This week I was lucky enough to join Kevin Lafferty on his monthly sea otter survey along the coastline north of the University of California Santa Barbara. In addition to surveying the sea otter population, the survey also keeps track of the number of harbor seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales, and various bird species living in or passing through the area. The surveys has been going on for years now and these sorts of datasets are important because they allow us to track how population numbers changes over time and to determine if any particularly factors are associated with changes in population numbers (e.g., how are changes in climate influencing population size?).
California sea otters are endangered and have had a long streak of bad luck. Their first bad break was when their pelts became popular in the fur trade, resulting in a major collapse in population size due to hunting pressure. Conservation efforts have helped to bolster sea otter numbers, but more recent threats have popped up. More recently sea otters have been suffering from parasites that end up in sea otters “accidentally” (click here for a popular press article on Kevin’s work in this area). For example, sea otters switch to eating crabs when their preferred foods (e.g., sea urchins) aren’t readily available and the otters accidentally acquire acanthocephalan parasites living in the crabs. I use the term “accidentally” because these parasites complete their life cycle in crab-eating birds and so the sea otters represent a dead end for them. Unfortunately, these parasites can still survive in the sea otters and they cause massive intestinal damage, which can result in death. The sea otters are also being parasitized by our old friend Toxoplasma gondii, which apparently makes it into the marine habitat when cat feces end up in water sources which flow out to the ocean.
More recently, researchers have been finding sea otter bodies washing up on shore with evidence of great white shark bite marks (see here for more information and a video on the topic). There is a larger than usual great white population off the coast of California right now, possibly because we had a really cool summer, resulting in ocean temperatures are within the range favored by great whites. The sharks typically eat sea lions, and the working hypothesis is that they are mistaking the otters for sea lions and are spitting them out when they realize their error. Unfortunately, the otters don’t typically recover from an exploratory great white bite.
So how does this story relate to me (as the title suggests)? Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I watched Jaws at a critical period in my development and I’m terrified of sharks. I know it’s ridiculous. I know that there are very few sharks out in the water, that they aren’t particularly interested in making a meal out of humans, and that my chances of encountering one are really low. That doesn’t change the fact that when a piece of kelp brushes against my foot while I’m in the ocean I have to stifle a scream. I realize this is totally irrational behavior for an ecologist.
I heard the sea otter story on NPR right before jumping in the truck with Kevin and Julio to do the survey. After hours on the boat I hadn’t seen any sharks. Also, Kevin and Julio had been in the water and neither of them had been eaten, so I decided to get brave and jump in. Mind you, this was a HUGE step for me.
So, I’m floating around in the water and am feeling quite proud of myself. I had just finished congratulating myself on how calm I was staying when Julio, looking off in the distance, says to me, “Kelly, I think you should get on the boat now.” I immediately decided that this meant Julio had seen a shark, sending me into a panic as I tried to get back onto the boat. After slipping a few times on the ladder, I managed to hurl myself up onto the deck of the boat, as Kevin and Julio looked on in confusion. I should mention, Kevin and Julio do NOT share my fear of sharks and are both inherently cool surfer guys. Here I am, inherently uncool to begin with, sprawled out on the deck of the boat terrified. Turns out Julio thought we were getting too close to another boat and didn’t want to turn the engine on to move the boat while I was in the water (lest the propeller make chum out of me). He couldn’t have imagined that my brain would come up with sharks as the default reason to get out of the water.
Anyway, I’m clearly making a good impression on the Kuris Lab as a visiting researcher.
I’d love to hear stories about how you’ve embarrassed yourself in front of colleagues in the comments.