Dawn Goley and her students take stock of marine mammals along the North Coast

Dawn Goley

THE SEARCH FOR STELLER SEA LIONS begins with analyzing the weather. In Humboldt County's unpredictable summer conditions, that can mean starting out at 4 a.m. after a good weather report, only to learn about 15-foot seas from the NOAA buoy moments after setting out. When you're the primary scientific team studying marine mammals along 400 miles of California's coast, you have to be ready at a moment's notice.

And that study is exactly what Professor Dawn Goley and her team of students are undertaking with the Marine Mammal Education and Research Program at Humboldt State University. Their long-term goal is to conduct baseline studies to better understand the ecology of marine mammals that live here on the North Coast. Their short-term goal is to get out on the water, and right now would be nice. Luckily, today, the weather cooperates.

Sea lions dot the surface of Redding Rock, five miles offshore from Gold Bluffs Beach north of Orick, Calif. Approaching the rock, the smell of bird guano and sea lion dung can be overpowering. But it's important to stay downwind of the animals, so they don't catch the scent of humans and swim away.

Professor Dawn Goley and graduate students Allison Fuller and Carrie Hudson on boat

Professor Dawn Goley and graduate students Allison Fuller and Carrie Hudson attempt at least two sea cruises each week as part of their ongoing surveys of marine mammal populations.

ON A FOGGY AND gray day with passable ocean conditions, we hit the water with Goley and graduate students Allison Fuller and Carrie Hudson. The trip will take us from Trinidad Head to Point St. George Lighthouse, seven miles off the coast at Crescent City. Part of the day's mission is to survey populations of Steller sea lions for Fuller's graduate research as well as to collect data on gray whales. The data produced by these studies, funded by the National Marine Mammal lab, will also be used by a network of researchers up and down the coast.To understand the significance of a professor and a few students in a Zodiac inflatable boat off the coast of California, one must consider that as recently as 15 years ago, little was known about the populations of marine mammals in this part of the Pacific.

Diving Into Open Waters

IN 1996 DAWN GOLEY came to HSU to broaden the Biology department's reach into marine mammal science after the retirement of Professor Jake Houck years before. Having focused on the behavior of Pacific White-sided dolphins while earning her doctorate at UC Santa Cruz, Goley found that dolphins rarely visit the nearshore waters off the Humboldt coast. So she established long-term studies to document the natural history of marine mammals on this stretch of coastline. With her first three graduate students, Goley created the Marine Mammal Education and Research Program, a formal scientific organization that could delve into the world of marine mammals along the North Coast.

"Undergraduates were banging on my door for research experience, so after I created the program, I invited them to join our team. They gained valuable field experiences and I and my graduate students benefited from the enthusiastic and dedicated assistance. The science and the students were both well served by us working together," says Goley. "With so much coast to cover and the long-lived and highly mobile nature of marine mammals, this collaborative approach has helped us fill in the gaps in our knowledge."

Marine mammals are notoriously difficult to study, because many travel widely as part of their normal migration patterns – and they live so long. In the north Pacific the conditions at sea often preclude consistent contact with the animals as well. These factors place even more importance on creating a larger community of researchers who must work together to collect data and share their findings.

"It's like starting with a box of puzzle pieces, and it takes a long time for a picture to emerge," says Goley. "But now that we know more, we can ask more detailed questions about their ecology and behavior."

Much of the early research was done in response to the reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Passed in 1972, the MMPA was the first piece of legislation to effectively halt the harvesting of all marine mammals in the U.S. By 1994, the act was up for reauthorization and members of Congress set about refining the bill.

After more than 20 years, the MMPA had worked well for some species and not so well for others. Specifically, some populations of seals and sea lions off America's west coast were thought to have increased beyond historic levels and, in some cases, were potentially feeding upon endangered salmon. Political leaders sought input from the scientific community to inform the reauthorization process.

"I came up here at a time when we knew very little about the marine mammals along the coast and was met with a federal mandate to describe the abundance and actions of the local seals and sea lions. How big were the populations? Were they eating endangered salmon? And if so, what impact were they having on these populations?" Goley says. "I was charting new waters in my career when I first arrived, and I have been engaged in and loving this type of research ever since."

The Marine Mammals of California's North Coast

The rocky shores of the North Coast are home to an array of inhabitants. Here are some of the marine mammals most commonly sighted in the region. Of course, this list isn't comprehensive. According to HSU's Telonicher Marine Lab, humpback, sperm and blue whales, dolphins, porpoises and even orcas can be spotted on the North Coast.

Illustrations by Pieter Arend Folkens

Marine Mammals of California's North Coast
  • Steller Sea Lion
    Eumetopias jubatus

    Listed as a threatened species, these marine mammals breed on the North Coast, and both the males and females live here. Yellowish in color, with a rounded head, their size sets them apart: the male Steller sea lion can reach 11 feet long and weigh almost 2,500 pounds. Like California sea lions, they walk on all fours when on land and have external ear flaps.

  • California Sea Lion
    Zalophus californianus

    These intelligent and playful creatures can be spotted surfing waves or performing for audiences at aquaria. They don’t breed on the North Coast but the males are regular visitors to our shores (you won’t see females here). Their faces resemble dogs’.

  • Harbor Seal
    Phoca vitulina

    Harbor seals can be identified by their mottled coats that range from gray to dark brown. They lack external ear flaps and move on land by pulling only with their front flippers, dragging their bellies behind. Since they favor near-shore waters, you’ll see both the males and females at beaches, mudflats, bays and estuaries. They truly call the North Coast home and give birth to their young here.

  • Gray Whales
    Eschrichtius robustus

    During the summer, gray whales feed in the near-shore waters of the North Coast, the southernmost edge of their feeding area. Some make the 12,000-mile annual migration from Alaska to their Baja California breeding grounds, but some forgo migration – a key question for researchers. Reaching up to 52 feet and weighing 36 tons, these giants live for over 50 years. Identify gray whales by their mottled appearance and, instead of a fin, look for bumps along their dorsal ridges. In 1995, gray whales were removed from the endangered species list.

Chasing the Pack

OUT ON THE WATER, the fog keeps much of the coast shrouded as we move north toward the rookery of the Steller sea lions - where they give birth - and their haul-out sites, where they leave the water for temporary respite on land.

With its twin outboard motors, the boat drones as the team takes its first survey of the day at the Turtle Rocks, a mile off the coast of Patrick's Point. Spotting no seals or sea lions, the team quickly decides to press on toward Redding Rock, five miles offshore from Gold Bluffs Beach at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Graduate student Allison Fuller is at the helm. Through MMERP, she's become a certified boat pilot and is at ease maneuvering the Zodiac. "I've made the trip to Redding Rock at least 30 times. Maybe even 50 times," she says, hinting at the dedication required to conduct this sort of long-term survey.

Becoming skilled at operating watercraft isn't part of most students' undergraduate or even master's-level work. Asked what she gets out of her involvement with MMERP, Fuller pointed to the possibilities the program affords.

"I am beginning to see what a unique opportunity it is to work on my project at Humboldt State," she says. "It began with tagging along on Steller sea lion and gray whale surveys a few years ago, to now actually being able to operate the boat and conduct surveys.  I have definitely become more marketable in the marine science job field."

As Fuller approaches Redding Rock, she cuts the motor and picks up her digital camera with its 400mm lens. She's looking for the marks that identify individual sea lions.

"I love getting to see the Steller sea lion bulls show up to hold their territories and the females with their pups. To see a marked animal that we have seen year after year – it's enthralling," says Fuller.

Ocean Images

ABOVE LEFT: Groups of sea lions take rest breaks on coastal rocks, known as “haulouts.” While many rocks serve as haulouts, seals and sea lions only choose specific sites for rookeries, where they give birth to their young. ABOVE RIGHT: This cow and calf pair of gray whales was spotted off the North Coast. While most gray whales migrate seasonally, a small proportion forgo full migration – but no one knows why. Goley has spent 12 years researching the reasons why some whales don’t summer along the North Coast.

"Together we can really make a difference in the local and coastwide understanding of the role that local marine mammals play in the larger picture," says Goley, adding that these studies are long-term by their very nature. Pinnipeds, fin-footed marine mammals, can live 30 to 40 years. To truly understand such a population, the MMERP students attempt two sea cruises per week, as well as shore-based surveys conducted by undergraduates and volunteers.

Goley and her team also work closely with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory and the National Marine Fisheries Service on coastwide initiatives focused on understanding the population dynamics of gray whales and Steller sea lions – so a trip of this nature can inform a number of different projects and lend valuable field experience to graduate and undergraduate students at HSU.

Contributing to the Bigger Picture

THE WORK THAT GOLEY and her students conduct through MMERP contributes to a larger understanding of the environmental health of the region, which in turn empowers policy makers to set guidelines knowing they can rely on the quality of scientific data.

As a member of the Marine Life Protection Act's Science Advisory Team, Goley relies on information collected by her team to assess proposed sites. The assessments will help inform legislators as they attempt to define protected habitats. The main goal of the MLPA, passed by California legislators in 1999, was to move from single-species management to an ecosystem-based management. Understanding which animals are here, and when and why, is a big part of that mission.

Locally, the data are useful in informing decisions on the location and potential impacts of major projects, like Pacific Gas & Electricity's proposed wave energy project. Although in its preliminary planning stages, PG&E's project and others of similar scope will require a basic understanding of the marine habitats of the North Coast and the inhabitants of its waters. Such knowledge is critical to ensuring that any development will minimize, or even eliminate, harm to wildlife.

Beyond contributing to these large initiatives, MMERP serves to launch students into careers in science.

"Marine mammalogy is an incredibly competitive field and students usually don't have access to training or fieldwork until well into their master's or Ph.D. programs," says Goley. "Many of our students have pursued careers in marine mammal science and say that their experience at HSU has opened doors for them. It feels good to know that our alumni have and are still contributing to important research programs around the world, including the Endangered Right Whale research project, the Hawaiian Monk seal project and Arctic Seal ecology. They were able to take the opportunities at HSU and not only find a fulfilling career, but give back to the animals that we all care about so much."

Now, after more than 200 students have participated in this research since Goley arrived at HSU, they are starting to fill the gaps in knowledge. Students have truly become contributing scientists helping to inform greater coastal initiatives.

Sighting New Life

IN OPEN WATER, GRADUATE student Carrie Hudson hears the blow of a nearby gray whale that just surfaced. "It must be only a couple of hundred yards away," she says.

Before this study, little was known about the population of marine mammals in this part of the Pacific.

The cloudy skies have persisted, but their reflection on the water makes it easier to spot the silhouettes of mother and calf gray whales that surface briefly.

To gather critical information about marine mammals, Goley and her team often need to approach closely. This, and all marine mammal research, is conducted under a National Marine Fisheries Service permit that grants special permission and responsibilities to scientists studying these animals.

Even so, to the untrained eye, it's not a spectacular sighting. There were no majestic leaps from the water, no tail fins crashing into the waves. But to the researchers aboard the Zodiac, it is a more-than-satisfying glimpse at these two whales. When the images make it back to the lab, the researchers will use the white specks on the backs of the whales to identify each individual. The fact that this pair was mother and calf is of no small significance to scientists who want to know how gray whales use the North Coast and why some linger while others migrate on to Arctic waters to feed in the summer.

"Many of these whales are familiar to us as they visit here regularly, while others we have seen only once in our 12 years of study. Knowing the ways that marine mammals use these waters will make a profound difference in how we manage our coastal areas. These are the questions – the ecology of summering whales and of Steller sea lions and harbor seals – that will keep me and my students excited and searching for answers for many years to come." End Story

Leading the Response to Whale Strandings

In addition to studying the ecology of marine mammals, Professor Dawn Goley serves as the HSU stranding coordinator for NOAA’s Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Goley, along with students, volunteers and marine wildlife specialists, helps recover whales that strand along the North Coast

Although it can be a tragedy to see these majestic creatures washed up on shore, these events provide the National Marine Fisheries Service stranding network with critical information about the animal and cause of death. They also provide research and educational materials to scientists around the world, the HSU Vertebrate Museum and HSU students and community members. Recent major strandings include:

  • September 2007
    Pilot whale washes up on Luffenholtz Beach

    Pilot whales are not typically found in North Coast waters. When this one washed ashore, it provided an unusual opportunity for study, and researchers were keenly interested. After forensic analysis and an MRI of its skull, it was determined that a massive ear infection likely killed the 15-foot whale. Its skeleton will eventually be reassembled in the HSU Vertebrate Museum.

  • March 2009
    Gray whale calf found at Houda Point

    While spotting a gray whale off the Humboldt County coast is not rare, a calf washing ashore is. The word quickly went out on campus that all mammalogy labs on this day would meet at Houda Point to investigate. Students found themselves knee-deep in water, looking for evidence of what killed the calf, but as in many cases, the cause of death remains undetermined. When students and staff from the HSU Vertebrate Museum later returned to the site to retrieve the skeleton they had buried, it was gone. It turns out that its young bones had not ossified yet, and they had already dissolved away.

  • October 2009
    Blue whale washes ashore on Mendocino coast

    The death of This 72-foot female blue whale generated headlines from the San Francisco Chronicle to ABC News, and the entire Fort Bragg, Calif., community joined together in response. A group from HSU helped to collect samples and bury the carcass, allowing microorganisms to strip the flesh from the bones. Eventually the skeleton will be exhumed and displayed in Mendocino County.