Conserving Marine Life Along Catalina's Coast

Expedition Briefing


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The Research

There is mounting evidence that Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)—regions of the ocean set aside for conservation purposes—can increase the health and abundance of key marine species (Dugan and Davis 1993; Lubchenco et al. 2003). More than 100 MPAs span the coast of California in an effort to safeguard marine animals, plants, and their habitats by limiting human activities such as fishing or boating. But how effective are these MPAs in protecting coastal ecosystems? And how are global threats such as climate change impacting marine life in this region?

Catalina Island, located just 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species, and surrounded by some of the most vibrant kelp forest habitats in the world. This region is also home to multiple areas of special biological significance and nine MPAs. However, there are numerous threats to the waters surrounding Catalina, including climate change, human activities, and harmful algal blooms.

Catalina is sometimes referred to as a ‘living laboratory.’ Despite its close proximity to Los Angeles, a major urban landscape, the island is relatively remote and significant efforts have been made to protect its coastal waters. It is, therefore, an ideal region to study not only the effects of MPAs on the health of marine ecosystems, but how global threats, such as climate change, are impacting these waters.

Research Aims

Maintaining MPAs and expanding marine protections to new regions requires dedicated conservation and enforcement efforts. These efforts require a substantial amount of ongoing monitoring and data. The results from this study will feed directly into Catalina’s coastal policies and enforcement practices for MPAs, helping to ensure that these protected areas receive the support they need to function effectively. Even more broadly, the research findings will be used to support MPA management in California by establishing a baseline dataset and detailed record of biodiversity— including native and non-native species—in the region.

Research questions will involve four different coastal research programs, all oriented to a common goal of gathering baseline information on our coastal environment that documents natural variability, tracks ecosystem change, and helps gauge the success of resource management strategies.

Specific program goals are as follows:


In HABWatch, participants will determine when HAB species are present and abundant in the local waters of Catalina Island, and whether Catalina exhibits different HAB patterns than the mainland. The results of your data collection are shared with entities such as the CA Health Department, which regulates seafood consumption in CA waters.


The program goals are:

  1. To determine if MPAs are meeting their goal of enhancing recreational activities
  2. To provide contextual information on human use for interpretation of biological and socioeconomic monitoring data
  3. To inform MPA management decisions regarding human activity inside MPAs
  4. To build MPA stewardship among program participants and the public (Murray et al., 2014). Locally, MPA Watch efforts are led by the non-profit Heal the Bay.

Tracking cetacean and pinniped abundance and distributions will inform long-term research, and test the hypothesis that environmental perturbations such as sea surface temperatures, El Niño events, and human activities may impact mammal populations.


Participants will conduct intertidal surveys to develop a baseline for a long term monitoring project collecting compatible coastal data and contributing to a centralized database. This will also in part help to assess impacts of sea level rise, temperature change, and storm occurrences.

How You Will Help

You’ll help scientists to record the abundance of marine mammals such as California sea lions, gray whales, and common dolphins; collect water samples; survey the inhabitants of the intertidal zone; and observe the ways in which humans use this delicate habitat. You’ll contribute to Pacific coast datasets and help to conserve a valuable marine ecosystem.

Specific tasks include:

  • Surveying Marine Protected Areas: You’ll walk along shoreline, cliffs, and beach roads to monitor human activities in Marine Protected Areas.
  • Observing Marine Mammals: You will kayak along Catalina’s coast to observe, survey, and photograph marine mammals, such as sea lions, whales and dolphins.
  • Surveying Rocky Intertidal Habitat: You will observe, measure and record rocky intertidal species and their abundance during low tides.
  • Collecting Water Samples: To determine the impacts of harmful algal blooms, you will perform plankton tows and use microscopes to determine phytoplankton and algae species present in your water samples.

Life in the Field

You will have plenty of learning opportunities on this expedition. With a wide variety of activities planned, you get to both learn about and experience research related to harmful algal blooms, marine protected areas, marine mammal surveys, and intertidal surveys.

While you’ll spend considerable time on research tasks, you’ll always have the chance to ask questions, enjoy the scenery, and take in the majesty of this unique marine environment. In this pristine environment, there are endless opportunities to view rarely seen wildlife and plants. Wrigley Marine Science Center was established in 1965 to encourage responsible and creative decisions in society by providing an objective source of marine and environmental science and fostering an understanding of the natural world among people of all ages. It is not uncommon for participants to sit at a dining hall table with scientists and have a conversation directly with them about their studies. These researchers are also likely to give informal lectures during which in-depth discussions can carry on for hours. You will be in the midst of an intellectual environment unique to a center like this.


Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.

    • Arrive at the Southern California Marine Institute where you will be met by research staff
    • Take the USC boat to Catalina Island (approximately a 1.5 hour ride) to the Wrigley Marine Science Center, censusing marine mammals en route
    • Arrive at Catalina mid-morning, settle into the accommodations, group lunch, introduction to the facility and research, training on research tasks, and safety briefing
      • Walk along shoreline, cliffs, and beach roads to monitor human activities in Marine Protected Areas.
      • Additional training on research studies and protocols.
      • Kayak along Catalina’s coast to observe, survey, and photograph marine mammals; Identify, measure and record rocky intertidal species and their abundance.
      • To determine the impacts of harmful algal blooms, you will collect plankton tows and use microscopes to determine the abundance of phytoplankton species present in your water samples.
      • Evening lectures and videos
      • Presentations on the research
    • Finish fieldwork and data entry
    • Closing lecture
    • Depart Wrigley Marine Science Center mid-afternoon via USC boat.
    • Arrive at Southern California Marine Institute (approximately 1.5 hour boat ride)


Accommodations and Food

Located just 22 miles offshore of Los Angeles, Catalina is one of eight Channel Islands along the coast of California. Catalina Island is the only one of the islands with permanent public residents. The island is 21 miles long—the widest point of the island is Long Point (about 8 miles across), and the narrowest, just a few miles away from the Wrigley Marine Science Center, is the Isthmus at Two Harbors. The highest elevation is on Mt. Orizaba (2,097 feet).

Since the early 1970s, 88% of Catalina’s land has been protected, including 62 miles of coastline. The Catalina Island Conservancy maintains a delicate balance of conservation, education and recreation for the over one million people who visit the island each year. One of the most popular introduced animals visitors may see on Catalina is the American Bison, originally brought over in the 1920’s by a Hollywood film crew. They are commonly seen grazing on grass even on campus at the Wrigley Institute! Catalina Island offers a stunning coastline with great scuba diving and snorkeling. It is home to some of the best kelp forest habitats in the world, and along with them their unique marine life communities.

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.


Your team will stay at the USC Residence Hall, which is set up dormitory style with two or three people per room, separated by gender. Each room contains either twin beds or bunk beds, a desk, chair, closet, and mini-refrigerator. Linens and bath towels are provided. Couples accommodations may be possible upon request—contact your Earthwatch representative about this option. Private room is available at an extra cost (an extra 30–40 dollars per night)

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.


Bathrooms are either private or shared by two dorm rooms. Bathrooms in the residence hall have a sink, shower, and toilet with cold and hot water available. Catalina Island is facing extreme drought conditions. All visitors to Catalina are asked to limit showers (2–3 minutes) during their stay.


You are welcome to bring your own electronic equipment (cell phones, digital cameras, laptops, etc.), but you will be required to limit your use of cell phones or laptops for research work or to recreational time only for personal use.


Wireless Internet access is available on campus. Cell phone reception is available on campus, the town of Two Harbors and for most of the island. In more remote locations, service will be limited.


Your team will travel to general location of the research sites by walking, van, boat, or kayak depending on the site. The furthest site is approximately seven miles via car.


Meals will be prepared by a dedicated chef and served cafeteria style in the dining hall. Both indoor and outdoor seating are available. Some days you will take a bag lunch into the field. Meals are designed to be healthy and hearty, with a variety of local cuisine. Participants will eat together with research staff and sometimes with other science groups on campus.

A small selection of snacks (fruit, cereal, drinks), microwave, and refrigerator are available 24 hours/day. There is a soda and snack machine in the lab building. Please don’t leave any food or drinks in your room unless you want to be visited by an army of ants!

The field center is located in a remote area, so food is ordered and shipped in weekly.

The following are examples of foods you may find on the menu. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

  • Breakfast: Bacon, eggs, toast/bagels, yogurt, hash browns, fresh fruit, cereal, and oatmeal
  • Lunch: Salad, sandwiches, soups, pasta, tacos, etc.
  • Dinner: Classic American food. For example: chicken, fish, rice, casseroles, steak, ribs, steamed vegetables, bread rolls, and desserts.
  • Beverages: Juice, milk, water, soft drinks, tea, coffee, hot chocolate

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your participant forms.

This expedition can easily accommodate vegetarian diets, as well as vegan, gluten-free, and lactose-free diets, with sufficient prior notice.

Strict kosher diets can sometimes be accommodated based on space availability for a private kitchen. In such case, the participants would be required to cook for themselves.

Project Conditions


For weather and region-specific information, please visit and search for your project location.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is different from your own.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Work on or near shore for about two to three hours per day with limited break options and restroom facilities.
  • Traverse wet, slippery, rocky terrain.
  • Traverse steep hiking trail for up to 1 mile.
  • Get low enough to access and collect samples on the ground and in the brush.
  • Carry personal daily supplies, such as lunch, water, and a camera.
  • Sit in a kayak and paddle with partner to move a two person kayak forward
  • Lift and carry kayaks to the water and back up the ramp for storage
  • Enjoy being outdoors all day in all types of weather.
  • Enjoy being outdoors in the potential presence of wild animals, snakes, and insects.
  • Enjoy working as a team, and function cohesively within a group.
  • Sit and ride, with seat belt fastened, in project vehicles.
  • Enter and exit the water from shore.
  • Recommended comfort in swimming in open water and be comfortable using snorkeling gear (mask, fins, snorkel). (not required)

Health and Safety


Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.


Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or regions where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions


Traffic accidents and injuries are always a hazard of road transport. Vans will travel no faster than 25 mph on public roads, most of which are unpaved. Participants will not drive; only staff will operate vehicles and boats. You must always wear a seatbelt. Participants will be transported to the island on the Miss Christi (USC owned and operated ferry boat). You will be given a safety briefing before the boat departs and shown where life jackets and life rafts are located.


You will be walking along a rocky coastline. Some areas are very well protected from the elements, while others are exposed. The trail is steep at times. You will also be walking off-trail, in sometimes thick, low to waist high vegetation. There are no railings on trails or roads. Participants must wear shoes with good grip to avoid slipping and long pants. Please keep in mind that we will also be entering the rocky intertidal, which will be uneven, slippery and wet. It is advised that participants bring a pair of thickly soled water shoes or dive booties.


You will be using two person kayaks to observe marine mammals. You must wear a personal flotation device (life jacket) at all times when using the kayaks. Research staff will be in a separate kayak or motorboat to assist as needed.

Stinging animals

Mosquitoes, sand flies, yellow jackets, wasps and spiders are present, and repellent or long-sleeved shirts and pants can help protect from stings and bites. Stingrays and scorpion fish may be present in the water. All dangerous creatures will be discussed during the training period. Please note that if you have a severe reaction to bee stings you may also have a similar reaction to stingray and jellyfish stings—please consult with your doctor.

Sharks and large fish

Attacks by sharks and other large fish are extremely rare. Team members will be instructed to exit the water in a calm manner in the event of an animal acting aggressively.

Local Wildlife

As we are located on the edge of a nature preserve, it is likely you will come into close proximity with local wildlife… bison, snakes, ravens, the island fox, and…ants! As a general rule, please keep your distance and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Foxes and squirrels are curious creatures that will go into your rooms if the door is left open and ants can be very invasive. Keep your rooms clear of any food drink, wrappers, wet towels, etc. Please do not attempt to feed any of the wildlife.


Dehydration and sunburn are two major risks while in the field. You’ll be briefed on proper clothing, sunscreen use, and fluid intake. Project staff will monitor participants for symptoms of exposure or dehydration. Take particular care when working during the hottest periods of the day.

Project Tasks/ Equipment

Hands should always be washed after being in the field, especially before eating. Participants are encouraged to take regular breaks and to avoid over-exerting themselves. Teamwork and attention to proper technique will keep you from wearing out or getting injured. Inform a staff member immediately if you are feeling tired or ill. Laboratory protocols and use of personal protection equipment are required. Long pants, closed toed shoes and use of lab coat (provided by Wrigley Institute staff) are required in the lab.

Personal Security

Crime on Catalina is low; however, do not leave valuables unattended in public areas.

Swimming/ Snorkeling

Swimming/snorkeling is possible during recreational time. Visitors are not allowed in the water alone on any Earthwatch expedition and you must get permission from waterfront staff beforehand. Swimming and snorkeling is only permitted in the presence of a person with lifeguard certification and drowning is a hazard.

Distance from Medical Care

Medical and rescue assistance along the coastlines is abundant, but can take more time when working on the interior of the island. The Catalina Island Hyperbaric Chamber is located at WMSC and is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and all Chamber staff are trained as first-responders. Baywatch paramedics are a few minutes away. A helipad also connects the WMSC to medical facilities on the mainland, and can transport a patient to LA County hospital within 15 minutes, if needed. If advised by Baywatch, transport to the hospital in Avalon takes approximately one hour by car.


Please see below for immunization recommendations. Most diseases are prevented with basic safety cautions. Please see the CDC ( or WHO ( websites for more information. Diseases present in this region of the U.S. include, but are not limited to, Lyme disease, rabies, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, pertussis, and West Nile Fever.

Travel Planning


Southern California Marine Institute, San Pedro, California

Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.


Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.


Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website:

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.


  • Wild Catalina Island: Natural Secrets and Ecological Triumphs (Frank Hein and Carlos de la Rosa)
  • The Edge of the Sea (Rachel Carson)
  • Natural History of Santa Catalina Island (Gerald Bakus)
  • Dugan J. and G. Davis. (1993) Applications of Marine Refugia to Coastal Fisheries Management. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, v.50(9): 2029-2042.
  • Lubchenco J., Palumbi S., Gaines S., S. Andelman. (2003) Plugging a hole in the ocean: the emerging science of marine reserves. Ecological Applications v.13(1): S3-S7.
  • Murray, D.R., et al. 2014. “MPA Watch: citizen scientists monitoring human coastal and marine resource use of marine protected areas.” Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, vol. 113, no. 2, p. 110.