Exploring San Diego MPAs!

By WILDCOAST MPA Intern Maria Esther Diaz.

Last week I had the pleasure of accompanying WILDCOAST on two of its #ExploretheCoast programs. WILDCOAST coordinated with San Diego’s Outdoor Outreach to bring groups of middle and high school students to the Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve. As is common amongst people in San Diego, the students did not know what Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) were or that they even existed. At the start of our days together student knowledge was evaluated and some were not aware that MPAs are open for public use. The main objective of these trips is to educate students from all over San Diego on MPAs and provide them the opportunity to interact and engage with local MPAs on a personal scale.

We started each trip with a tour of Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), beginning with a tour of the research pier. This was particularly exciting because the pier is closed to the general public! We got a behind-the-scenes look at the different research instruments used to collect data on climate, biology, and oceanographic research! We also had a brief history lesson about the pier, natural history of the area and other Scripps buildings. I learned that the pier is around 100 years old and was purchased for a mere $1,000! Students on the tour were particularly interested in learning that the pier is earthquake resistant. There are metal “zig zags” in place that allow different sections of the pier to move independently and prevent it from breaking in an earthquake event.

While on the pier we were able to observe lots of cool things. We watched some graduate students prepare a research boat for launch off the end of the pier, and we also saw a lot of wildlife! What we initially thought was a shark was actually a Yellowtail chasing around a schooling bait ball of small fish! There were also a lot of stingrays hanging out close to shore and we saw a sea lion splashing around the waves. As our time on the pier came to a close our tour guides gave us a peek into a surprisingly exciting pipe. As it turns out, Scripps uses water straight from the ocean to fill the fish tanks in its research aquarium. The pipe used to transport this water tends to become a home for barnacles and other small oceanic organisms. We even spotted a fish swimming around in it!

From the pier we moved on to the research aquarium, which did not look like the aquariums that we were all picturing. All the organisms found inside are currently the subjects of research! The students were able to get a close look at leopard sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, lobsters, and some animals that they didn’t know even existed! Most, if not all, of the organisms in the aquarium are our neighbors, having been captured right outside. We also learned a lot about each species, as well as the research being conducted. As it turns out, sea urchins are currently a subject of cancer research and one of their predators is the cute little sea otter! One of the tour guides passed around some sea urchins of various sizes, with the smallest being the size of a golf ball and the largest as big as my face! The students also enjoyed the “touch tank”, where they were able to touch and pick up various tidepool organisms such as the star fish.

After our aquarium tour we made our way down to the beach, where the students were engaged in, practiced and discovered the meaning of a “citizen scientist”. A citizen scientist is a person just like you and me that contributes to scientific research. You can be a citizen scientist as you walk along the beach, which is exactly what we did. As we walked to our next destination the students were taking notes on how many people were on the beach and specifically what they were doing. We then moved on to the most physically taxing part of our day: kayaking!

The students enjoyed kayaking because it gave them a chance to actually be in the areas that we had been talking about all day and observe organisms in their natural habitats. This was also a lot of people’s first time kayaking, including mine! During our kayak tour we learned about about the biology and geography of the Matlahuayl state marine reserve. We started our tour observing the inshore ecosystems, where we saw a lot of stingrays, and travelled over the kelp beds to the rocky shore. During our time spent over rocky reef we observed many Garibaldi fish and sea lions! We also kayaked near La Jolla’s Seven Caves and caught a glimpse of Dr. Seuss’ house on a mountaintop. Fun fact: The Dr. Seuss book “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” was based on the fish that lived right outside his home, the Garibaldi!

Overall, our tour was filled with wildlife. We observed many sea lions in slumber and a few were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a sea lion eating an octopus! If the kayaking itself wasn’t exciting enough, most of us jumped out of our kayaks to swim around the ocean, and we were joined by a couple dolphins! A few people were flipped off their kayaks, whether it was accidentally, on purpose, or by the hands of those out to get each other. We were able to make it back to shore with the help of the waves, if they didn’t flip you over first. By the end we were all soaked.

Although we had a lot of fun the students also learned quite a bit. Most were surprised to learn the major differences between sea lions and seals, like they have different flippers and sea lions are the ones that make that famous bark. Students were also impressed by the fact that the Scripps pier is earthquake resistant and is slightly elevated on the left side in order for rainfall to slide straight off and not accumulate. They were all thrilled to have had such close encounters with so much marine life and their favorite parts of the day included the kayaking and swimming, racing one another and flipping each other off the kayaks. At the end of the day they all walked away with new found knowledge about marine systems and life, but also an appreciation for marine protected areas. Having spent the day in the Matlahuayl state marine reserve, they learned that marine protected areas are good places for safe interaction with all kinds of fish as well as for many other recreational activities. Program participants also learned how they can get involved with marine protected areas in their region, whether it’s by being a “citizen scientist” or volunteering with WILDCOAST!

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