MEP Curriculum

Lesson 1: Illustrated Introduction to Marine Mammals & Monitoring
Instructor: Charon Vilnai & Hank Birnbaum

Lesson 2: Marine Mammal Monitoring Field Work- Harbor Seals
Instructor: Charon Vilnai

Lesson 3: Marine Mammal Monitoring Field Work – Sea Lions
Instructor: Charon Vilnai & Hank Birnbaum

Lesson 4: Illustrated Introduction to the Rocky Intertidal Zone and its Inhabitants
Instructor: Song Hunter

Lesson 5: Exploring the Rocky Intertidal Zone of Fort Ross – Field Work
Instructor: Song Hunter

Lesson 6: Field Photography, Identification and Data Upload to iNaturalist
Instructor: Song Hunter

Lesson 7: Fort Ross & the North Pacific Fur Trade
Instructor: Hank Birnbaum & Charon Vilnai

Lesson 8: Human Impacts on Marine Ecosystems – LESSON 8 IS NOW INCORPORATED IN ALL OTHER LESSONS

Lesson 9:  Field Journal Exercise –  Learning from Nature’s Teachers


Marine Mammals at Fort Ross

Today, the Northern California and Fort Ross coast hosts numerous marine mammal populations. Having the longest migration (10,000 miles) of any mammal in the world, California Grey Whales are most often seen here in late December-January (as they swim toward the warm shallow lagoons of Baja to give birth) or later in March-May (as they return to the cold, nutrient-rich waters off Alaska). Humpback and Blue Whales are sometimes seen here in summer and fall, plus Orca (Killer), Minke, and Fin Whales and also dolphins, porpoises and sharks are also occasionally sighted throughout the year. Once the California Sea Otter was found here, but due to early 19th century over-hunting, only very rarely are they seen here now. With continued protection and restoration of our marine habitat, we hope the sea otter can once again eventually return to the kelp forest web of life along our shores.

The marine mammals more easily and often seen here at Fort Ross are pinnipeds (“fin-footed”), seals and sea lions that, after their night time fishing, haul-out on the rocks during the day to sleep along our shores. Harbor Seals can be regularly seen at Fort Ross Cove and points north and south, while California Sea Lions and Steller Sea Lions are seen nearby on our Fort Ross Sea Lion Rocks, just to the north.


Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina)
With an average size of 5-6 feet long and weigh 200-300 pounds, the Harbor Seal is the smallest of the earless seal.
Their fur has a mottled coloration that varies widely in color from brown to silver or spotted black. Some seals are red from iron oxide in their fur; the origin of this is unknown, but some theorize it comes from the iron-rich sediments where they capture prey.

Harbor Seals typically live in estuaries or nearshore, in rocky or soft bottoms areas. They rarely go more than twelve miles from shore and have been known to travel up rivers when pursuing prey.

Harbor Seals feed on the species abundant in the area, mainly schooling fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans. The average dive for food is only 16 feet, but dives up to 1,640 feet have been recorded. Foraging at night and resting during the day, Harbor Seals eat about 4-8% of their bodyweight in food every day.
Harbor Seals are killed mainly by great white sharks, but also by Steller Sea Lions and Killer Whales. While the general range of harbor seals has not changed since prehistoric times, individual sites have been abandoned because of large amounts of human disturbances like small boats, noise, dogs, and low-flying aircraft. Populations seem to have declined in the Gulf of Alaska since the 1980’s, but steadily, slowly increasing in California.


Steller Sea Lion (Eumetopias jubatus)
First described in 1751, the Steller Sea Lion is named for Georg Wilhelm Steller, a German naturalist serving on a Russian expedition. The largest member of the eared seal family, an adult male Steller Sea Lion reaches 9-12 feet in length and weighs up to 2,500 pounds. Their size, along with a large, muscular neck and thick mane, differentiate the males from females, who are generally two to three times smaller than the male Steller Sea Lion. These sea lions have a uniformly blond or reddish coat that holds its color when wet and lightens with age. Molting of the fur takes place annually – in spring or summer for females and in later months for males. The Steller Sea Lions are known for their “roar.”

The Steller Sea Lion’s Eastern Pacific habitat extended earlier to the Channel Islands and Southern California, but their habitat has shrunk and now extends only as far south as Ano Nuevo, Point Reyes, Bodega Rock and our Fort Ross Sea Lion Rocks. Thus the importance of Fort Ross Conservancy’s

Marine Mammal Monitoring program, to observe and better understand changes happening before our very eyes.


California Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus)
The large crest of muscle on the males’ heads paired with the long, narrow snout sets the California Sea Lion apart from similar species. Known for their intelligence, playfulness, and agility, California Sea Lions are found throughout the West Coast, from Baja California to British Columbia. Their long, wing-shaped front flippers give them a streamlined figure when swimming, as well as considerable mobility on land. Their playful attitude has also been noted when seen blowing bubbles, surfing, and playing with inanimate objects. California Sea Lions are known for their “bark.”

Like the Steller Sea Lion, the California Sea Lion also demonstrates a sagittal crest (a distinctive bony bump on their forehead) that grows with age and contributes to the general sexual dimorphism of the species that is also easily seen in the size difference between the two genders. The average male is 7-8 feet in length and 700-800 pounds, and the average female is 6-6.5 feet long and weighs 250 lbs. The uniformly dark brown, tan, or silver coats of both male and female California Sea Lions are short, coarse, and lack insulation, causing them to rely on blubber for warmth. Their fur is darker and sleek when wet and is molted annually.


Rocky Intertidal Zone
The ‘intertidal’ zone on any coast line is the area between high and low tides: underwater at high tide and above water at low tide. Most of the creatures that live in this richly diverse and productive zone are invertebrates (have no backbone). The ‘plants’ you see and know as seaweed are in fact algae and all are extremely adaptable, able to stay alive in the harsh habitat of pounding waves, submersion, and dry hot air during low tide. Over 1000 species of invertebrates and algae can be found off the coast of California!

Every day the gravitational interaction of the moon and sun upon the earth cause two low tides and two high tides. The gravitational pull of the moon pulls the earth’s water towards the moon; the moon has more influence as it is much closer to the earth than the sun. The most extreme high and low tides happen around the new and full moons.

The Rocky Intertidal Zone on the California coast is one of the most magical, diverse habitats for intertidal marine life in the world. From the border of Oregon all the way down through Baja you can find hundreds of species and subspecies in the Rocky and Sandy Intertidal zones. There are hundreds of locations along the coastline of California to go tide pooling, many with a common species theme, some with flora and fauna endemic to that location. Whether you are a kid going out on a class field trip or just a kid at heart, still thrilled by discovering something new, tide pooling can be for everyone. The beautiful thing about tide pooling is it requires very little in the way of supplies. Other than knowing when to go – this makes a big difference; carry a tide book in your car – all you need is a stretch of rocky coastline.

On any given low tide adventure, here are some of the jewels you can find: Anemones, Mussels, Gooseneck Barnacles, Sea Urchins, Sea Stars, Hermit Crabs, Shore Crabs, Chitons, Bat Stars, Limpets, Black Turban Snails, Top Snails, Seaweeds, and hundreds more!


Lesson 1: Illustrated Introduction to Marine Mammals & Monitoring at Fort Ross
Instructor: Charon Vilnai & Hank Birnbaum

Learning Targets: Students will be able to compare and contrast different species of marine mammals present at Fort Ross (harbor seals, Steller sea lions, and California sea lions), and know some of the important reasons to monitor these amazing animals.

Summary of Lesson –  We begin with a definition of marine mammals, and an overview of the large variety of such animals that live around the world – whales, dolphins, seals, polar bears, etc. Then we define monitoring, and discuss the Marine Mammal Monitoring program at Fort Ross. We discuss some of the key reasons why the monitoring of marine mammals is important, and what we can learn from monitoring. We define pinnipeds and discuss the three families of pinnipeds. Then we share a map of where seals and sea lions live around the world, noting how we are one of the few places worldwide that is home to both seals and sea lions, emphasizing the abundance and biodiversity of the California coast. We then focus in on Fort Ross’ year-round resident pinniped species (harbor seals, California sea lions, and Steller sea lions). We illustrate some of the key physical and behavioral differences and adaptations between each of these unique pinniped species, in order to deepen students understanding, and to help prepare them for our marine mammal monitoring field work.

Intro to Marine Mammals & Monitoring at Fort Ross Presentation Slides

Suggested Reading Materials:
Scary Creatures: Pinnipeds by John Malam
National Geographic, Sea Lions
Harbor Seals at Fort Ross
Steller Sea Lions at Fort Ross
California Sea Lions at Fort Ross
NOAA, Pinniped Education Marine Mammal Center, Pinniped Education


Lesson 2: Marine Mammal Monitoring – Field Work – Harbor Seals
Instructor: Charon Vilnai & Hank Birnbaum

Learning Targets: Students will be able to gather field data by observing and counting seals with telescopes and binoculars at different sites along the coast while walking along the bluffs.

Summary of Lesson – Before we approach the ocean shore and our pinnipeds, we will discuss some of the forms and equipment that field volunteers use to count and observe marine mammals in the field. There are two different marine mammal monitoring surveys, one for the harbor seals and one for the Steller and California sea lions. Students will learn about the methods of doing both surveys. However, because the harbor seals are easier to identify and count, they will complete a harbor seal survey only. We will discuss some of the reasons why the sea lion survey is more challenging than the seal survey. (One main reason being that, while on land, the harbor seals always spend time on the easily observable shore or shallow rocks just offshore. In contrast, the sea lions hang out on the “Sea Lion Rocks” farther offshore, away from more predators.) The students will use telescopes and binoculars to help them make their observations, and record their findings on a “student friendly” MEP harbor seal survey sheet. However, for those groups doing a two-day MEP, students will get to further practice their marine mammal monitoring skills by observing sea lions on the Sea Lion Rocks and completing a Fort Ross sea lion observation activity sheet. The harbor seal survey and sea lion hikes will begin and end at Fort Ross.


Lesson 3: Marine Mammal Monitoring – Field Work – Sea Lions
Instructor: Charon Vilnai & Hank Birnbaum

Learning Targets: Students will be able to gather field data by observing and counting sea lions with telescopes and binoculars at different sites along the coast while walking along the bluffs.

Summary of Lesson – Before we approach the ocean shore and our pinnipeds, we will discuss some of the forms and equipment that field volunteers use to count and observe marine mammals in the field. There are two different marine mammal monitoring surveys, one for the harbor seals and one for the Steller and California sea lions. Students will learn about the methods of doing both surveys. However, because the harbor seals are easier to identify and count, they will complete a harbor seal survey only. We will discuss some of the reasons why the sea lion survey is more challenging than the seal survey. (One main reason being that, while on land, the harbor seals always spend time on the easily observable shore or shallow rocks just offshore. In contrast, the sea lions hang out on the “Sea Lion Rocks” farther offshore, away from more predators.) The students will use telescopes and binoculars to help them make their observations, and record their findings on a “student friendly” MEP harbor seal survey sheet. However, for those groups doing a two-day MEP, students will get to further practice their marine mammal monitoring skills by observing sea lions on the Sea Lion Rocks and completing a Fort Ross sea lion observation activity sheet. The harbor seal survey and sea lion hikes will begin and end at Fort Ross.

MEP Harbor Seal Survey Sheet
Sea Lion Observation Activity Sheet

Suggested Reading Materials –
Fort Ross Coastal Map
Marine Mammals at Fort Ross


Lesson 4: Illustrated Introduction to the Rocky Intertidal Zone and its Inhabitants
Instructor: Song Hunter

Learning Targets – Students will get an intro into the world of the Rocky Intertidal Zone, will learn to identify many of the creatures found in the Rocky Intertidal Zone by appearance and name and learn the importance of keeping these extremely biodiverse habitats healthy.

Summary of Lesson – We will define what the Rocky Intertidal Zone (RIZ) is, the micro zones within the RIZ, where it’s located, how it’s influenced by the tides and what creates the tides. Students will learn how to safely tide pool, why the RIZ is important and who/what lives there. We will discuss many of the specific intertidal creatures found at Fort Ross Cove (using a slideshow of photographs to assist in learning to identify them) and their important role in a healthy ocean ecosystem. We will learn about and define invertebrates. We will go over the importance of true observation, and will use these skills when out in the field.

Suggested Reading Materials – 

iNaturalist Marine Ecology of Fort Ross

LiMPETS Monitoring
Fylling’s Illustrated Guide to Pacific Coast Tide Pools by Marni Fylling
A Quick Field Guide to Tide Pools of the Pacific Coast by Michael Rigsby
The Beachcomber’s Guide to Seashore Life of California by J. Duane Sept


Lesson 5: Exploring the Rocky Intertidal Zone – Field Work
Instructor: Song Hunter

Learning Targets – Students will apply their safe tide pooling skills, apply what they learned during their intro to tide pooling (including practicing identifying RIZ organisms), and most importantly practice their observations skills.

Summary of Lesson – Before going down to the tide pools, we will reiterate that we will be practicing safe tide pooling skills, check our shoelaces and pants, remembering to watch out for our friends and maintain three points of contact when climbing over the rocks. We will find and identify species of invertebrates discussed earlier, finding one that “calls to us”, make observations, note these in our journals, and make a sketch of it in it’s habitat. There is a Rocky Intertidal Worksheet that we will complete.


Lesson 6: Field Photography, Identification and Intro to iNaturalist
Instructor: Song Hunter

Learning Targets – During the course of RIZ fieldwork and follow-up, students will develop their skills in observation, photography, & relevant technology. They will find, observe, and take pictures of species in the RIZ. Then they will learn to use field guides, library resources, and iNaturalist (an online, global naturalist app) to identify the species they photograph, and learn to upload their findings to iNaturalist.

Summary of Lesson – Students become in-depth explorers and citizen scientists of the Rocky Intertidal Zone, using the artistic and technological components of photography and iNaturalist. They will use their smart device, camera or FRC device (when available) to scientifically document as many different RIZ species (invertebrates, vertebrates and algae) as they can find. They then use the excellent collection of field guides and related resources in the Fort Ross Conservancy library to positively ID all of the species found and photographed. Once the group agrees on the correct species ID, they upload each find to the iNaturalist app.


Lesson 7: Fort Ross & the North Pacific Fur Trade
Instructor: Hank Birnbaum

Learning Targets – Students will be able to explain the basic incentives, hunting methods, trade routes and ecological consequences of the 19th century hunting and fur trading in the North Pacific and Fort Ross, resulting in the overexploitation of different local sea mammal populations, including the sea otter and northern fur seal.

Summary of Lesson – Students begin by learning about the basic human history of this coast, beginning with the Kashia Pomo, the Russian era of Fort Ross (1812-1842), then the Ranch and State Park eras. Learning about the importance of trade, food production and hunting at Settlement Ross, and the colonial competition between the Americans, English and Russians in the North Pacific, students then focus specifically on the past hunting activities here, the Russian American Company’s furthest outpost on the American continent. Learning about the invaluable skilled Alaska Native hunters, conscripted into service by the Russians, and their primary prey, the sea otters and northern fur seals, students learn about how the fur pelts were processed and then traded with China, Europe, America and Russia and the resulting ecological consequences of the avarice of fur.

Summary of History (for reference, as needed):
Danish sea captain Vitus Bering discovered the economic worth of the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) while working for the Russian Czar, Peter the Great. Bering died on that voyage but his crew took 900 sea otter pelts back to Russia with them, many making their way into the Chinese fur market. The exceptional quality

and beauty of the sea otter’s fur soon made it the most sought after pelt in Chinese trade, a status symbol for the Mandarins. They wore it as hats, collars, belts, capes, and trim on silk robes, and in every aspect the fur took on the name ‘soft gold.’ Each pelt brought up to 100 dollars, equal to the average annual salary of a farmer. A year’s pay for a single kill — the Fur Rush had begun!

Sadly, now we only very seldom see sea otters along our coast north of the Golden Gate and here near Fort Ross. They were heavily hunted because their fur was valued for pelts, most of which ended up in China. This is an example of how overuse of a resource can lead to either a complete or regional extinction. However, it is also an example of how human preservation efforts can sometimes reverse these trends.

Case in Point: After an initial early 19th century effort by the Russian American Company creating a short-lived moratorium on the hunting of sea otters along our Pacific coast, at last in 1911 the ‘Northern Fur Seal Treaty’ was signed by Japan, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States, ending the indiscriminate hunting of marine mammals, including otters and fur seals. This protection was strengthened in California in 1913. In 1941 a sea otter refuge was established along the Central California Coast, and now California sea otter populations are stable in the Monterey area and elsewhere, plus the northern fur seals are beginning to re-establish themselves at the Farallon Islands and beyond.

Suggested Reading Materials – 
Hidden Corner, Sea Otters
Sea Otters, Fort Ross
Northern Fur Seal at Fort Ross
Fort Ross State Parks, Sea Otters
Magasin at Fort Ross


Lesson 8: Human Impacts on Marine Ecosystems – LESSON 8 IS NOW INCORPORATED IN ALL OTHER LESSONS

Learning Targets – SWBAT (students will be able to) articulate how the preservation of marine mammals in an area has been harmed or advanced by human activities.

Summary of Lesson – We will use marine mammals as an illustration of how ecosystems are interconnected and how biotic and abiotic factors influence each other.

For example, when the sea otter population goes up, the urchin population will go down. This decline in urchin barrens causes the kelp forests to expand which acts as a carbon sink. Kelp plays a role in combatting climate change, which affects us all. Thus, trying to reintroduce the sea otters into this area would have a beneficial impact on humans even if they never visit Fort Ross.

We will discuss global changes caused by human beings and the impacts they are having on our planet’s atmosphere and oceans. In doing this, we will discuss how respect for animals and their role in the ecosystem is probably the single greatest thing most individuals can do to improve the planet.

We will return this discussion to the Coast by discussing some of the ways human actions have been altering the local Ft. Ross landscape. Some are Negative (interplay between drought, warmer waters and toxic algae) and some are positive (Legislative Action to make the area a protected zone).

We will also discuss the need for international cooperation to tackle this monumental problem and use the history of Ft. Ross as an inspiring example of very different cultures working together to handle the challenges of a changing environment.


Lesson 9: Field Journal Exercise – Learning from Nature’s Teachers
Instructor: Charon Vilnai & Song Hunter

Learning Targets – SWBAT (students will be able to) learn directly from nature and see elements (such as the ocean, rocks, flowers, trees, marine mammals) of nature as teachers.

Summary of Lesson – Students will sit quietly outside on the coastal bluffs or a more sheltered spot (weather dependent), and choose an element or object in nature that they will practice learning from. We will instruct them to choose a nature teacher that is in their immediate environment.
For example, a student may love tigers and want to learn from tigers–but there are no tigers at Fort Ross! They will begin to get comfortable in this natural environment and use all their senses to connect to this coastal environment.
Once they are settled and have chosen their nature teacher for the exercise, they will attempt to learn something from that teacher. Without a lot of prompting and guidance from the MEP Instructors, they will be encouraged to work through this teaching exercise on their own to see what comes naturally to them. In their journals they will document their experience. They will record who their teacher was and what, if anything, they learned. They will describe if the exercise was easy or difficult, and discuss how this way of learning is different than other ways of learning that they are more familiar with.