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Long-Term Ecological Monitoring is Sexy Too

The Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund aims to protect the last wild places in the ocean while facilitating conservation, research, education, and community development programs in the places we explore. This blog entry spotlights some of the exciting work our grantees are doing with support from the LEX-NG Fund.

‘Sexy’ marine research subjects tend to get all the love, don’t they? Great white sharks. Humpback whales. Dolphins. People love dolphins; I know I do. Someone is collecting money to save the dolphins? Here’s twenty bucks!

Not to say that these causes aren’t worthy of our support—they most certainly are!—but there are other equally important research projects happening that are chronically underfunded because they don’t grab the public’s attention in quite the same way.

Take, for example, long-term ecological marine monitoring, which involves collecting sample data from a body of water at various depths; measuring properties such as temperature, salinity, and oxygen levels; and repeating the tests consistently over the course of years. If your eyes just glazed over reading that last sentence, you’re not alone. Many people outside the world of marine biology don’t consider this a ‘sexy’ research topic.

And that’s a shame, because long-term ecological monitoring is incredibly important.

HUMPBACK WHALE SHOWS ITS FLUKE - BAJA CALIFORNIA - LORETO BAY MARINE PARK: GULF OF CALIFORNIA, MEXICO
100% of guest donations made to the LEX-NG Fund support projects on the ground, such as Dr. William Gilly’s work in the Sea of Cortez. © Ralph Lee Hopkins

One such long-term study currently underway is being led by Dr. William Gilly of Stanford University and the Sustainable Use and Research of the Mar de Cortes program. With support from the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund, Dr. Gilly is conducting a long-term ecological monitoring study of the Gulf of California, the body of water between mainland Mexico and Baja, California, also known as the Sea of Cortez.

Dr. Gilly, along with his partners in the region, makes periodic research trips throughout the year to the Sea of Cortez to collect data, which he subsequently analyzes. You can sometimes even find him aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird on one of our Baja expeditions interacting with guests, offering educational talks, and generally being an all-around awesome guy.

Gilly_giantsquid (1)
Dr. William Gilly, a marine biologist and Stanford University professor, is conducting a long-term marine study of the Gulf of California. Here, Dr. Gilly interacts with LEX-NG guests aboard one of our ships. Photo by Pete Pederson.

Now let me convince you why long-term marine monitoring such as Dr. Gilly’s project is worthy of our support and attention: because climate change isn’t just happening on the planet’s surface. Climate change is also happening deep in our oceans, and tracking changes underwater is critically important to revealing its long-term impacts on marine environments and their residents.

Do you need oxygen to breathe? Me too. We’re not the only ones. Marine creatures need a certain amount of oxygen in their water, and right now something significant is happening in the Sea of Cortez. Since 2010, Dr. Gilly has discovered that rising water temperatures and other factors are lowering the oxygen levels at depths to 300 feet across much of the Gulf of California, creating low-oxygen zones that are inhospitable to marine life.

The scary thing? These low-oxygen zones show signs of growing. Like dropping ink in a bowl of water, they are ballooning horizontally and vertically.

Marine creatures that are sensitive to changes in their environment, such as Humboldt squid, are reacting dramatically to the lower oxygen levels…and I don’t mean they’re collapsing on a fainting couch holding a handkerchief to their beaks. Their life span, body size, diet, and distribution in the Sea of Cortez are changing radically.

9/2003 Professor of biological sciences William Gilly holds a jumbo squid on a boat in the Sea of Cortez, Baja California. Credit: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service
Dr. Gilly also studies Humboldt squid, which are highly sensitive to changes in their marine environments and foretell larger-scale impacts due to climate change. Photo by Linda Cicero.

Squid are an important food source for sperm whales and other marine mammals, so the entire food-web in the Sea of Cortez may be affected during this time of rising sea temperatures and lower oxygen levels. As squid goes, so goes the ecosystem.

With scientists like Dr. Gilly conducting long-term studies, we can better understand how climate change is impacting marine environments. Since oceans make up more than 70% of our planet and are the basis for all life on earth, I’d say these studies are pretty significant…wouldn’t you?

So the next time you have the opportunity to support a scientific cause, keep long-term ecological monitoring in mind. It may not sound very sexy, but it’s crucial to understanding what the future holds for our oceans…and our planet.

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If you would like to learn more about long-term ecological monitoring in Baja, or other projects supported by the LEX-NG Fund worldwide, please contact the Fund by email. To contribute to the LEX-NG Fund, click here.