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Triptych of students working in Monterey: on a boat, with a microscope in the classroom, a seal underwater.

Discover Monterey Bay through Oceanography, Ecology, and Literature

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Monterey Bay supports an amazing diversity of marine life, important fisheries, and coastal agriculture. There is much to explore here, from a submarine canyon that rivals the Grand Canyon in scope to Elkhorn Slough, California’s second largest estuary. A day on the Bay can reveal a fleet of purse-seine vessels searching for squid, sport fishermen seeking salmon and halibut, and humpback whales breaching as they feed on anchovies – all within a relatively small area. What are the oceanographic and biological processes that support these creatures and human endeavors? How do they vary in different parts of the Bay? How are these processes linked to the fog that dominates the coastal climate and is critical to local agriculture?

We will address these questions through lectures, discussion, and field work using the restored Western Flyer – the ship John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts took to the Gulf of California in 1940, resulting in publication of Sea of Cortez. You will collect oceanographic and biological data at sea using a variety of research instruments, including remotely operated video platforms, echosounder (sonar), water-column profiler, and plankton-imaging microscope. These observations will be related to the processes and trophic webs in the bay, moving all the way from wind to whales. At Elkhorn Slough we will observe sea otters and birds from kayaks. We will analyze water and sediment samples for nutrients and other properties and compare our results to real-time data from moorings in the slough and bay. We will learn about agriculture, the largest economic driver in Monterey County, and its connections to Monterey Bay through fog, nutrient runoff into Elkhorn Slough, and seawater intrusion into critical aquifers. We will also dive into Monterey Bay’s rich cultural and literary history in developing a holistic view that will reveal a dynamic ocean from new viewpoints and  build teamwork skills that are essential to working at sea.

Our base of operation will be Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. We will make several relevant field trips on land. On four days, we will use the Western Flyer as our at-sea classroom (all day trips--we will spend all nights on land). Three days of ship time will be devoted to studying spawning squid and feeding whales and carrying out an oceanographic transect across the Bay from kelp forest to canyon. An additional day will be devoted to collecting data for projects of your own design. We will spend three days at Elkhorn Slough and in the Pajaro Valley agricultural area.

You will use the data collected (and analyzed!) and experiences formed during our explorations to create individual or team projects. Projects will be presented at a symposium on the second last day. The last day of SoCo will feature a final morning of reflection on the shore of Monterey Bay before you return to Stanford.

Important Logistics

This course will be held at Hopkins Marine Station on Monterey Bay, and housing will be provided nearby. Students will arrive at Stanford on Monday, September 2 (Labor Day) the same as on-campus students and will be transported to Monterey as a group after dinner on campus. Return transportation to campus will be provided on Friday, September 20 before autumn classes begin. Do not bring everything you need for the year to Soco! Additional storage will NOT be available on-campus or at the location where you will stay in  Monterey to accommodate your fall belongings. Plan to have your fall belongings shipped or delivered to you after the class returns from Monterey.

Meet the Instructor(s)

William Gilly

Professor of Oceans

Professor William Gilly

I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania surrounded by woodlands, fields, and streams – fishing, camping, and diving into amateur radio. As an Electrical Engineering major at Princeton, I became interested in how nerve cells worked and decided to study the electrical properties of nerve and muscle in a PhD program in Physiology and Biophysics at Washington University in Saint Louis. During my second summer there, I went to the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs on San Juan Island to study invertebrate neurophysiology and discover the ocean. During that summer I also went to the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole to participate in the Excitable Membranes Training Program, a ten-week immersion into the squid giant axon. That summer changed me – it introduced me to squid and marine stations, and there would be no going back.

After finishing my PhD, I went to the University of Pennsylvania as a post-doc and was able to work with squid giant axons in Woods Hole from May through September. One day I read of an assistant professor opening at Hopkins Marine Station. Then I found out there was a squid fishery in Monterey Bay right behind the lab. I’ve been catching squid there with students for our research ever since.

Although I spent many years studying molecular biophysics of squid axon excitability, doing this at Hopkins altered my career arc. The richness of Monterey Bay, a group of amazing invertebrate zoologists, and a stream of inquisitive students has led to a far deeper appreciation of squid and their ocean world. The most influential step in this process was studying squid at sea on research cruises --  this has led to creation of this Sophomore College of ocean exploration.

Chris Francis

Professor of Oceans & Earth System Science

I grew up in Northern California where I spent much of my free time surfing, exploring, and tidepooling along the stunning stretch of coastline from north of Bodega Bay down to Monterey Bay. As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, although I was initially interested in all aspects of marine biology, I quickly became enamored with the critical role microorganisms play in driving global biogeochemical cycles. As a junior, my first oceanographic research cruise was in Monterey Bay and my senior thesis (and first publication) focused on intertidal microbial mats in Elkhorn Slough. While an undergrad, I also had a chance to take a five-week summer course in marine and coastal field ecology at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, which opened my eyes to the tremendous value of marine stations for place-based scientific research and education.

I obtained my PhD in Marine Biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography (UC San Diego) in La Jolla—one of my favorite places on the planet—effectively realizing a dream that began back in junior high. Midway through my PhD, I briefly escaped the west coast and spent 7 weeks to participate in an advanced Microbial Diversity summer course at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA. Although I did not fully realize it at the time, this intensive, hands-on learning experience at yet another world-renowned marine laboratory turned out to be truly transformative for both my research and teaching endeavors going forward. As a postdoctoral fellow in the Geosciences Department at Princeton University, I began my ongoing (23 years and counting!) obsession with microbial nitrogen (N) cycling in marine and estuarine environments.