, and had them dealt with accordingly. Their neighbors, on the other hand, are happy to know that the bees are there to pollinate their gardens. I've asked them to keep in touch and let me know if they see anything interesting happening at the tree, and they've agreed to let us put a bait hive out there next spring to see if we can catch a swarm from this locally adapted colony.

One potential problem is that at some point in the past year or so the interior of the tree has been poisoned at least once. I don't know what poison was used (it might not be difficult to find out but at this point I don't want to bother--concussion, remember?) or its half-life in honey and beeswax. It could be that the bees living in the tree now are doomed because they've been exposed to the pesticide, or that any swarms they throw contain contaminated bees. I will keep watching this colony, though, crossing my fingers that they can continue to thrive despite the unfortunate activities of their closest human neighbors.


Some friends have asked what it's like to have a concussion, and how my recovery is going. I think it's hard for them to understand why, almost six weeks after the accident, I'm still having so many problems. Since this is my first concussion I don't really know what to expect, but having consulted with a neurologist last week I feel assured that my recovery is on the right track. As a reminder, on Saturday 21 May 2016 I was in a head-on collision; two days later I was diagnosed with a concussion. The CT scan showed no brain swelling or bleeding.

I decided to address the "What is it like?" questions by listing the common symptoms of concussion and describing how I am experiencing them.

Symptom 1 -- Loss of consciousness. I did not lose consciousness at any time after the accident. I remember quite a lot of the accident itself, the arrival of the EMTs and ambulances, getting my vitals checked in the ambulance, and getting ourselves to the ER.

Symptom 2 -- Headache. After the accident the worst pain I had was around my ribcage. Actually, everything hurt. I didn't notice the headache as a separate pain until Sunday when I tried to grade my final exams. Since then the headache has been a more or less constant companion. It gets a lot worse when my brain has been overtaxed or overstimulated (more on that below). The headache doesn't feel like a tension headache and it isn't localized. It's a dull diffuse pain that feels like my entire head is being squeezed under the skin. The best thing to do when the headache gets bad is to lie down and close my eyes. Looking at computer screens is very taxing on the brain, which is why it is taking me three days to write this post.

Symptom 3 -- Amnesia, confusion. I didn't have any amnesia right after the accident, and I passed all of the cognitive evaluation questions the EMTs asked me ("What day is it?" "Who is the President of the U.S.?" "How old are you?" etc.). I knew where I was and how I had gotten there.

Symptom 4 -- Dizziness, vertigo, nausea. This has been strange. On Monday, two days after the accident, I started experiencing a bit of vertigo. I would move my head and it felt like the world was taking a while to catch up. Also, I could read printed words on paper, but when I tried to read my students' hand-written answers on their final exams the words swam around on the page. I gave that up as a lost cause and went back to the ER. This general wooziness resulted in some mild nausea.

There was a very early morning almost four weeks after the accident when I woke up feeling seasick. I took an anti-nausea pill and went back to sleep, and when I woke up for real a few hours later I felt no seasickness at all.

Symptom 5 -- Cognitive deficits. I have these in spades, although I don't know if anybody else can tell. For the first couple of weeks after the accident my head felt very foggy and it was difficult to process information. I'd walk around with a nectarine in my hand wondering what I was supposed to do with it. Oh yeah, those want to be eaten. I couldn't really type, either. I could, but letters would come out in strange orders, as though my typing were dyslexic. That has gotten better recently.

I'm still having trouble carrying on detailed conversations. I can think of the words I want to say but they don't make it to my mouth. And it feels like it takes me a very long time to process an answer when somebody asks me a question. What do I want to eat for dinner? Um. . . .

And yet, occasionally I can act with my usual decisiveness. Sometimes I feel as though I have my act together, and at other times. . . I don't even know what my act is supposed to be.

My internal clock, which normally does a pretty good job of keeping track of elapsed time, is all out of whack. As is my ability to judge how long it will take to do a given task. This is rather a drag, as I'm used to my brain acting as a clock I don't have to look at to tell the time. I suppose part of this deficit is due to the fact that I'm not spending as much time outdoors as I normally would in the summer, so I'm missing time cues that I should be catching.

Symptom 6 -- Sensitivity to light and sound. As of now, six weeks post-accident, this is the most severe of my symptoms. It takes surprisingly little visual or aural stimulus to completely overwhelm my brain. Crowds, movement, the clinking of silverware on plates in a crowded restaurant, loud music, children playing (I think it's their high-pitched voices that do it)--all are hell to me right now. There is no such thing as background noise to a concussed brain. Every sound pushes to front and center, demanding attention and energy that my brain simply cannot give. My brain reacts by hurting and trying to withdraw my consciousness from my surroundings. I can cope in the short-term by closing my eyes to shut out all visual stimuli, but I can't close my ears and there are some sounds that dig their way into my brain. A massive headache ensues.

Right now there are two major construction projects going on at the marine lab, which makes the lab a very unhealthy place for me to be during the week. Fortunately there's no construction work on weekends, so I can retreat down there for an hour of peaceful time with my critters. But even the running water through the seawater system makes a lot of noise; I'd never paid much attention to it before, except to notice when it was suspiciously quiet in the wet labs, but now it can get to me. I find that I need to minimize my time at the marine lab, period.

Driving remains extremely difficult for me. I can drive myself to and from the marine lab, but that's about it. And even doing that little amount of driving causes a headache and wipes me out for the rest of the day. I'm not having flashbacks any more (more about that below) but my heart jumps every time a white car unexpectedly catches my eye. Driving takes so much concentration that my brain just isn't up to it. I'm also fairly certain that my brain function is compromised enough to have slowed my reaction time. All in all, I don't feel anywhere near competent to get behind the wheel of a car and drive any longer than 10 minutes.

Symptom 7 -- Sleep disturbances. Dealing with these has been very strange. I've been sleeping a lot. At the beginning of my recovery I was taking 3-5 short naps every day, as lying down and closing my eyes was the only way to rest my brain. As the recovery continues I'm now a teensy bit more able to deal with sight and sound, and am down to 1-2 naps a day. But I also sleep late in the morning, which is extremely unusual for me. The past few mornings I have been sleeping past 07:00; usually in mid-summer I'm up at first light, or earlier if there's a low tide to be had. I assume all this sleep is what my brain needs to heal.

Every night since the accident I have had crazy, vivid dreams. Some of them are borderline lucid dreams, in which I know I'm dreaming. And then things get sort of meta, when I think "This is a really strange dream I'm having right now."

Symptom 8 -- Changes in appetite. I am constantly hungry. All the time.

Symptom 9 -- Psychological difficulties. I am definitely more irritable than I was before the accident. The niceties of polite conversation feel like such a chore that they just don't seem worthwhile. I never was good at making small talk; now I find that having to do so really taxes my brain and gives me a headache. In this particular regard it seems that my natural introversion has been augmented by the concussion.

I've also noticed that my language filter has deteriorated quite badly. It is much easier these days for f-bombs to escape before I can hold them back. Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with the concussion but is because I've been watching "Game of Thrones" and "Orange is the New Black." Those shows will definitely increase one's tolerance for f-bombs and c-bombs.

For about a week after the accident I had flashbacks that occurred randomly throughout the day. I'd feel my body tense up for no apparent reason, then expect to hear the sounds of the collision and explosion of the air bags. I still get that momentary tensing when a white car suddenly appears out of the left side of my field of vision (the car that hit us was a white Honda sedan). And I really don't like being in a car. The flashbacks aren't happening nearly as frequently now, though, and that's a good thing.

Symptom 10 -- Hallucinations. I don't have either visual or auditory hallucinations, per se, but there is almost constantly a snippet of music running through my head. This isn't all that unusual for me; I seem to be very susceptible to infection by earworms. Since the accident one piece that my subconsciousness is obsessed with is Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien. Why? Who knows. It happens to be the first piece of classical music that I remember from childhood, and maybe that's significant. Other random bits of music running through my head at any given moment are Christmas carols ("Good King Wenceslas"; "Il est né, le divin enfant"; "In dulci jubilo"), old folk tunes ("My darlin' Clementine"), the "Et in terra pax" movement from Vivaldi's Gloria, and lately the opening riff from The Fixx's "Saved by Zero." Is there rhyme or reason to any of this? Not that I can see.

One interesting thing that the neurologist told me was that with concussions, the severity of the symptoms doesn't typically correlate with the prognosis for full recovery or the time it takes to reach full recovery. Very often, he said, patients who report very mild symptoms either take a long time to heal or don't reach 100% recovery. Of course, this led me to ask whether my symptoms would be considered mild, moderate, or severe. He smiled and said that my symptoms are congruent with a full recovery, then warned that it will be a slow process. I shouldn't be surprised if it takes several months or a year not to have any symptoms.

One good sign is that my condition has improved quite a bit since the accident. Now that it's July I need to start working on my class for the fall semester. I'm going to be taking things very slowly and resting/napping as necessary. I will continue to minimize my social activities and very gradually re-enter the world as my brain allows. Although I miss the field activities I had planned to do this summer, I'm learning how to do nothing, which can be sort of rewarding in its own way.

%d bloggers like this: