West Coast
Marin College students at the Bolinas Marine Laboratory. (Archive photos courtesy of Joe Mueller)

CA - The Storied Bolinas Marine Laboratory Is Reborn

The College of Marin's lab, one of two in the state's community college system, closed for lack of funding 18 years ago.

If you drive up Highway One some 15 curvy miles north of the Golden Gate, through the coastal village of Stinson Beach, the view to the west opens up dramatically onto a wide-open expanse of shallow water that is one of the richest marine estuaries on the West Coast, and one of the best places around to study marine biology—Bolinas Lagoon.

It may look placid to travelers driving along the eastern edge of the lagoon. But a summer walk along the Bolinas waterfront, at the narrow western mouth of the lagoon, revealed clues to the invertebrate riches beneath the surface—namely, the scads of creatures that had converged there to exploit them.

More than a dozen great egrets were resting along the edge of Kent Island in the middle of the lagoon, waiting for the tide to recede so they could resume their feeding activities in the intertidal mudflats. Several hundred California brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, and Western gulls crowded together on nearby sandflats. Slate-gray Heermann’s gulls patrolled the surf zone, poking their bright-red beaks into the sand and scarfing down small invertebrates. Two harbor seals stuck their heads up from the water in the channel, as several Boston Whalers returned to their moorings from fishing offshore. Meanwhile, other shore-based fishermen tried their luck from the Stinson Beach side of the channel. And just offshore, a large squadron of pelicans wheeled in the air before dive-bombing on a school of fish. In the winter, I knew, this portrait would change dramatically, with the pelicans and gulls replaced by large numbers of shorebirds and ducks arriving from the Arctic tundra and prairie potholes to the north, that either overwinter at the lagoon or stop to refuel there.

The Bolinas Wharf, located right along the channel was for years the setting for the College of Marin’s storied Bolinas Marine Laboratory (BML). For more than four decades, students from around the Bay Area studied marine life firsthand here.

Now, 18 years after being shuttered for lack of funding, and after six years of persistent advocacy and fund-raising, this unique field station is on the cusp of being reborn.

How Bolinas got its mudflats

A fortuitous combination of geology and biology makes the 1,100-acre Bolinas Lagoon such a special place. The sunken landform that forms the lagoon was created by tectonic shifts along the San Andreas Fault, which runs directly beneath it. When sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age some 7,000–8,000 years ago, this depression filled with water. Because of the extensive sandbar formed by ocean currents along the shoreline (now artificially—and temporarily—stabilized by the Seadrift, a development of multimillion-dollar beachfront homes built on top of it), this body of water is an estuary instead of an open bay. Through its narrow mouth separating Stinson Beach from Bolinas, the lagoon receives a twice-daily tidal infusion of nutrient-rich ocean water. Yet it remains largely protected from turbulent coastal wind and waves, by the Bolinas mesa and Duxbury Reef to the northwest, and by the sandbar to the southwest. And it also receives a modest input of fresh water from several seasonal creeks. It’s this combination of protection and nutrients that makes it so inviting to so many forms of marine life: plankton, larger invertebrates, mollusks, fish, harbor seals, wading birds, diving birds, shore birds, pelagic birds. Despite its relatively small size, Bolinas Lagoon was recognized in 2007 by the Ramsar Convention as a “wetland of international significance.”

Nearby Duxbury Reef is another gem—the largest rocky reef on the West Coast of the United States, and the largest shale reef in North America. Due in part to the plankton that grows in the nutrient-rich waters of the lagoon, intertidal life is particularly abundant on the reef.

A laboratory’s origins

In the late 1950s, the College of Marin, a public community college, purchased the buildings of the recently deactivated Coast Guard Station on the Bolinas Wharf. By 1964, the Bolinas Marine Lab opened, thanks in large part to the efforts of marine biology instructors Al Molina and Gordon Chan. It became a renowned, storied field station over the next 41 years. Hundreds of students learned about the coastal environment by doing fieldwork at the lagoon and the reef, and thousands visited it.

Many of the students who passed through Molina’s and Chan’s classes and got their start at the lab went on to work in the natural and environmental sciences, including Terry Gosliner, now senior curator of invertebrate zoology and geology at the California Academy of Sciences; Lynne Stenzel, marine ecologist and research associate at Point Blue Conservation Science; and Joe Mueller—the current marine biology instructor at the College of Marin, who would eventually also become the chief cheerleader for the lab’s revival.

The Honda Accord years

Following the untimely deaths of Molina and Chan in the 1990s, Mueller took up the role of chief instructor at the BML, teaching classes there from 1995 to 2005. Students loved them. But the program’s popularity wasn’t matched by investments in the old Coast Guard buildings, built in 1918, that housed the lab. This funding shortfall was in large part the result of voters’ passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which drastically reduced taxpayer support for the community college system. The water pumping system, which supplied salt water from the lagoon to the lab’s wet tables—where students could study organisms they found in the lagoon or on the reef—was the first critical piece of infrastructure to go, though the building continued to be used for on-site lectures. Then, lacking funding for upkeep, in 2005 the buildings were deemed unsafe for occupation, particularly given their location on the edge of an active earthquake fault. With that, the facility—only one of two of its kind in the state’s community college system—was closed.

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