How often do you start your day with a hike to the ocean
...wearing knee-high rubber boots,
...bright orange weather-proof waders,
...carrying 10 three-foot quadrats and a metal detector,
...before 4 am?
If you're not obsessed with algae, chitons, and sea stars, probably never. But if you are paid to know every single species of alga and animal in rocky intertidal habitats, you would do it a lot.
This is what the Partnership for the Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO, pronounced "peace-co") rocky shores field team does. Nearly every spring tidal series (when the tides are lowest), this group of about seven employees counts and measures species three hours before the low tide to three hours after. So if the low tide is at six in the morning, you can count on them being on the mussel beds at three in the morning.
I got up before dawn every day for the last week to help the PISCO group. We counted sea stars and barnacle recruits (babies); identified at least a hundred different species of algae and invertebrates along transects and in quadrats; accounted for sea star disease, and attached temperature and salinity sensors to the rocks. We did this at five sites along the Oregon coast, from Cannon Beach to Brookings. There was no lack of adventure on this exhausting trip, and while I'd love to write pages about the adventures we had, I'll leave you mostly pictures and a story of just the most spectacular "rock" we sampled.
Just north of Cannon Beach, Oregon, there is a beautiful stretch of beach and rocky shore emerging from a Sitka spruce forest. In this stretch lies Ecola State Park. Unlike E. coli and Ebola, two words that first came to my mind when I heard the park's name, this park is pleasing and refreshing. There are many hiking trails through the forest and down to the beaches, but you don't take any well-maintained trails to get to the PISCO field site. Oh no. That would be too easy.
When I arrived with the PISCO crew at Ecola State Park at about 4 am, we quickly rendezvoused with a few other volunteer helpers in the parking lot before strapping field equipment to ourselves and making our way seaward. The trail was paved for about five minutes of our journey, after which it became a muddy slip n' slide down a steep hill. Luckily, there were foot holes and no one fell.
After landing on the beach, we trekked a few hundred feet over rocks and sand toward the ocean. I stopped briefly once to check out a rock that appeared to be covered with my study organism, but I had to keep going or I'd miss seeing the correct passage. I caught up to the group because they were standing at the tide line scouting out a path we could follow that wouldn't involve walking in waste-deep water. The problem with this site is that the sand level changes frequently, so while one year you may only have to walk through ankle-deep water to access the plot site, the next year the sand may have shifted and you'll be up to your waist via that same route. Somebody tall went first and found a relatively dry passage, and we all quickly followed. We scuttled through the water around a rock (cliff?) about 100 feet tall where many seagulls were nesting. On the other side of this rock were the plots. We all climbed up the final short "cliff side" to the rocky area where the plots were.
The Ecola State Park PISCO field site is on the other side of the big rock where the red arrow is pointing. The dashed line shows how we got there. I got this picture from the Ecola State Park website, and I'm not 100% sure it shows the exact location of the plots. In any case, it was very similar to this photo, which is a good representation of what we went through.
Ecola is notoriously one of the toughest sampling sites for PISCO. This is because it is difficult to tell when the water level in the passage back is too high. You can work for hours past low tide on the rocky field plots, but then when you go to leave you will find you are on a small island surrounded by deep, breaking waves.
To make things worse, the plots are not identifiable with permanent bolts. Normally, the researchers drill about one-inch bolts into the rock sediment at the corners of their plots so they can easily identify them the next years. However, at this site the bolts had to be removed due to extreme complaints from a concerned citizen. Apparently, one year PISCO was surveying this site, a park visitor saw the bolts and demanded they be removed because they could injure resting seals. The park staff was alerted, but since drilling bolts was already part of PISCO's approved permit, the bolts were allowed to stay there. This was to the PISCO field workers' great relief, since they really rely on having those bolts there—you would too if you had to find the exact same 0.5-by-0.75 meter-squared plot every year for 15 years.
However, this concerned citizen would not accept no for an answer. He eventually got the phone number of the principal investigator and left him threatening messages. At this point, to avoid further conflict, PISCO removed the bolts at the site. So how do they find the plots? They use very specific rock formations and marine epoxy as landmarks from which they measure to each plot corner. It gets really crazy (but kinda fun) when there are nine or ten tape measures all strung out at once across the slippery rocky site, but that's the only way to do it. Sometimes I wonder why they don't use GPS; it must not be accurate enough.
Once we found the plots, we identified and counted the species in them. This is a very tedious process, but I was totally okay with it because I was learning how to identify so many new species in my favorite habitat and I loved being on that secluded rock. Since it is so hard to access, it is really pristine. Five or six hours later, we decided the water level was getting high and we had to go! Quickly! Since there was just the tail end of one transect left, a couple of us stayed behind to finish it up so we wouldn't have to come back again the next day, even though it meant risking having to swim back.
We climbed down off the rock with our gear and saw our friends that left earlier wading through the water. I looked to see how much water they were walking through. The tallest person was up to about his thighs, and the other women about my height were deeper, but not swimming. Phew! I quickly splashed, waded, and hopped from underwater rock to underwater rock in the same path they were taking. It was a challenge, and some people had to hold their field gear over their heads so it wouldn't get water logged and ruined. I ended up waist deep at the deepest, which was cold but doable. Everyone made it through and was glad we didn't wait a minute longer to go back.
By the time we drained our boots of seawater and climbed up the slippery, muddy hill back to the parking lot, we were all ready for breakfast. Yes, breakfast, because though we had been working for around six hours, it was now only 10 am. The biggest problem was deciding if we should shower and warm up before or after eating, because deciding between warmth and food is pretty challenging; luckily, it doesn't really matter which you pick first because both things are super awesome after doing what we just did.
Another view from Ecola State Park from the state park website. For obvious reasons, I didn't bring my not-waterproof camera on this outing.
Wow, done working by 10 am? That's like having the whole day off, right?! Not quite. We'd get a few hours of rest at most, but some days, after working in the field in the morning, we'd have a six-hour drive to the next field site. Upon arrival, we'd set up camp and go to sleep by 8 pm since we had to get up at 3 or 4 am the next morning to sample. The biggest break was always at breakfast, when we could really relax, feeling quite good about ourselves for having just completely sampling a site. After breakfast it was often right back to work, figuring out our itinerary to catch the next tide.
So, next time you see someone working out in the intertidal, I hope you recall this story and remember how much careful planning and physical endurance it takes to learn about this charming and dangerous habitat. This sampling experience was truly humbling for me, and I gained a lot of respect not just for the PISCO field workers, but for all the plants and animals that live their whole lives in the intertidal. The rocky intertidal is one of the most extreme environments I can imagine, which is why it's so mind-blowing how much biodiversity it sustains!
I am constantly awestruck by what evolution produces. It gives me hope knowing that life can thrive in such a harsh place. In the midst of the current extreme environmental changes, sometimes I fear for the future of life on Earth (er, Ocean, as it should be called). But when I recall how well and quickly organisms can adapt to their environments, I am hopeful. Thank God for evolution.
"As long as there is life, there is hope." -Unknown (though the actor who played Stephen Hawking says this in the movie The Theory of Everything. Good movie!)
"Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." -Theodosius Dobzhansky