California MPAs - PISCO monitoring

Latest update December 11, 2018 Started on June 1, 1999

Every year since 1999, the PISCO team (Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans) heads out to California's nearshore oceans and islands to monitor the health of kelp forests and evaluate the effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas.

June 1, 1999
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In The Field

About the Author

Now that I’ve spent some time introducing the rest of the dive team, let me introduce myself. I’m Brittany, and I’m a research technician in the Caselle Lab. I started at PISCO over four years ago while I was an undergraduate at UCSB, but my love for the ocean and exploration came long before that. I read the National Geographic cover story on the Bahamas blue holes in August 2010, and, as 15-year-olds in pursuit of a self-identity do, taped the poster to my bedroom wall. The image of divers swimming through the glowing, almost phosphorescent, cave system made me want to search for unanswered questions in unfamiliar places. Diving with PISCO gave me the tools to do so. It shaped and defined my college experience. I was able to explore a beautiful, shimmering world, poking my head under rocks, coming to face-to-face with sea lions, and often stunned by the majesty of a kelp cathedral -- all with the purpose of scientific exploration.

In addition to diving, I found a niche in Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV) projects, and wrote my senior thesis comparing the new method to our diver surveys on the Santa Barbara mainland. Since then, and in my current position, I’ve used BRUVs to generate species lists for the remote Azores Islands off of Portugal and the under-studied Islas Marias, Mexico. Now, eager to apply my skills to new research endeavors, I’m pursuing an M.S. in marine conservation starting in Fall 2019. I hope to continue to share my personal experience, as well as the shared experiences of a group of divers like this one, with a wider audience.

By reading about our dive team the past few months, I hope you have seen how the ocean has impacted each and every one of our lives, even causing some of us to dedicate our entire careers to protecting it. I hope it has shown you that you also have a voice. Finally, I hope you use that voice, and ask that you do so with the ocean in mind.

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Diver Profile: Meet Keegan Bell!

Keegan -- who became SCUBA certified at the age of 12, spent his childhood lobster diving with his dad, and left Michigan State to pursue a career in kelp forest ecology at UCSB -- is a little bit of an overachiever. In addition to diving for PISCO for the past four years, Keegan managed the fish side of the Caselle lab, took color coordinated notes on his tablet in Biology of Fishes, and continues to get serious FOMO whenever someone goes diving without him. He's a red-headed surfer kook from San Diego and trained in jiu jitsu. Introducing the Red Irish Lord.

Why did you decide to study marine biology? My passion for Marine Science started in 4th grade through Sea Camp in San Diego. Growing up near the ocean, I always had a strong love for it and everything that lived in it. I proceeded to attend Michigan State University as a finance major, but I realized that this was not the direction I wanted to take. Before the end of my first year of college, I had contacted PISCO at UCSB with hopes of transferring to pursue a degree in marine biology. When I heard they offer internships, I made the decision to drop out of MSU and attend Santa Barbara City College for two years before transferring into UCSB. Now, in 2018, I have a B.S. in Aquatic Biology and an amazing start to a hopefully endless career.

What motivates you? Seeing professors and other staff scientists and how passionate they are about their work makes me want to strive to do my best and reach that level of perseverance. Also, the super awesome pictures from our dives!

What's your favorite diving experience, PISCO-related or not? Any dive with #chrishoneyman

If you were a UPC organism, what would it be and why? Salmacina tribranchiata (a red-headed tube worm!!)

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Diver Profile: Meet Amanda Rivard!

Amanda is not in Kansas anymore. In fact, she made her way from what some consider the "most" landlocked state in the U.S. to studying Aquatic Biology at UCSB. The invertebrates lab manager, and soon to be fish lab manager as well, started diving when she was 14. A few years later, she became a PADI instructor and worked for Broadreach, a sailing/SCUBA diving instructional camp in the Caribbean.

Additionally, as Cece's roommate, sorority sister, and best friend, she's the other half of the dive team "twins." Read more about her experience with PISCO below.

Why did you decide to study marine biology? I have always been interested in the ocean from a young age. Coming from Kansas, I started going outside my comfort zone at a young age and went to marine biology camps when I was 12 in North Carolina and ever since then I had always wanted to study marine biology. It is such a cool field of study and I couldn't imagine myself studying anything else (or anywhere else other than UCSB!).

How has your experience with PISCO been so far? I have loved working with PISCO so far. When I came to UCSB, I had never been diving in California. The ecology here is so different and diverse, and PISCO has allowed me to go out and explore some of the best dive sites in California. On one of our overnight trips, we got to dive at Gull Isle, which is on the back side of Santa Cruz Island. It was one of the prettiest dives I have ever done -- the water was clear and the kelp was massive. We saw a ton of garibaldi and harbor seals and it was just beautiful. This summer was probably the best summer yet!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get involved in diving and marine research? Don't be afraid to go outside your comfort zone. I was a little hesitant to get into scientific diving coming from a scuba background that catered to scuba diving as a hobby and not for research purposes. It is definitely different but a way more rewarding experience knowing that our research is important and useful.

If you were a UPC organism, what would it be and why? I would have to say CLAVSPP (octocoral) because it is my favorite!

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Diver Profile: Meet Jake Eisaguirre!

Jake Eisaguirre is the only diver who we can verify does not pee in his wetsuit. That's because he's our token dry suit diver! While he's extra toasty, this makes for an uncharacteristic aversion to water while his suit is unzipped -- ironic for a Divemaster who lives on a boat.

Jake, an Environmental Studies major, credits his interest in the ocean (and emphasis in Marine Ecology) to growing up close to Santa Barbara, in Santa Ynez. "I have always had a passion for diving and have always really enjoyed science," Jake said. "So I thought why not study something where I can do both."

His second year on the dive team gifted him with many Instagram-worthy photos, and stories to go along with them. Here are just a few.

How did you start diving? I started diving when I was 11 and it was because I watched VHS tape of my parents diving in Palau and Chuuk lagoon when I was sick at my Grandmas house. I immediately knew I wanted to do that to.

What's your favorite diving experience? My favorite PISCO diving experience is when Katie, Luca, and I got circled/followed by a very curious Black Sea Bass for 15 minutes. My favorite non-PISCO experience is when I was diving in Palau and I got separated from the dive group and was alone on one of the most beautiful coral reefs I have ever seen.

What are your career aspirations? I really want to go to grad school once I finish my undergrad. I haven't thought too much farther then that. I am pretty happy with where I am at. I get to go diving almost every day at some of the coolest reefs in the world!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get involved in diving and marine research? If you are not a morning person then change your major.

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Diver Profile: Meet Cece Martin!

One half of the so-called "twins" on the dive team, Cece dove right into scientific diving shortly after completing her open water certification. After one summer with PISCO, she has nearly 100 dives and countless experiences to go with them.

Around the lab, she is known for seeing a white shark and continuing calmly on with her midwater fish surveys, then telling her buddy once back on the boat. It may have been a missed photo opportunity for Chris Honeyman, but what a mark of bravery for Cece. She also spotted an angel shark at San Miguel, but recounts that dive as the moment she felt "at one" with blue rockfish (see photo). Here at PISCO, you can be anything you strive to be. Even a blue rockfish. You go, girl.

Why did you decide to study marine biology? I decided to study marine biology because of my love for the ocean. Ever since I was little I loved being around or near a body of water and this only magnified when I grew up. The more I learned about the ocean and the animals that lived in it the more I knew that I wanted to study them.

How has your experience with PISCO been so far? My experience with PISCO has been amazing. As a relatively new diver I was very nervous coming in but I've already learned so much about inverts and fish that I had never known before. The team has also been supportive and have helped me learn new skills.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get involved in diving and marine research? My advice would be to not be afraid to get involved. It can definitely be intimidating thinking about the work that goes into getting certifications and becoming involved in the field, but once you start, the experience is incredible and unparalleled.

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The Summer Shark Count!

We share the Santa Barbara Channel with a diverse group of sharks, from small and shy swell sharks to gaping basking sharks, over 20 feet in length! In recent years, our divers have had more encounters with white sharks than ever before. We think that’s pretty cool. Here's the complete list of sharks seen this season.

  • 14 adult Horn sharks and 2 egg cases
  • 3 Soupfin sharks (Naples, 2 at Santa Cruz Island)
  • 3 Angel sharks (San Miguel Island, 2 at Arroyo Quemado)
  • 2 White sharks (Santa Rosa Island, IV Reef)
  • 1 Sevengill shark (Horseshoe Reef)

PHOTOS: (1) Keegan Bell and Cece Martin spot an angel at San Miguel (Photo by Keegan Bell). (2) Lindsey Kraemer describes her white shark sighting to the other divers once back on the boat (Photo by Luca Silva). (3) A horn shark greets divers under the Anacapa arch (Photo by Chris Honeyman). (4) A white shark catches the attention of beachgoers in the shallows of Carpinteria Beach last summer. This male juvenile was one of nine sighted that day (Photo by Brittany Tholan).

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Diver Profile: Meet Luca Silva!

Luca comes to us from Cal Poly, where he braved the even colder waters of Morro Bay in the name of marine science. Following his recent graduation in June, Luca became a dive intern for PISCO and has been spending his summer "seeing the effects of California's MPAs firsthand." In his free time, he's doing the same, learning to spearfish and improving his breath holding skills.

Luca is the unofficial top-side photographer, and possesses the unique ability to capture hilariously candid photos of the dive team. No, we will not post them. You may view the less embarrassing photos, however, throughout this page.

How has your experience with PISCO been so far? PISCO has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, due to both the beauty of the experiences and the significance of the work we do. For one, diving the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is awe inspiring and probably the best diving I've ever done. But on the other hand, the data we collect helps manage one of the largest marine conservation efforts in the world.

Why did you decide to study marine biology? All of my favorite hobbies (surfing, fishing, diving) take place in the ocean and currently these environments are highly threatened by climate change, pollution, overfishing and other human effects. In order for future generations to be able to enjoy the same things that I have enjoyed we must protect our oceans and learning as much as possible about the ocean seems to be the best place to start.

How do you think your background has shaped you? Growing up in Southern Baja truly connected me to the ocean. Nearly all of my time was spent in the ocean or near the ocean as young one. Both my parents are avid fisherman and during fishing trips they would often find me playing in the bait tank, which is probably why I like fish and ocean critters so much!

If you were a UPC organism, what would it be and why? I would probably be a giant green anemone because I'm giant and green.

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Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom TV follows the work of the Caselle lab in their latest web series, "The Floating Forest." Watch Episode 3 here, and be sure to check out the rest of the episodes, interviews with Jenn, and behind-the-scenes on their Facebook page.

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Photos from Overnight Trips (PART 2 of 2)

PHOTOS: (1) The visibility at Santa Rosa Island last week made finding the boat a little less of a challenge (Photo by Chris Honeyman). (2) Katie Davis and Lindsey Kraemer compare data topside (Photo by Luca Silva). (3) Keegan Bell jumps in to greet Katie Davis as she surfaces (Photo by Luca Silva). (4) The team wakes up to a hot breakfast on the ocean - made with fresh eggs from Avrey Parsons-Field's chickens (Photo by Brittany Tholan).

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Photos from Overnight Trips (PART 1 of 2)

PISCO has the pleasure of partnering with NOAA and the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife, whose vessels allow us to reach sites we have difficulty accessing otherwise. After a day full of diving, we hang up our wetsuits, cook dinner, and anchor up at the Islands. Here are some photos from those trips.

PHOTOS: (1) Lindsey Kraemer and Cece Martin enjoy the view from the top deck of the NOAA Shearwater. (2) Brittany Tholan celebrates her 23rd birthday at sea. Chris Honeyman later contributes by eating a mouthful of pink icing. (3) View from the wheelhouse. (4) Sunrise over the Pacific. (All photos by Luca Silva).

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Diver Profile: Meet Lindsey Kraemer!

Lindsey Kraemer, a class of '17 alumna and current Research Technician, has a knack for running into - what can only be described as - REALLY big fish.

On a fish training dive this year, Kraemer got up close and personal with a giant black seabass which the team measured (of course) and concluded was as long as her. The sight wasn't too jarring for Kraemer who was sometimes visited by "Celeste" - an 11-foot lemon shark while she worked in Moorea, French Polynesia. Watching a white shark swim under her at Santa Rosa Island, however, might top her list of close encounters.

Despite the tendency for large fish to sneak up on her, we are pleased to report that Kraemer is still fascinated by the ocean. Here's her interview for proof.

Why did you decide to study marine biology? Growing up in San Diego, a large part of my childhood was heavily influenced by the ocean. Be it snorkeling, surfing, participating in beach cleanups, volunteering with the Tijuana estuary, interactions with marine life sparked my interest in finding out why and how the ocean functions the way it does.

How has your experience with PISCO been, so far? Since day one, everyone that I have worked alongside has been encouraging, helpful and driven; we are a team in every sense of the word. Over the years, I have learned many valuable skills and I have been able to help teach those same skills to newer interns. The work that we do, both in the lab and out in the field, is not only exciting but also important on a global scale.

What are you up to in your free time this summer? Making Kombucha and taking care of house plants.

Is there anything you're trying to get better at? Making Kombucha and taking care of house plants.

If you were a UPC organism, what would it be and why? Obviously, Corynactis californica (CORCAL). They are always vibrant- which brightens my day. They are always squishy- which is a key identifying feature. And they get along with with others*- because they are colonial. *Others of the same species

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Diver Profile: Meet Chris Honeyman!

If there are three things Chris Honeyman wants you to know about him, it's that he's 6'5, outfitted for all outdoor activities, and "would rather be diving," as announced by his license plate frame. Since graduating from UCSB last year, Chris stepped up from undergraduate lab manager to full-time lab technician. He's a NAUI Divemaster who said he relates to the uniform point contact category "bare rock" because "my jokes tend to fall flat. Get it?" (Please disregard that and try to enjoy the rest of this interview.)

Why did you decide to study marine biology? I think the ocean is a fascinating place facing a variety of change and challenge, both natural and anthropogenic. Working to study, understand, and protect such differing and diverse ecosystems via a variety of exciting means was something that attracted me as a young scientist. Plus you can practice it anywhere in the world!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get involved in diving and marine research? What are you waiting for? Just do it! Many institutions offer discounts on courses and rates for students and staff members, so take advantage of it while you can. The sooner you start the sooner you can get where you want to be!

If you weren't a marine biologist, what would you do instead? Probably some sort of outdoor adventure guide. Or something similar that would grant me the opportunity to explore and enjoy nature. I’ve been trying to explore new forms of enjoying the outdoors: trail running, rock climbing, and stand up paddle-boarding have recently been a focus of mine.

What does the future have in store for the "Honey Badger?" Eventually I’ll return to school in pursuit of a graduate degree, but for the time being, I couldn’t be happier with the exciting mix of lab and field work I’ve been exposed to. My experience has been nothing short of awesome!

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Meet the "Boss Lady," Dr. Jenn Caselle!

A marine ecologist by training, Jenn started diving in 1983 and has been contributing to research on the underwater world ever since. Before introducing our current dive team, I wanted to ask the woman who started it all a few questions about her PISCO experience.

What's your favorite part of working with PISCO? Teaching new students and interns how to monitor kelp forests.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get involved in diving and marine research? My advice is to stick with it. Maintain your natural curiosity and realize that there will be a lot of challenges along the way - maybe in school, maybe finding your first job or getting research experience. If you really want to do it, you will find a way!

If you were a sessile marine organism on one of our UPC surveys, what would you be and why? Nothing because that would require me to be immobile. That is impossible for me!

Photos are from Jenn's most recent trip to the Azores.

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One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish!: Counting fish takes more training than Dr. Suess would have you think

The summer is halfway through, benthic surveys are wrapping up, and as the late spring/early summer fish recruits have settled on the reef, PISCO is gearing up to count them! This week, the dive team spent three days on the RV Garibaldi for our annual fish training. After classroom sessions on fish identification, measuring techniques, and the PISCO fish counting protocol, each diver entered the water equipped with a slate and a memory bank full of species codes.

Measuring and identifying fish as they swim by is no easy task. This is why a mix of experience levels is necessary on the dive team. Over the course of three days, everyone dives with every one else, calibrating our fish ID's and measurements. We practice by estimating the lengths of kelp blades, rocks, and other objects we can actually lay a slate across and measure. Then more experienced fish counters swim next to newer ones and point out individual fish to ID and measure. After enough practice, our new fish counters can look at a cloud of fish and size and ID all of them in a matter of seconds.

With that, we'd like to congratulate all our new fish counters! It's a valuable skill to have as a marine biologist, and I'm sure it will forever be difficult to look at a fish in a market and not say its PISCO code.

PHOTOS: (1) Luca Silva is faced with a field of territorial Garibaldi under the Anacapa arch. (2) Sea lions smooch at East Isle, Anacapa. (3) Jade Zounes measures a nesting Garibaldi - or is it measuring up her? (Photos by Chris Honeyman). (4) Juvenile kelp rockfish (Sebastes atrovirens) hide in the canopy (Photo by Katie Davis).

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Meet the 2018 Dive Team! These eleven divers - one of our biggest teams yet as the PISCO program at UCSB turns 20 - were selected to take sound scientific data underwater. Led by staff researchers Avrey Parsons-Field and Katie Davis, diver Keegan Bell returns for his fourth season, Brittany Tholan and Chris Honeyman return for their third, Lindsey Kraemer and Jake Eisaguirre return for their second, and interns Amanda Rivard, Cece Martin, Jade Zounes, and Luca Silva are welcomed to the team. Over the course of the summer, we'll be posting diver profiles to introduce each individual. It may take a mix of experience levels to make a dive team, but it takes an equal amount of enthusiasm. Morale is high!

PHOTOS: (1) The whole team on the RV Garibaldi (Photo by Chuck Dobbins), (2) Chris Honeyman off-gases on his safety stop (Photo by Brittany Tholan), (3) Jake Eisaguirre celebrates America by working on the Fourth of July (Photo by Chris Honeyman), (4) The Gang goes SCUBA diving (Photo by Chuck Dobbins).

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The PISCO dive team has already visited 18 sites in a banging start to the season. The Santa Barbara channel is awash in charismatic megafauna right now such as whales and dolphins. While cool to see, our team has all eyes on kelp and the amazing diversity of creatures that call it home. Here are a few of them.


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PISCO divers are in the water and off to rocking start. The team at UCSB has already completed 6 sites with benthic surveys. Stay posted for photos.

What does it take to get the PISCO team into the water for the 20th year of kelp forest monitoring? We start months in advance, selecting the very best students to join the dive team, purchasing and fixing up the gear, and reviewing the protocols that are critical to ensuring consistency from year to year. Two solid weeks of classroom and in water training and the team is off an running!

Expedition Background

Kelp forests are among the most unique and ecologically diverse ecosystems in coastal temperate oceans and are found globally. In the eastern Pacific ocean, they occur from Alaska and Canada to the waters of Baja California in the northern hemisphere, and along the southern coast of Chile in the southern hemisphere. Kelp forests need rocky coastlines where their holdfasts can take anchor, and cool (50 – 64 °F), clear, nutrient rich water to grow. These forests are tiered like a terrestrial rainforest with a canopy and several understory layers below.

Kelp forests of the eastern Pacific coast are dominated by two canopy-forming, brown macroalgae species, giant kelp Macrocystis pyrifera and bull kelp Nereocystis leutkeana. Both species are highly productive. For example, when conditions are ideal, the giant kelp’s average growth in spring can range from 27 to 61 centimeters (10 to 24 inches) per day. These tiered forests create attractive habitat to a diversity of fishes, invertebrates and other algae as refuge from predators and as a source of food.

Much of the extraordinary production of kelp falls to the ocean floor, like leaf litter in terrestrial forests. There, it either remains to support productive and species rich detritus-based forest food webs, or is exported by currents to adjacent ecosystems where it fuels food webs on sandy beaches, deep rocky reefs or submarine canyons. Among the many species that inhabit kelp forests are a wide variety of economically important species such as sea urchins, abalone, lobster, sea cucumbers, rockfishes and other finfishes, as well as some endangered species including abalone and southern sea otters. The kelp itself is harvested to feed abalone in aquaculture facilities and for use in a number of human products. The forests also support economically important eco-tourism, including kayaking, bird and marine mammal watching and scuba diving.

PISCO’s kelp forest monitoring programs are designed to reveal geographic patterns of the structure and functions of this important ecosystem through quantification of the abundance of the macroalgae, invertebrates and fishes that constitute kelp forest communities. Our approach allows us to quantify large- and small-scale spatial patterns of structure of the kelp forest communities as well as characterize changes over time. This information provides insight into the causes and consequences of changes in species abundance resulting from natural and anthropogenic factors and as such forms the basis of ecosystem-based management of kelp forest communities.

Follow along as we undertake our 20th year of kelp forest monitoring.

For more information and to access our protocols and data, go here:

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