Dr. Steve Lonhart

Senior Scientist, Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network (SIMoN)
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

On Your Career…

What is your official title?
Senior Scientist,
Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network (SIMoN) at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

What is your educational background (degrees, institutions, etc.)?
UCLA—BSc in Biology
CSU Long Beach—MSc in Biology
UCSC—PhD in Biology

How did you end up in the field you are in today?
Once I completed my PhD, one of my advising professors suggested I pursue the recently created position for a brand-new research program in the sanctuary. He said I would be a perfect fit. And I think he was right!

Who or what inspired you to pursue this career?
As a kid I used to watch TV specials about Jacques Cousteau and his ocean explorations, and I always thought it would be so cool to be one of those divers. I also had excellent biology teachers in high school and college, and they encouraged my interests in marine biology.

How and where do you conduct your work?
I work both in an office (most of my time) and in the field (e.g., intertidal or kelp forests). I spend a lot of time in front of a computer, reading and reviewing research reports, entering and analyzing my own data, and corresponding with other scientists and educators. When I am in the field, it is usually either in Eklhorn Slough, an estuary within the sanctuary, or I am aboard a research vessel and SCUBA diving along the coast between Santa Cruz and Cambria. I don’t dive north of Santa Cruz due to the higher numbers of white sharks!

What tools and/or technologies do you use in your work?
When in the office, I use my computer a lot—mostly to write, but I also use it to manage and analyze the data. I also use iPhoto to manage the thousands of pictures I take every year. When I go in the field, I almost always take a camera to capture what we’re doing, where we worked, and any of the cool animals we have the chance to observe. I often access this extensive library of photos for my own research and to support the needs of others. I also use SCUBA to dive in the kelp forests. As the digital era marches onward, I’ve learned to take underwater photos and we recently added a HD video recorder to our kit of tools, so I get to learn how to do that too!

What research projects are you currently involved in?
I am involved in over 20 research projects at any given time. But in some cases my role is solely advisory, while at the other extreme I am the Principal Investigator (PI) on several other projects. Being the PI means I am the one in charge of the project. Currently I am a PI on the management of the invasive Asian kelp Undaria pinnatifida in Monterey Harbor. I also collaborate with other researchers, helping them do work that the sanctuary supports. For example, I help with erosion and invasive species monitoring in Elkhorn Slough, and I assist with surveys of areas inside and outside of recently established marine protected areas (MPAs).

What have you learned so far from your research?
The great thing about being a researcher is that you are always learning new things. My training is in marine invertebrates that live in kelp forests, but as part of my job I get to learn about lots of other plants and animals. For example, when I was a kid I would see clouds of birds along the shore. Now I know that they are sooty shearwaters, and they come to Monterey Bay to feed in the summer. I also learned that they lay eggs in places like Chile and New Zealand, so flying halfway across the world is no big deal to them. And they do it every year!

What do you like the best about your job?
I really enjoy that I am always learning. It would be a bummer to do a job the basically does the same thing every day.

What do you like the least about your job?
I would like to be in the field more and behind the computer less.

What are the most common misconceptions that people have about what you do?
Because I tend to do so many things, no one really knows what it is that I actually do. One day I’ll be diving with people to count fishes, so people think I am a “fish guy.” But the next day I’ll be meeting with database managers to discuss how we can provide data to the public via the web, so they think I am a “tech guy.” And then I’ll be invited to give a lecture to students at a university and people think I am just a marine ecologist who works on marine snails (the “snail guy”). I guess I am all of those things, and both more and less. The term “Jack of all trades” fits me fairly well.

Where have you traveled for your work?
I have attended meetings in Washington DC and Miami, Florida, as well as most of California. I have been SCUBA diving all along the Big Sur coast, which is some of the prettiest coastline in all of the US.

Where’s your favorite place that you’ve been to so far?
Big Sur. I get to dive in areas no one has been before and see invertebrates that I’ve never seen before—even though I’ve been diving in central California for almost 20 years!

What is the most incredible thing that has happened to you while conducting your work?
Once, when I was diving along the Big Sur coast, we had a stretch of incredible weather. It was really calm and there was no wind, which made the ocean look like a pond. This is really abnormal for Big Sur. I was diving in a long cove and was getting pretty shallow. There was so much to see that I didn’t realize how shallow I was until my head started to break the surface. I decided to stand up and was shocked to see a guy looking at me from about 20 ft away. He was on shore! He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him, since this was a very remote beach. I was only about 4 ft deep and had come right up to shore. There were no waves and it was very quiet. I should say this “beach” had no sand, just small rocks and boulders, which indicates it is normally a high-energy site and pounded by waves. I just happened to be there on one of the calmest days ever. And I’m sure the guy on the beach has told the story of hanging out on a nice, secluded cove, then having everything disturbed by a diver popping up right in front of him!

What are some of the different career opportunities that are associated with the work that you do?
With my educational background and my experience of working for the sanctuary for five years, I think there are several options. I could pursue a career as a professor at a college or university, or become an advocate in a non-governmental organization (NGO), or move towards a career in marine policy, where my knowledge of the resources would be an asset.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in studying science?
Try as many different fields of science as you can. Take biology, chemistry and physics. Find out which one interests you, and what you are good at (but not necessarily what is easy). Pursue your passion.

On the Sanctuary…

Which ecosystem(s) of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary have you studied?
Estuarine, rocky intertidal, and kelp forest.

What about doing work in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is most exciting to you?
There is always something new to learn. I get to see lots of new places, and I love exploring.

Why do research in the ocean in general and in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary region specifically?
The ocean is a different world. It is so foreign from everything else we experience. And working in central California is great, since we have different biogeographic regions overlapping, which means lots of different kinds of species mixing up near the limits of their geographic range.

What one thing would you most like kids to learn from studying the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary?
What people do affects the ocean. Even little things. And thousands of small injuries quickly add up to something significant.

On Being a Kid…

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid? Why?
I still like science fiction in general, and fantasy in particular. I read Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Ursula Le Guin, Piers Anthony and lots of other authors. I grew up with the game Dungeons and Dragons and all the creative thinking that went along with it. Just a geek at heart, I guess. Now kids do the same thing but instead of using their imagination and a bunch of dice, they plug in the game station and grab the controller.

What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school?
My favorite subject was Workshop. We had a great instructor and made lots of really cool things. The one thing I regret is not making a wax hand. At the time I was too chicken to dip my hand in the molten wax.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I thought I was going to be a doctor. I turned out to be one, just not a medical doctor.

What advice do you wish that someone had given you when you were a kid?
Don’t be nervous around girls.

On the Rest of Life…

Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
I admire university professors, who balance teaching and research with family life. There are a few people who do all three really well.

When you are not working, what do you like to do for fun?
I am addicted to disc golf. I travel all over the place playing in tournaments and seeking out new disc golf courses. I also love to hike and I backpack with my family at least once per year in the Sierras.

Do you have any final thoughts or words of advice that you would like to share?
Don’t be afraid to try new things. Learn from your mistakes. Speak up for yourself. And leave this place better than you found it—your ancestors will appreciate the effort.

JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic