Saying goodbye to the Island Life

USC Wrigley Institute

By: Elise Steinberger

It’s 8:00 a.m. and breakfast has just ended at the Wrigley Marine Science Center, at the tail end of the Fall semester. Griffin, Sam, and Russell head down to the waterfront for yet another dive; Lorna and Alexis hop in a boat to collect another day’s worth of plant and abalone data; Ali walks down the ramp into Little Fisherman’s Cove in search of guitarfish; Geoff meets with waterfront staff to fashion a contraption capable of producing sound underwater; Alexa and Ashley check on their tanks of crabs and anemones. Just some of the many students finishing up on research projects in labs and in the field.

These California State students have been living in dorms at the Catalina Island campus for their entire fall semesters. Some are completing their undergraduate degrees, while others are beginning Master’s programs. They have shared countless meals together in the dining hall, movies in the lounge, and hours in the classroom. The “Cal State Catalina Semester” is a program for students throughout the Cal State system, offering an opportunity to come together for a combination of classes and fieldwork at Catalina Island. With finals and lab practicals behind them, the students now focus on finishing the data collection necessary to complete their final research projects.

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Ashley and Tie working in field as part of their coursework. Photo: Tie Crisi

As a WMSC Intern this fall, I’ve had to chance to tag along on many of their experiences. I accompanied Alexis on a few data collection trips where we took a boat to Lion’s Head to survey abalones in the area. In my 3mm wetsuit, fins, and mask, I watched as Alexis free-dove in 10-15 feet of water to measure abalone shells. The rough surf was a challenge, and I watched our nearby moored boat bob in the waves as Alexis fought to maintain her position in the water over her transect line. After about an hour in the water, the cold from my hands and feet began spreading. I marveled at the fact that Alexis was not using a wetsuit; but then again, with the amount of free diving she was doing, if she were on land she’d likely be working up a sweat.


Lorna and Alexis take a break from collecting data. Photo: Lorna McFarlane

Another day, I bumped into Ali while snorkeling in Little Fisherman’s Cove. She was there trying to find – and film – guitarfish for her research on their behavior. Visibility was not good (for Catalina Island standards…) and she was having trouble finding any guitarfish. I offered to help search and, after swimming around for some time, we finally found a few. Ali promptly dove, gripping her underwater camera with both hands as she descended. After surfacing, she joked about being cold regardless of the multiple wetsuits she was wearing – a regular challenge as her research requires that she be as still as possible in the water, so as to not startle the guitarfish.

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Students on the Wrigley dock, preparing to enter the water. Photo: Celena Photopulos

Later, at dinner we all had a good laugh as Griffin described what he found on his dive: sea urchins escaping from holes he cannot seem to locate in his experimental ‘boxes’ he painstakingly constructed and set under water. Meanwhile, Alexa discussed how her crabs were not cooperating with her experimental set-ups in the labs, and Sydney explained the process of tracking the dives of cormorant birds. Though each project has its unique set of challenges, students collaborate to problem-solve and help each other collect data to complete their research projects.

Now that its the end of the semester, the students will disperse. They will return to their respective universities across California, taking with them this special research experience. Perhaps, in a few years, some will ride the tide back to Catalina as experts in their fields. Safe travels!

Elise Steinberger is a fall intern at the Wrigley Marine Science Center, here to learn more about marine science before beginning her Master’s in Health and Science Writing at Northwestern University.

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