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Locals Return to Poly Pier 2017

Community members invited to tour the Cal Poly Pier in Avila Beach on May 6 were warned that the popular biannual event could be canceled on account of rain.

Luckily the drizzle held off until Sunday morning. What many visitors weren’t prepared for was the high winds attempting to scour them off the grating during the 1.2 mile round trip walk. Unlike the balmy but bright weather of this time last year, most folks wore hoodies pulled up tight, although a few dedicated fathers were easy to spot, walking back in shorts and T-shirts towing little ones in vastly oversized jackets.

It was a special and rare treat for visitors last year as mystical hum embraced travelers walking the length on the span. Indiscernible at first but growing in tone and intensity, wind hits the railings and grates on the walkway at just the right angle to create a tone like a church organ over pinholes in the guardrails.

That effect was unmistakably loud and varied in tone serenading guests this visit, however attempts to record it resulted in muffled, windswept microphone noise, as if the ghostly song never occurred.

Open house tours of what was the old Unocal, now Chevron Corp., fuel pier routinely feature hands-on touch tanks full of live marine creatures, microscopes inside a dry lab for viewing plankton and other miniature sea life, and other interactive displays.

Cal Poly’s Research flagship, R.V. TL Richards, the largest of their five vessels, is a crowd favorite at the events, towed out to the end of the pier for display, although it’s too large to launch over the side with the cranes mounted there. Onboard, Technician Rob Brewster explains the craft’s use in fishery studies, giving students a preliminary in nautical technology they’ll use their entire careers, and serving as a test bed for senior projects and other research

Unique this year, Cal Poly Research Assistant Grant Waltz showed children and others an impressive catch made with the R.V., a Ling Cod and other fish harvested from the protected marine zones along the Central Coast.

The monstrous looking creatures have been getting bigger as measured during a catch and release study of the sanctuary zones that’s been going on since 2007.  Waltz notes the study is about to go statewide as part of the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program but that it took them a decade to show results because of the slow growth rate of their subjects.

A recurring theme when visiting the researchers at the pier, good date gathering takes time, indeed the study started when the University’s Director of the Center for Coastal Marine Sciences and Dean of Research, Dean Wendt was still an associate professor.

Grant did have news for Pismo Beach natives who remember the region being famous for large edible clams. The creatures are making a return to their old grounds, although it will be decades before any are of legal to harvest again.

“We’re taking a pulse of the beach,” said Waltz. “We need more information. We don’t actually know why they disappeared to begin with…overharvesting or environmental factors certainly but we can’t say that definitively and now we’re watching them develop.”

Since 2015, he said they’ve monitored tiny clams returning to the low-tide beds, but it’s still illegal to harvest the shells smaller than 4.5 inches wide. Even the smaller than an inch specimen he cradles over a tank took eight years to develop, he notes.

Even on a cold day, children were more interested in putting their face in a tank filled with tide pool creatures and breathing through a scuba respirator, than on listening to research methods. However, said Cal Poly grad student Emily Resner, even though she hadn’t, “had anyone interested in [her] barnacles” before the event, she was happy with how much interest she’d gotten during the event.

Resner is studying enormous barnacles that are native to California waters. Balanus nubilis, is the largest barnacle in the world. Specifically she’s interested in the workings of their outsized muscles, a subject without much unique research.

Not to be confused with the muscles harvested for dinner tables, although she did eat one that died over the course of research. It tasted like, “cheap frozen fish sticks.”

Far more interesting is their anatomy, a little like upside down shrimp permanently attached on their backs in the shell. Their feather-like filaments that emerge for feeding are actually attached to their, “legs.”

The next Cal Poly Pier open house and tour, sure to offer yet another set of research topics and experiential learning, especially as weather changes, will likely be some time in November.

  • By Camas Frank, Photos by Camas Frank and Erin O’Donnell
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