All posts by Alisa Vinzant

Beach Love – There are So Many Treasures


The beach is such an AMAZING place where you can discover so many interesting things! From living organisms to unfortunately trash, I’m going to be talking about some of the most attention-grabbing things we find on our beach!

We get a lot of Algae that washes up on the beach. From the invasive sargassum that tends to wash up from our bay, to pieces of giant brown kelp, we see it all! We also find lots of different parts of algae, including the holdfast, stipe, and air bladders! Sometimes looking under the holdfast (which can pretty much have it’s own entire ecosystem, how cool!) we have found tiny sea slugs and sea stars!

Also washing up more recently in our bay are red pelagic crabs, otherwise known as tuna crabs! These mini looking lobster creatures end up floating around the ocean their entire lives! Unfortunately sometimes they wash up on our beach and become stranded! Our seagulls sure do love to eat them as a snack!

beach love

(Above: Tuna Crabs will wash up on our beach, sometimes by the hundreds!)

Lastly, we find many amazing seashells, sea glass, and really cool looking rocks! A lot of the seashells we find are the purple olive snails! We also find lots of sea glass, which comes in many different colors including white, brown, green, and blue! Sea glass is glass that ends up in the ocean and becomes textured and tumbled! Super beautiful and fun to craft with! The crazy amount of different types of rocks we find on our beach is also pretty diverse! On our beach you will find sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic, along with many other interesting types. Next time you head to a beach, maybe you can have your very own beach treasure hunt and see how many different cool things you can find!

beach appreciation

(Above: Seashells, Sea glass, and rocks that have all been found on our beach)

Written By: Brooke Fox

Meiophenomenal: Diversity of organisms within the Sand Sediment

Sand particles can range in size from 0.0625 mm (or ​116 mm) to 2 mm. Despite not being very large there is a whole diversity of an ecosystem within the sediment. Infauna are animals that can be found within these sand grains this differs from animals that live on the benthos or bottom ocean floor in that the infauna actually live within the sediment itself. There are several macrofauna that live within the sediment like the bobbit worms, worms eels, sting rays or take shelter in the sand or even camouflage in the sand. The sand acts as a perfect place to hide from predators or even ambush your prey. Bobbit worms live within the sand sediment and actively hunt fish hiding it’s 3 foot long body under the sand sediment and awaiting for a fish to trigger it. Most specimens of bobbit worms have been up to 3 feet long but some have been found to be even 10 feet! The sand can act as a pretty convenient habitat for a lot of organisms, but too see some of these organisms you have to look even closer.


When you look at the sand even closer, it is revealed that there are even smaller animals that fit inside those small .0625mm to 2mm spaces. These animals consist of the meiofauna which can pass through a 0.5 to a 1mm mesh unharmed. Most of these animals consist of small invertebrates like polychaate worms, nemotodes, arthropods, platyhelminthes, other annelids, and more. The meiofauna are unique in that they have one of the highest species richness and abundance indices. Meiofauna serve as important food resource for deposit feeding animals. A lot of animals such as the sand bubbler crabs or sea cucumbers actively filter out meiofauna living with the sand sediment.

sand 2

Meiofauna also serve an important role for breaking down detritus and excrete nutrients that are used by phytobionts and bacteria making them very key for nutrient cycling in the marine ecosystem, determiners of ocean health and ecosystem functioning, and indicators of carbon cycling in the seabed. Because meiofauna are so highly diverse, they can also be key indicators for the effects of global warming on diversity. Studies in Antarctica, a place where rising temperatures show a major affect and change to the habitat, have shown a drop in diversity due to rising ocean temperatures.

sand 3

Despite being one of the most diverse, species rich, and abundant ecocsytems on the planet, the meiofauna are actually highly understudied. There is still so much more to know about them and so many more species to potentially discover. With rising ocean temperatures, meiofauna need to be studied before all of that diversity goes away and we must continue to do our part to take care of the ocean and be aware of how pollution from human can affect even the smallest of ecosystems.


Sting ray

Carbon Cycle

Meiofauna diversity image

Meiofauna- life between grains

BBCs Blue planet sand bubbler crab

The Chordettes Mr. Sandman


Smithsoian channel – bobbit worm

Bobbit worm image

Sensitive Sharks! Everything You Want to Know!

According some experts estimations, sharks have been around planet Earth for somewhere between 425 and 450 million years making them just as old or even older than trees themselves! As such, sharks have had time to evolve numerous methods of sensing their environment, making them expert hunters. In order to understand shark senses, one must first understand where the perception of these different sensations occur in the shark brain.

The shark brain is a Y shaped organ located in the chondrocranium of the shark. The shark brain can be split up between the forebrain, midbrain and hindbrain, each of which will specialize in a different sense. The forebrains specializes in olfactory, midbrain in visual, and the hindbrain specializes in hearing, touch, and electroreception.


Depending on the species sharks can smell up to 1km or more away, hear about 100m away, see about 10m away depending on water clarity. Depending on the sharks environment/habitat there will be corresponding enlargements in the brain. If the shark lives in deeper water where not much light exist or live mostly in the open ocean where food availability tends to be low, they might have enlargements in their forebrains because they have to rely on olfaction to find their food. With over 400 different species of sharks, not all sharks are necessarily the “swimming noses” that we think they are. With such diversity, sharks will specialize in different senses based on the environment of which they live. Even with one sensory specialization, it is the combination of all the shark’s senses that make them such great predator.

sharks 1

As sharks draw in closer to their prey they use electroreception. Imagine the brain as a biological computer, sending electrical impulses down a highway of motor neurons in order to move the muscles of the body. Sharks are able to detect those electrical impulses from up to 1 meter away. Some sharks, such as the scalloped hammerhead, can sense as low as half a billionth of a volt of electricity. They use special gel filled pores called the Ampullae of Lorenzini in order to sense these weak electrical impulses.

sharks 3

Sharks will continue to dazzle and amaze us with their sensory capabilities. New research indicates that sharks can even use electroreception to navigate the earth by sensing the magnetic poles. Such extraordinary evolutionary advantages are what will continue to make sharks a dominant predator for a very long time.


Brian Skerry, from






William E. Bemis 2016


Hammerhead video

Salps: Attack of the Clones

Have you ever been walking along the beach or kayaking through the ocean and spotted what appeared to some weird plastic bag looking jellyfish-like thing? Have you ever thought, “What on earth is that?” Well that is a salp and it is not a jellyfish (Figure 1). It is a tunicate, which is in the phylum Chordata. The very same phylum that you and I are in. That means that that strange transparent gelatinous sack has more in common, evolutionarily speaking, with us than it does with its jellyfish doppelgängers.Salp

As members of the phylum Chordata, most tunicates have a  tail, notochord, nerve cord, gills, simplified eyes, and even a brain. But only during their larval stage. As adults, they lose most of the features that make them like other vertebrates. Tunicates, named so because of their tunic-like outer layer, include sessile sea squirts and sea porks as well as free swimming and planktonic salps, doliolids and pyrosomes.

These seemingly simple jello sacks actually do a lot. Salps are one of the most energy efficient organisms out there. Not only do they eat at the same time as they swim, their waste has also been linked to the carbon cycle and may even impact climate change. They move by jet propulsion, sucking in water through their inhalant siphon and pushing it out their exhaling siphon by squeezing the tunic. As the water travels through their gelatinous bodies, it passes through their pharynx, where a mucus net and beating cilia filter out plankton and organic matter of all sizes. In fact, they consume particles spanning four magnitudes in size. That’s the equivalent of us eating everything from a mouse to a horse, according to  research conducted bu the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. This allows them to survive in the open ocean, where food is often scarce. Their ability to eat nearly everything that passes through them also  gives them an important role in the carbon cycle.         

Salp 2Salps are found in every ocean but are often concentrated near the Antarctic where there favorite snack, phytoplankton, blooms (Figure 2). Salps can devour entire blooms by rapidly cloning themselves and forming huge chains. Salps, with can live for weeks or months,  start off as an individual that reproduces asexually, making multiple genetic clones that then form long chains, wheels and other structures. Individuals within the chains then reproduce sexually with other chains through external fertilization processes. Salps can produce thousands, millions of other salps at these phytoplankton blooms. Imagine the scene: a slow motion feeding frenzy with salps popping into existence like Imperial Star Destroyers coming out of hyperspace. You can almost hear the haunting music of the “Imperial March” in the background as these  salp clones attack, wrecking havoc on the defenseless phytoplankton.

As they consume the phytoplankton, they produce dense fecal pellets that rain carbon down on the deep sea. This acts as an effective carbon sink that removes carbon from the ocean surface and traps it a depth for hundreds of years. Thus allowing the upper ocean to accumulate more carbon from the atmosphere, mitigating the anthropogenic rise in carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere.



The Spineless Gutless Sea Cucumber

Sea cucumbers: those cute log-like animals munching their way along the sea floor. These cylindric invertebrates are part of the phylum Echinodermata which translates to “spiny skin”.

Echinodermata is a completely marine based phylum that includes sea stars, sea urchins and of course, the lovable sea cucumbers. Most days you can find innocent sea cucumbers minding their own business and sucking up sand and mud like a vacuum. The sea cucumber sifts through and feeds on the organic pieces hidden in the sediment. If you have visited CIMI, you may have had the pleasure of holding a sea cucumber that can be found in our cove, Parasichopus californicus, or the warty sea cucumber. A muddy orange-brown color, these guys are named after the wart like bumps that cover their body.

Spineless Sea Cucumber

Sea cucumbers, like the warty sea cucumber, are eaten by a number of different organisms. Predators include types of crabs, fish, sea stars and sometimes sea turtles. How do these spineless logs defend themselves against predators? They can not move very fast, so a quick escape is rarely an option. Sea Cucumbers have evolved a very interesting and gross way to escape possible death by crab or fish. Evisceration!

Spineless Sea Cucumber 2

Evisceration basically means exploding guts. The root word in eviseration, “visera” means “intestines”. When a sea cucumber feels threatened it can spew its intestines and other internal organs at a predator. The predator is distracted by the free snack, allowing the sea cucumber to inch away. Evisceration begins when the attatchment tissues that hold the internal organs, like the intestines or respratory gills, soften. If you’ve ever touched a sea cucumber you’ll have noticed that its body toughens and becomes rigid. Left alone it will losen up and soften again. Like many echinoderms, sea cucumbers can toughen or soften their body texture at will. Once the attachment tissue softens and becomes almost liquidfied, spots on the body where the organs will soon spew out begin to soften too. Depending on the species, the evisteration point can be on the anterior (front) or the posterior (back) end of the sea cucumber. Softening takes between one to three minutes. The sea cucumber muscles contract and expell the internal organs! It can take between 20 minutes to 12 hours to complete the process of eviseration. Now that the sea cuumber has rid itself of most its organs and escaped being eaten, it must begin to regenerate. Regenerating its interal organs can take as long as 145 days and as short as 7 days. It depends on the species, age of the organism and the time of year.

Although evisceration is often associated with defense and escape, this is not always the case. It depends on the species of sea cucumber. Some sepecies, like the warty sea cucumber, eviserate seasonally to get rid of excess waste. In addition, during food shortages, sea cucumbers have been know to eviserate. It is actually a larger metabolic load or energy drain on the sea cucumber to hold onto excess waste than to eviserate and regenerate.

Sea cucumbers are pretty amazing! They can live without their internal organs for weeks and spew their guts at predators. They might be gutless at times, and spineless, but they got a lot of spunk for an animal named after a cucumber.



Leopard sea Cucumber –

Invertebrate Locomotion in the Ocean

At the Catalina Island Marine Institute, we are all about being active and on the move.  The same goes for the invertebrates in our labs! But how do they move? Magic? Super powers? Thinking happy thoughts? Actually, we can explain with…!

Some of the animals in our lab move by using their little tube feet.  These are animals like the sea stars, sea cucumbers, and urchins, which are all members of the phylum Echinodermata.  Echinodermata translates to “spiny skin”.  Not only do the members of this phylum have spines, they also have sticky little feet! In fact, if you look underneath any of these animals, you will see what looks like little tubes with suction cups on the ends.  The animal will extend these tube  feet in the direction it wants to go, suction on, and then pull itself along.  Sometimes the tube feet can also be used as levers and for food capture. The tube feet can also be used to help the animal stay in place, if say, kids—I mean… “seagulls”—..were trying to grab at them! So cool.

Some of the friends in our Mollusk tank, such as the California Sea Hare, Aplysia californica, and the Spanish Shawl nudibranch, Flabellina iodinea, move in a different way.  These animals have a soft slug-like body, the length of which is called a “foot”.  Weird, I know, imagine if your whole body was called a foot! So the foot produces slime and when the animal contracts its muscles and moves tiny hairs on its body through the slime it manages to scoot, scoot, scoot! 

As if this wasn’t enough, many of the slugs can also swim (Fig.2)  The Spanish Shawl and the Lion’s Mane, Melibe leonina, can swim by whipping their head back and forth towards the end of  their foot. It can be an effective way to respond to predators, and kind of looks like they are throwing down for a dance off.

The take away here is that there are many ways to move through life, and invertebrates are great role models for showing us how it’s done! There’s no right or wrong way, whether you have many sticky feet, a whole body called a foot to scoot around on slime with, or maybe you just whip back and forth—- no kind of motion is too “loco” to be in the ocean!

It’s World Oceans Day!

Happy World Oceans Day! The ocean brings us all together, it can teach us, it can heal us, it can inspire us, it can entertain us, and it can protect us, but it turn, we need to love our ocean back. Unfortunately, we are in a place in society where our monetary desires have come before valuing the health of our planet and our ocean. Today is a day reserved to cherish and celebrate our blue planet while combining international efforts to preserve this amazing ecosystem and resource.

Roughly 71% of our Earth’s surface is covered in water and it contributes limitless resources toward our survival and wellbeing. Most importantly, the ocean is the major contributor of the oxygen that we need to breath every second (70%). Phytoplankton and algae are continuously producing more than double the amount of oxygen that comes from our terrestrial plants and without it, we would be hurting. The ocean also keeps our atmosphere clean; it stores the majority of Carbon Dioxide and other harmful gases that contribute to the depletion of our ozone layer. Aside from making the air that we breathe, the ocean provides us with many of the chemicals and pharmaceuticals that heal us when we are sick. It also keeps us healthy in sustaining us by cleaning the water we drink and supplying us with nutrients in food. Unlimited benefits can be sourced back to the big blue and we owe it to the ocean to give back.

Today on World Oceans Day, be aware that YOU can be the change that helps our oceans rebound from the damage that we, as a society have inflicted.

According to the World Oceans Day foundation, we can all contribute to the cause by following these steps:

  • Change Perspective– Discuss the ocean with your friends and family, see what their knowledge of the ocean is and how they perceive our impacts.
  • Learn– Research and discover the wonders of the blue and consider how we can change our behavior and benefit our oceans for a better future.
  • Change Our Ways– It isn’t as hard as you think to change your individual influence on the ocean. If you are aware, participate in your community, and inspire others to do the same, your actions will be felt for years to come.
  • Celebrate– Spend time at the beach and in the water, enjoy what the ocean has to offer and celebrate it! Even if you are far from the ocean, you still benefit from the ocean’s bounty; be aware and be thankful.

Happy World Oceans Day!

Catalina Coral & Zooxanthellae

What is a coral?

Corals are not rocks, nor plants. They are animals. Invertebrates, specifically. These sessile organisms are colonial—meaning many individual organisms comprise a single coral. These individual organisms are called polyps. Each polyp is complete with a mouth, a stomach, and multi-purpose tentacles. More on that later.

There are two major types of coral: soft corals and stony corals. The stony corals are considered reef builders, oceanic architects. The polyps that create stony corals secrete a hard skeletal structure made of calcium carbonate. Soft corals, on the other hand, have a different kind of support structure. Their polyps contain something called sclerites—a hard plate of chitin, which is what the exoskeletons of arthropods (think crabs and lobsters) are made of. Recent underwater explorations have discovered a third type of coral: deep sea coral. 20,000 below the surface of the ocean thrive both stony and soft corals. They differ from the shallow water corals in one major respect—they don’t need sunlight to survive.

That Big Ball of Energy

Photosynthesis. The process of converting the sun’s light energy into chemical energy. Many corals have the ability to do this. But polyps cannot complete the task on their own. To create their food source, their energy for survival, they obtain help from zooxanthellae. Put simply, zooxanthellae are microscopic algae. These algae find their home in the surface tissue of coral polyps. In return for shelter, these algae give coral the energy they need to survive. Additionally, these zooxanthellae provide a plethora of colors and patterns for corals. That rainbow of life that paints the iconic coral reefs of the world is much in thanks to zooxanthellae. The relationship between the polyp and zooxanthellae is symbiotic and mutually beneficial. Each one needs the other for its survival. When conditions in the ocean become inhabitable (think: too warm, too acidic), zooxanthellae are kicked out. The polyps, in times of stress, will expel their zooxanthellae—leaving the coral stark white and starving. This is called a coral bleaching event.

The Corals of Catalina Island

Most corals are found in warm tropical waters, near the equator, where there is clear water and ample light for photosynthesis to occur. Catalina lies in a temperate, nutrient rich zone of the ocean—not ideal for a coral reef. Nevertheless, among rocky reefs of Catalina exist a handful of coral. Purple Hydrocoral. Sea Pens. Cup Coral. Gorgonians. Although they are not reef-building corals, they fill their own ecological niche in their home waters.


Hydrothermal Vents

Life was once thought to be completely dependent upon our closest star, the sun. Even in the deep, dark depths of the ocean where no light penetrates, organisms ultimately rely on the productivity from the sun-bright shallows above for their food. In 1977, scientists discovered that this belief was wrong. At the bottom of the Pacific ocean, near the Galapagos Islands, a team tasked with photographing the Galapagos rift found something no one thought was possible. An abundance of life. An area that was thought to be akin to a desert now resembled a rainforest. How was this possible? 

hydrothermal Chemosynthesis. When orghydrothermal ventsanisms use energy from chemical reactions to create food. These chemical reactions are spewing from the ocean floor—from hydrothermal vents.  A hydrothermal vent is a fissure, or a crack in the planet’s surface. The vents are created when seawater meets magma. As the cold seawater is heated by magma a series of chemical processes take place. The water becomes acidic and metals begin to leach from rocks, as this new fluid rises and reaches the ocean—cold and oxygen laden—once more, chemical reactions quickly begin to occur and create compounds like hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. These compounds are absorbed by bacteria who then use them to chemosynthesize. These bacteria are the base of the food chain for the hydrothermal vent ecosystem. Mussels, clams, giant tube worms, and crabs flourish here. 

hydrothermal vent


The latest data from NOAA explains that there are potentially 550 hydrothermal vent sites around the world. Only 5% of the ocean’s floor has been mapped—who know what else we might find down there.

World Penguin Day

Although Wednesday, April 25th is officially World Penguin Day, it’s never a bad day to celebrate these charismatic flightless birds! Penguins’ distinct waddle, fluffy feathers, and stout body shape make them one of the most objectively adorable animals on our planet. But they aren’t just cuddly organisms. On the contrary, they are efficient predators and are resilient in the face of some of the most challenging climates on earth.

Out of the 17 species in the penguin family, one of the most well-known is the Emperor Penguin. The largest of all penguins, Emperors live year-round in arguably the most unforgiving environment on our planet: the Antarctic. To survive in temperatures as low as -76°F, Emperors live socially, partitioning duties to ensure the continuity of their species. After laying a single egg, females will embark on a two-month journey in search of prey. During their hunting trip, these females will dive down to 1,850 feet for as long as 20 minutes in search of fish, squid and krill. They are aided by their dense bones and stiff flippers, which make flying impossible, but allow the Emperors to dive and swim with high efficiency. Meanwhile, males of the flock remain huddled together for warmth, carefully protecting their female’s egg. These males will rotate through outer and inner positions in the flock, allowing some to warm up in the middle while others bear the brunt of the cold in the outer flanks. Upon the females’ return, they will regurgitate food for their newborn chicks, and the males will swap out, now having their chance to take to the ocean in search of food. Without the cooperative tendencies that Emperor Penguins have developed over thousands of evolutionary years, their species would be long gone in such a trying environment.

While Emperors tough out long winters in the Antarctic, every other species of penguin either leaves during the coldest months, or simply occupies a milder climate year-round. The smallest of all penguins, reaching an average of 13 inches in height, is the Little Blue Penguin, which can be found along the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania. Unlike the Emperor Penguin, Little Blues dive in short spurts of about 35 seconds at a time, reaching a maximum depth of 230 feet. But although Little Blues are small, they are mighty. Little Blues have been known to escape from their primary natural predators: skuas, gulls, and sheathbills. Unfortunately, human-sustained predators like rats, dogs, and cats have taken their toll on Little Blue numbers.

Anthropogenic threats to penguins don’t end with predation on Little Blues. Perhaps the most imposing issue for these flightless birds is global climate change. As air and water temperatures warm in the Antarctic, vital ice sheet breeding grounds that Emperor and Adelie penguins need are melting away. A study conducted by the World Wildlife Foundation in 2008 predicted that in 40 years, 50% of Emperor penguins could be wiped out due to the impacts of climate change.
Penguin Day

So, what can you do to help out our feathery friends on the other side of the globe? Well, start by celebrating World Penguin Day! Then, think of ways that you can reduce your carbon footprint in order to slow global climate change. Maybe try biking to your friend’s house instead of catching a ride, or reducing the amount of meat you eat! Any little effort helps, because just like the Emperor penguin, if we all work together, we can ensure the continuity of an entire species!



We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. Catalina Island Marine Institute is a hands-on marine science program with an emphasis on ocean exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and ocean happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree usually in marine science or related subjects. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science and ocean information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit for additional information. Happy Reading!