SEA Days: Ocean Love & Plankton

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego or local researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft.

This month, SEA Days features some pretty amazing ocean drifters, also known as plankton. Plankton is found throughout the world ocean and is essential to life on Earth. Check out researchers Kayla and Laura’s stories below and meet them at SEA Days on February 20, 2016.


Kayla Blincow & Laura Lilly


  • Kayla: Born in Dallas, TX, but grew up in the Middle East
  • Laura: Sacramento, CA

Schooling Background:


  • B.S. Ecology Behavior Evolution Biology from UCSD
  • Master of Conservation Biology from University of Queensland, Australia


  • B.S. (2012)
  • M.S. (2013) Stanford University, Earth Systems program (Oceans)


1 word to describe a characteristic a scientist must have: 

Kayla: Creativity

Laura: Awareness

How does plankton impact a persons daily life?

Kayla Blincow: Phytoplankton are responsible for producing half of the oxygen that we breathe in the atmosphere, without them terrestrial photosynthetic organisms would have a lot more work to do. Zooplankton form an important community at the base of marine food chains that helps provide the seafood that people eat.

Laura Lilly: Phytoplankton produce nearly half of the world’s oxygen via photosynthesis, so you can thank a plankton for every second to third breath you take! Plankton also form the base of the oceanic food web, and provide food for many of the fish we eat, and the seabirds and whales we enjoy observing. Plankton also move up and down the water column, and eat other plankton, both of which help remove carbon from surface waters and store it deeper in the ocean. Without plankton, the ocean wouldn’t take up nearly as much atmospheric carbon dioxide as it has, and our atmosphere would be increasing in CO2 much more rapidly.

How did you decide to work on this particular issue?

KB: I began working with zooplankton as an undergraduate more out of opportunity than anything else, but I have since grown to love the zooplankton! I decided to continue my work with the zooplankton community after completing my Masters degree, because it is such a diverse assemblage of organisms. I learn something new about them every day! They are also important indicators of large-scale changes in our environment, such as climate events like El Nino, which is something I am particularly interested in.

LL: I am interested in how physical ocean perturbations or changes (such as the recent Warm Blob off California, and the current El Nino) affect the lower levels of ocean biology, and how we can understand these changes in order to predict future plankton distributions. Because plankton serve so many crucial roles in the ocean and in our global Earth system, I want to better understand specific plankton responses to the physical perturbations that we are seeing right now, and that we will likely see more of in the future.

How do you predict the story of plankton will change in the future?

KB: I believe the plankton communities are going to play an increasingly important role as researchers continue to dig deeper into issues like climate change and fisheries management. Plankton are the base of most life in the oceans, and as such need to be given special attention as we move forward with tackling tough questions about preserving our environment.

LL: I expect types (species) of plankton off California and across the oceans to change during and following our current El Nino, with associated effects on fish, seabird, and whale foraging patterns. Some parts of the ocean may experience weaker winds in the future, which will lead to less ocean mixing, and reduced delivery of nutrients to the surface ocean from deep waters. Phytoplankton, like land plants, depend on continued supplies of nutrients in order to grow, so reduced nutrient availability may lead to dominance by smaller phytoplankton species (which can survive on reduced nutrients), and associated dominance by smaller zooplankton and fish species

Interested in learning more about Kayla and Laura’s work? Visit: 


California Current Ecosystem Long Term Ecological Research (CCE-LTER)

Scripps Institution of Oceanography Pelagic Invertebrates Collection

Scripps Institution of Oceanography Zooplankton Guide

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego