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Mysteries of the ocean: Expedition works to learn more about the biodiversity of the Channel Islands

A diver collecting samles during the Oceana expedition in the Channel Islands this week.
A diver collecting samples during the Oceana expedition in the Channel Islands this week.

Researchers using scuba dives, remote submersible vehicles to explore the ocean around the islands.

A team of researchers is busy in the Channel Islands this week, using everything from scuba divers to remotely operated undersea vessels to try to learn more about the islands biodiversity.

"We're basically assessing the biodiversity and habitats for sensitive species that are around the Channel Islands," said Dr. Geoff Shester, who is a Senior Scientist with Oceana.

It’s a Monterey-based non-profit which is an international advocacy organization focused on ocean conservation.

Shester spoke with us by satellite phone from the research vessel.

"This area is renowned as the Galapagos of North America, because of its richness of species," said Shester. "It's important for rare and vunerable species like the giant sea bass, which was almost fished to extinction."

The researcher says the focus is on building a case for even more protections for the ocean around the Channel Islands. He said one of the concerns is about current laws which allow set gill net fishing, which can result in the accidental capture of threatened species.

One of the cutting edge research projects is collecting ocean water from different depths of the ocean for DNA testing, to see which ocean creatures live, and move through those areas.


A crab in the waters off of the Channel Islands.
A crab in the waters off of the Channel Islands.

"We're using a new technique called environmental DNA, which consists of taking water samples at different document what is the biodiversity we can see underwater at these sites," said Dr. Adrian Munguia, who is a marine biologist with the Conservation Genetics Lab at the University of Arizona.

There are 16 research team members, and seven crew members on board the Peace, the 63 foot long dive boat being used for the five day long expedition.

The expedition has an unusual sponsor: A watch company is picking up the tab. Blancpain sponsored an Oceana expedition in Mexico, and they are sponsoring this one, as well as two others.

Shester says it’s been pretty amazing so far, with the weather cooperating. "We dove in a fantastic area off of Santa Cruz Island called Flame Reef, and it is just spectacular....the most colorful corals you can imagine, and towering kelps that are 60 feet tall. It's really just eye candy for a marine biologist like me."

"It took six months to plan the expedition, and it will take months more to analyze the data. But, Munguia said this is one of the most exciting parts of the project: Looking firsthand at the ocean as they collect samples.

A Horn Shark in the waters off of the Channel Islands.
A Horn Shark in the waters off of the Channel Islands.

This is the first of three expeditions being planned by Oceana for the California Coast between now, and the end of 2025 to investigate ocean biodiversity.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.