UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program
A multimedia story for Science Notes 2012, the capstone publication of the UCSC Santa Cruz Science Communication program.
Feature story: “Beneath the ocean-weathered planks of the Santa Cruz municipal wharf, a sleek sea lion snorts and rolls languidly in the waves. Honey-gold sunlight glows through gauzy morning mist. Ian Hunter, an undergraduate from UC Santa Cruz, eyes the surging swell. The waves are high and heavy, colored dark green with tints of yellow and brown—like a fading bruise. Graduate student Lisa Ziccarelli joins Hunter on a dock below the pier. The boards are slick, but this morning’s mission demands that someone cross the slippery timbers.
Ziccarelli dashes down a small flight of stairs to the edge of a platform, uncomfortably close to the waves. She reaches over and hauls up a rope festooned with brightly colored disks. Each disk has a teabag-like pouch, holding plastic beads the size of millet grains. They’ve floated in the surf for a week, gathering chemicals that drift unseen in the water. The students will take those bags back to a lab on campus to analyze them for traces of poison.
The poison comes from marine algae, also called phytoplankton. Normally, algae float harmlessly through the waves, soaking up sunlight. When the water chemistry and temperature are right, they bloom in rapid spurts of growth, sometimes even coloring the waves. Most algae are benign, but some blooms spout toxins. Endangered sea otters, dolphins, sea lions, and humans have all gotten sick or died from eating the marine creatures that devour algal blooms.”