Tag Archives: Catalina Island

Bait Ball: Have You Ever Heard of It?

A bait ball is a spherical formation that a school of fish make when they are being threatened by larger predators, such as dolphins, sea lions, and bigger fish. This instinctual behavior is a defense mechanism so that fewer fish are exposed during this feeding frenzy. When a school of fish has no protection from rocks and crevices they must use their vast numbers to their advantage. Bait balls typically do not last longer than ten minutes due to the vast amount of energy it takes to make this tightly packed ball. It is typically a fishes last ditch defensive measure because it can draw the attention of other predators like birds and sharks.

Bait Ball marlin

mackerelEach fish coordinates with its neighbor through visual site and the use of their lateral line. The lateral line is an organ located along both sides of the fishes body. Noted by faint dots along their scale, this lateral line can sense subtle pressure changes in the water and help direct them instantaneously.

Here at Catalina Island you can see a bait ball almost everyday, in varying sizes and species. Here are the most common species of fish that make up bait balls around Catalina Island.

Bait Ball sea lion feeding

Pacific Sardine:

  • distinctive flashy quality
  • release air bubbles as they swim
  • freckles on back
  • greatest body width underneath pelvic fin

Northern Anchovy:

  • appear glittery or sparkly
  • random solitary fish open their mouths wide and flare their gill covers in order to feed
  • dark on back with no markings
  • jaw shifted farther back
  • elongated body that is straighter and thinner than sardines

Jack Mackerel:

  • often hover motionless as if they were frozen,
  • can mix in with other species of fish
  • lateral line bends down due to longer pectoral fin
  • back is blue green or brassy brown
  • symmetrical dorsal and anal fins







Video Content from Gretchen Beehler and Anthony Julien

Whose Scat Is That?

scatIn the relaxed camp atmosphere it’s almost too easy to find yourself swaying with the palm trees, entranced in the soothing sounds of the ocean while locked in a daze at the clouds rolling overhead but today we are talking all things scat. Surrounded by the beauty in nature, you’re feeling endlessly grateful for the present day at Fox Landing, until one fateful step when you feel an all too familiar squish beneath your sandal. You know it’s not the firm dirt path, you’ve stepped right into a mountain of fox feces! We share a home with a variety of organisms; terrestrial, marine, native or not, every animal inhabiting Catalina Island eats, sleeps, and poops here, just like us! Scat is animal feces or dropping and based on the animal, scat will differ in size, shape, color, consistency, and contents. Scat can be used to identify, learn about, and track animals. Safety first: don’t touch scat…without gloves on!

The Santa Catalina Island Fox, a species of Channel Island fox, can be found roaming our cove. Most often seen at night attempting to break into a trash can or scurrying away from the slightest noise. Their diet consists of mice, birds, eggs, fruit, berries, insects, and for some, anything they are capable of scavenging from humans (Leave no trace!). Fox poop is smelly, small and tubular or log shaped. Droppings are often left in high areas, as a way to mark territory. It is not unusual to find fox feces at the tops of staircases or on rock walls around camp.

scat sea cucumberA number of animals have been introduced by humans to Catalina. Included in these non-native species are the herbivorous American Bison and Mule Deer who spend their time grazing the island. Bison consume mostly grasses, herbs, and shrubs. They leave the largest brown poop patties I have ever seen while traversing the mountainsides. Mule deer will graze grasses and herbs as well as eat berries or fruits if they can find any. When the urge becomes too great, a standing mule deer will drop dozens of small, round, or bean shaped pellets in a single release of solid waste.

Within our ocean and tanks marine organisms also experience the pleasure of excreting their waste. The sea hare and sea cucumber are among some of our greatest producers of scat. A Sea Hare is a squishy bodied invertebrate in the phylum Mollusca. Feasting daily on different species of algae and expelling small, brown-green seed shaped waste throughout our touch tank, shark tank, and octopus tank. Plankton living in the sand or floating in the water column are no match for a hungry sea cucumber. This invertebrate, of the phylum Echinodermata, leaves in its wake a pile of long log shaped stool. Although this camouflaged waste blends in with the sand, our team of aquarists are filled with joy when they spot it and siphon it out of the touch tank.






The Perks of Being Wildflowers

Spring is in bloom and wildflowers of all colors are decorating our hillsides on Catalina Island.  Just look at them! Bright red Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja affinis (Fig. 1) and white Bush Anemone (Fig. 2) are some you are likely to see while hiking around. Starting with the south facing slopes, the island begins a transition from the more earth toned brown landscape of summer and fall into one of vibrant and cheerful colors from February through May.  The Shooting star, Dodecatheon clevelandii, is a favorite for many people, with its purple shape (Fig. 3), while the Blue Dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum, are a form of wild onion that was used by native Tongva for food (Fig.4)


Wildflowers 4Wildflowers 5But where do they hide all year long? Well, one of the perks of being a wildflower is that you don’t have to make an appearance all year long!  These wildflowers are known as “annuals”, meaning the seeds will germinate in the fall or winter rains, flowers will bloom in the spring, and then they ripen to seed towards the end of the spring season. This completes the annual cycle and allows it to start again.  

As the south facing slopes are exposed to more sunlight for longer periods throughout the day, these slopes will tend to bloom earlier in the wildflower season, followed by the shadier north facing slopes.

After a heavy rain season this year, the abundance of wildflowers is noticeably greater than in past years of drought.  As it turns out, in order for the wildflower seeds to germinate, they require continued moisture, or at least enough that the soil remains moist.  Without this, the plants will dry out before they get to flower! We really enjoy these annual bursts of color, so rain, rain, don’t go away!

Wildflowers 2

Baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesii, is only known to exist in one population on Catalina Island. Photo by Amy Catalano

Wildflowers 3

Deerweed, Acmispon dendroideus, are endemic to the Channel Islands. Photo by Amy Catalano

Photos by Monica





The California Halibut Part 1

First, they wait, buried up to their eyes…  As soon as their prey is within reach…AMBUSHl!  TEETH! GOT EM. And guess what? Halibut can chase their food as well, even leaping out of the water to do so.. if it’s their favorite (anchovies)…  Who doesn’t love anchovies?!

california halibut

Paralichthys californicus, the California Halibut, is a large flatfish found in nearshore waters, though they can be found as deep as 600ft.  Full grown halibut can get up to 5ft and 72lbs. You may see more of them in shallow waters from February to September because this is when the adults migrate from the continental shelf to spawn.  Juveniles spend their days in shallow-water bays and estuaries, making them especially vulnerable to habitat destruction by human activities such as dredging and pollution. Let’s be careful, friends!

california halibut 1

Halibut, despite what you may think, are laterally flattened fish, as opposed to dorso-ventrally flattened.  One side of their body always faces up, and the other always faces down, with the halibut always swimming on its same side.  With both eyes on the top facing side of their body, halibut rely heavily on a visual ambush as a method for feeding. They may be hard to spot due to their ability to change their skin pattern and camouflage with sandy and rocky bottom terrain, but this helps them to ambush their prey by catching them off guard.  

california halibut 2These fish are most abundant from central California to Baja california, and tip the charts as far as “yum” factor.  In fact, California halibut is one of the most important commercially-fished species among all state-managed fisheries.  To learn more about halibut, like how its eyes migrate to one side of its face, look out for part two!


comic: http://talesofabsurdity.com/comic/today-in-fish-news/



Ravens and All Their Dark Glory

ravensHere on Catalina Island there is never a dull moment when the ravens are around. One may see them as a pestering omen of darkness due to their long mythical history. However, once recognizing how incredibly intelligent the large black mystical creature really is, one may nevermore see them that way again. (Quoth the Raven)

The Raven” by the famous American poet Edgar Allen Poe was published in 1845 and is notoriously known for its uncanny atmosphere and the talking raven.

Ravens are considered to be one of the most high intelligent birds on the planet. They are capable of utilizing tools such as rocks to crack open shells, drop rocks on nest invaders, learn to talk when in captivity better than some parrots, and have the ability to recognize human faces and other birds up to three or more years after the first encounter!  Due to their highly functioning brain the ravens alway seem to be up to something mischievous whether it be playing “keep away” from other animals, rolling down snowy roof tops, trying dangerous flying maneuvers to impress a future mate or just taunting other animals for fun.

Adult ravens pair up with life long mates and as adults, are typically less likely to flock with other ravens. As adolescent, ravens that live together in a group referred to as an “unkindness” in order to help support each other in finding protection and food. Adolescent ravens can be the professionals at mischief by working together to trick other animals and steal their food. This may be the reason why a flock of ravens got the name “Unkindness”! 

ravens 1Where can I find one of these tricksters you ask, well, ravens are everywhere! They can be found just about anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere making them one of the largest widespread naturally occurring birds in the world. Ravens have very few natural predators so no matter the weather or the surrounding habitat ravens can live it up anywhere from snowy mountains, thick forests, hot deserts, to beaches of Catalina Island!

Next time you see a raven make sure to make a friendly gesture and you’ll have a life long feathered friend!




The California Moray Eel

It is reaching the end of your orientation snorkel on day one of your field trip to CIMI and your instructor dives down one last time before exiting the rocky reef structure of Pinnacle rock. As you watch his luscious blonde locks flowing underwater, you realize that he isn’t attempting a subsurface dance move, he is frantically signaling toward a giant, terrifying, green head looming from the darkness of a crevasse. The organism has incredibly sharp teeth and seems to have a problem keeping its mouth shut. Although you may think you are looking at a scene from Alien vs. Predator, you are actually looking at a California Moray Eel (Gymnothorax mordax).

Moray EelThe California moray eel is relatively common in our Channel Island’s shallow rocky reef habitats; however, they range from as north as Point Conception and as south as Baja California. They tend to conceal their entire bodies between rocks while peaking their heads out to stay aware of potential predators and prey. How aware are they? Well, like most eels, these morays have awful eyesight that does not significantly contribute to their hunting capabilities. CA moray eels are nocturnal ambush predators and rely on acute chemosensory organs (nares) to detect their prey. Common snacks include crabs and crustaceans, small fish and surprisingly, octopuses.

Although CA moray eels look like an alien creature, they are much more familiar than the appear. They are part of the taxidermic classification Osteichthyes or “bony fish” along with other beloved bony fish like the garibaldi. The reason these eels look so foreign is because they lack scales, a gill cover and both pelvic and pectoral fins. CA Morays are different from their relatives through an adaptation that allows a second set of jaws (pharyngeal jaw) to extrude from the back of their throat and pull their meal further into their mouths after the initial bite. The thought of this is so terrifying that it inspired Ridley Scott to model an extraterrestrial being after it in his movie Alien. Our worldly aliens can grow up to five feet in length at around 30 years of age.

Moray Eel 2The moral of the disgustingly horrifying California moray eel is that they are truly misunderstood. These organisms are extremely unique and are so ugly they’re cute, so next time you see this green slimy friend stashed in a crevasse blow them a kiss or better yet, sing them a song!

The California Moray Eel Fact Sheet

The California moray eel – Gymnothorax mordax

Movie Alien?

Our moray eels live in shallow rocky reef habitats from Point Conception down to southern Baja California.

Although California moray eels may not look like fish with their lack of scales, apparent fins and an operculum, moray eels are part of the Osteichthyes (bony fish) taxonomic group.

The moray is thought to have a life span of up to 30 years and possibly longer.

Moray eels have adapted a second set of jaws that extrudes from the back of their throat to pull their meal further into their mouths after the initial bite.

Being an ambush predator can be difficult when nearly blind, however, these eels have an excellent sense of smell that allows them to pin point prey.





The Mysterious Ninja Pigs

In the early 1930’s feral pigs were intentionally introduced to Santa Catalina Island. They became extremely abundant and were hunted by sportsman for over fifty years! They were also introduced to help control the island’s rattlesnake populations. After the population of these feral pigs began to skyrocket seemingly out of control, a pig control and eradication program began in the 1990’s. From 1990 till July of 2003, over 12,000 feral pigs were removed to help protect the island’s native species.


(Feral Pig – Sus scrofa )

The feral pigs were uprooting many of Catalina Islands’ fragile plant species. The rooting caused serious soil erosion, especially on hillsides. Not only were Catalina Island’s plant species in danger from the feral pigs, but some of the native species of animals were also at risk. Populations of golden eagles from the mainland were attracted by feral pig carcasses, and then decided to turn their sights to the islands’ endemic Catalina Island fox population. Although the feral pigs were declared eradicated from the island within the last decade, there is said to be one feral pig that remains…The Ninja Pig.

Many people have heard stories about the Ninja Pig and some believe that this pig is still on the island. They say that the pig has survived the eradication efforts and continues to live on the island. The Ninja Pig is known to be shaggy and large, with tusks. Evidence that there could still possibly be a pig on the island is the proof that people have found pig scat. Some people even claim to have seen the Ninja Pig themselves. There is only one question that remains…do you believe in the Ninja Pig?

Written By: Brooke Fox







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.







How Animals Came to Catalina Island

Catalina and the other Channel Islands are bustling with life. Many endemic species have lived and evolved on the islands for millennia. The channel islands, like so many other islands, have never been connected to any mainland or continent, so how did all of the different plants and animals get to there in the first place? The for most common ways for plants and animals to spread to new lands can easily be remembered with what we refer to as the four W’s.

The first W stands for Wind. The first inhabitants of newly formed islands are plants. Plants, which live very stationary lives, have had to evolve methods for reproducing and spreading their genes over broad areas. Many plants have developed the ability to spread their genes through pollen or seeds that are designed to be carried through the air far away from the parent plant.


The second W is wings. This is by far the simplest method for immigrating to new places. Birds, bats, and insects that possess wings can simply fly to freshly formed islands, especially ones as close to the mainland as Catalina.

animals 1

The next W stands for water. Many animals have swum great distances to increase their range. One example of this is the pygmy mammoth of the Northern Channel Islands. Some experts think that at the time the mammoths swam across the channel that the distance was about 10-12 miles. Some animals like the foxes and squirrels that still roam the islands that distance was too great to swim. What likely happened was that they ended up stranded on floating debris piles that drifted to the islands. Once they hit the islands or were close enough, they escaped the rafts and many eventually evolved into new endemic species.

animals 2

The last W can stand for either Westerners, Warner Brothers, or Wrigley’s. No matter which one you prefer the method and results were still the same. Humans brought plants and animals to the island for various reasons. Some plants were brought over for function such as the eucalyptus trees for erosion while others were brought over for décor. Animals that were brought to the island include goats, deer, and pigs. The most renowned animal on Catalina is probably the bison. They were first brought to Catalina for a movie and then they were never returned.

animals 3

However they got there, the animals of Catalina have and will continue to shape it’s unique ecosystem.


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 www.cimi.org for additional information. Happy Reading!