Out in the waves with a biologist and a surfer, whose lives are focused on the ocean’s edge.
Arye Janoff and Bekah Lane

Arye Janoff and Bekah Lane 

People Story

Working and Playing in the Coastal Zone

by Alastair Bland, Jacoba Charles | January 17, 2024

Every person’s relationship to the coast is unique. Some are drawn to play in the coastal zone; others work there and study the mysteries of the deep. Of all the habitats on earth, the ocean remains one of the most impenetrable to human beings—there is a point at which the depth or the weather or the access becomes impossible for us to navigate. Surf boards and boats help extend the reach of some, while others use wetsuits and diving gear. KneeDeep profiles two people deeply engaged in the coastal zone of California. One studies whales for The Marine Mammal Center; the other surfs and manages coastal dredging and restoration projects for the Army Corps of Engineers’ San Francisco district. Both have a passion for the ocean and the coast is their place of access. Climate change—and its effects on the creatures, wave patterns, ecosystems, and infrastructure that is the object of their work—is their newest challenge.

Extremes-in-3D

A five-part series of stories in which KneeDeep Times explores the science behind climate extremes in California, and how people and places react and adapt.

Supported by the CO2 Foundation and Pulitzer Center.

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Working and Playing in the Coastal Zone

Alastair Bland, Jacoba Charles | January 17, 2024

Every person’s relationship to the coast is unique. Some are drawn to play in the coastal zone; others work there and study the mysteries of the deep. Of all the habitats on earth, the ocean remains one of the most impenetrable to human beings—there is a point at which the depth or the weather or the access becomes impossible for us to navigate. Surf boards and boats help extend the reach of some, while others use wetsuits and diving gear. In this article, KneeDeep profiles two people deeply engaged in the coastal zone of California. One studies whales for The Marine Mammal Center; the other surfs and manages coastal dredging and restoration projects for the Army Corps of Engineers’ San Francisco district. Both have a passion for the ocean and the coast is their place of access. Climate change—and its effects on the creatures, wave patterns, ecosystems, and infrastructure that is the object of their work—is their newest challenge. 

EXTREMES-IN-3D

A five-part series of stories in which KneeDeep Times explores the science behind climate extremes in California, and how people and places react and adapt.

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Supported by the CO2 Foundation and Pulitzer Center.

Photo: Kristen Velit

Photo: Kristen Velit

Coastal Mixmaster Arye Janoff

Like breaking waves churning sand, work and play mix at the edges for Arye Janoff. The Bay Area transplant, who moved here two years ago from Washington, D.C., surfs most days along the San Francisco shoreline. When his workday begins, the elements that produce surfable waves meet again in an official context—strategizing regional adaptations to coastal erosion and rising sea level. Janoff works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ San Francisco District as a Senior Project Planner. He also has a close hand in the Bay Area’s Long Term Management Strategy—a regional effort to manage material dredged from shipping channels and how it may be used to build up wetlands, buffer shorelines, and otherwise help San Francisco Bay communities adapt to climate change and rising sea level.   

“It’s going to be a case-by-case basis whether managed retreat is viable,” Janoff says. 

In places where the San Francisco shoreline is abutted by parking lots, beach access points, and other recreational features, retreat or relocation may be easier to accomplish, he says. But in places with critical infrastructure built near the coast, it is more difficult. For instance, agencies and communities are fine-tuning plans to protect San Francisco’s Embarcadero and the city wastewater treatment plant at the south end of Ocean Beach as a future of flooding, erosion, and shifting shorelines closes in.

Janoff (m) with other Army Corps colleagues on a recent field trip. Photo: Brandon Beach

Janoff (center) on a field trip with Army Corps colleagues Julie Beagle and Peter Mull. Photo: Brandon Beach

Janoff says his “scientist’s brain” values the long-term process of observing changes, gathering all information, assessing all options, and proceeding with caution and prudence. But that approach is not always feasible when making real-world, time-dependent decisions. 

“There’s also a pragmatic side of things, where you sometimes have to make decisions using the best available information,” he says. 

Janoff’s relationship with the ocean began decades ago. Born in Massachusetts and relocated early in life to New Jersey, Janoff, 30, recalls playing at the beach as a boy. Like other children, he built sandcastles, but his projects were next-level creations. 

“I built these massive sandcastles, but they weren’t castles—they were sand baseball stadiums,” he recalls, adding that he envisioned someday being a naval architect. 

A New Year’s brew of weather. Photo: Scott Sewell

Janoff and fellow surfer, Kyle Avella, in Oceanside, California. Photo: Jesi Halprin

The waves that inevitably undercut his projects, until they collapsed, eventually drew him into the water. Here, he embraced their energy in progressively immersive ways—first through swimming, then bodyboarding, then surfing. 

“That solidified my whole coexistence with, and identity centered on, the ocean,” he says. 

Janoff’s fascination with ocean processes, coastal erosion, and nature’s impacts on human infrastructure steered his education. He studied Environmental Science at Tulane University and earned a PhD in Environmental Science and Management, with a focus on Coastal Geomorphology and Economics, from Montclair State University. He studied the heavily developed New Jersey shoreline, analyzing the feedback between natural geomorphological changes along the coast and choices made by coastal communities in response, and how this dynamic system behaves under future sea-level-rise scenarios. 

His early professional career led him to Washington, D.C., where he was a NOAA Sea Grant Knauss marine policy fellow. He worked within the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, helping secure Coast Guard and port infrastructure funding for climate change resiliency. 

Janoff moved to San Francisco in February, 2022. As he familiarized himself with local surf conditions, he observed differences between East Coast and West Coast waves. Consistency, measured in various parameters, is greater in Northern California, he says. The water, for one thing, is always moderately cold off San Francisco, usually in the 50s–60s, whereas in New Jersey, sea surface temperatures range from the 30s in the winter to the 70s in the summer. 

 Janoff catching a wave in Oceanside, California. Photo: Jesi Halprin

 Janoff catching a wave in Oceanside, California. Photo: Jesi Halprin

The quality of the waves, determined by wave physics and bathymetry, also tends to be better, more reliable, and more exciting in the Bay Area, Janoff says. Part of this is explained by the sheer width of the Pacific Ocean. Because West Coast waves tend to originate from more distant storms compared to locally generated systems of the western Atlantic, he explains, by the time they reach the coast of Northern California, they are traveling in more organized and predictable patterns—generally a plus for surfers. 

Size matters, too, but bigger is better only to a point. Janoff says breakers of 12 to 15 feet are the largest he’s comfortable surfing—especially after having what he calls “a few humbling experiences in big surf,” including a broken board and a brief moment when unruly surf pinned him to the bottom. In fact, he says he has “come to really appreciate smaller, more playful waves, rather than seeking out the largest waves to be found.”

His growing fondness for more delicate surf runs counter to an alarming trend of bigger, stronger waves—yet another outcome of the Earth’s changing climate that is likely to affect beach recreation, for better and for worse, as much as it impacts shoreline infrastructure.    

For Janoff, surfing remains the source of his interest in ocean physics. “It’s the motivation, it’s the root,” he says. In some ways, maneuvering across ocean waves works as a metaphor for the human response to moving water and ocean dynamics—a focus of his career. 

But walking into the roiling Pacific with a surfboard also serves the other end of the equation—as a time for decompression from land-based duties.    

“What I love most about surfing is I feel small in a really large world,” he says. “In the day-to-day, you get wrapped up and you feel like things are so important. Then you go into the ocean, and you realize you’re a part of something much bigger than yourself.”

Source: Indicators of Climate Change in California, Nov. 2022.

Whale Whisperer Bekah Lane

As a kid, growing up in the heart of Kansas, Bekah Lane was fascinated with the sea—and particularly with the creatures living in it. 

“Back then it almost seemed like they were mythical or alien creatures,” Lane says; her enthusiasm felt as magical as other childrens’ interest in dragons, or unicorns. “I was drawn by the mystery of the ocean—that it was so vast, and there were not just whales and dolphins but all kinds of crazy stuff in there that felt so new and foreign to learn about.”

But unlike most kids, Lane stayed committed to her childhood passion; and it paid off. Today at 27, she spends much of her time on the water in her role as the cetacean field research specialist at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito (cetaceans include whales, porpoises, and dolphins). A recent survey outside the Golden Gate  found her and her crew lunching while surrounded by a rare group of blue whales.

Humpback whale breach in June 2023. Photo: Pilar Rodriguez, TMMC NOAA permit # 26532.

Humpback whale breach in June 2023. Photo: Pilar Rodriguez, TMMC NOAA permit # 26532

“I spend a lot of time in a boat on the water with the wildlife, which is exactly where I want to be,” Lane says. “It’s amazing that I am doing exactly what I had just always dreamed of as a child.” 

The path leading to this career was a challenging one; the first hurdle being a lack of proximity to oceans. Lane graduated from high school at 16, and went on to Emporia State University, near her home town of Wichita. 

“I came from a single-parent household, so I couldn’t go out of state for my undergraduate degree,” Lane says. “But I ended up getting a really well-rounded biology education.”

Lane was eight when she first saw the ocean, on a family trip to Florida. 

“I remember walking on the beach and making sandcastles, and wanting to see whales and dolphins,” Lane says. “Of course, we didn’t see any—but just the thought of looking out and knowing that they were there was so thrilling.”

At Emporia State University she studied field biology and freshwater fishes, spending time on whatever water she could: in this case the nearby Neosho and Arkansas Rivers. 

However entry-level marine mammal positions aren’t plentiful, and are largely unpaid. So after graduating from college, Lane spent several years teaching science and field biology at the same high school she had once attended.

Lane sampling in a river for a senior field ecology project during her undergraduate work. Photo courtesy Bekah Lane.

Lane sampling in a river for a senior field ecology project during her undergraduate work. Photo courtesy Bekah Lane

Each summer, while she wasn’t teaching, she took internships in her field. Though unpaid, the internships got her out on the water–first surveying sturgeon in the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, and later–finally–on whale boats, with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation nonprofit in Plymouth, Massachusetts. “There is a drama to seeing a 55-foot humpback whale right next to your 25-foot vessel and realizing how small you are in comparison. And there is an intensity to being out on the ocean and watching the weather change and knowing that you’re at its mercy,” Lane says. “I think that’s what keeps me coming back and kind of addicted.”

Lane got into the San Francisco State marine biology program in 2019, where she studied ship strike risk to humpback whales in the San Francisco Bay and first began to work with the The Marine Mammal Center. 

Now, her favorite days are those spent on the water, overseeing a crew of staff and interns as they conduct surveys. These can either be near shore, or far out to sea; the latter days can easily be seven or eight hours long, exposed to the elements on a shelterless (and toilet-less) 25-foot boat. 

“You definitely need to have your sea legs to be able to do something like that and enjoy it,” Lane says.

Her team’s research goals are to investigate overlap and impacts of human interaction with cetaceans—whales and harbor porpoises in particular—as well as to monitor the populations’ health, in order to inform local resource management and policy. Lane’s main projects focus on expanding understanding whale behavior inside of San Francisco Bay, and also creating a model to evaluate their risk of ship strike in the region.

The team on a gray whale observation trip in April 2023: Bekah Lane (M), Josie Slaathaug (L), and Pilar Rodriguez ®. Photo: Giancarlo Rulli, Marine Mammal Center

The team on a gray whale observation trip in April 2023: Bekah Lane (M), Josie Slaathaug (L), and Pilar Rodriguez ®. Photo: Giancarlo Rulli, Marine Mammal Center

As the impacts of human technology and global warming continue to affect the oceans, Lane says The Marine Mammal Center’s work is more important than ever. All four species she’s studying (humpback whales, gray whales, harbor porpoises and bottlenose dolphins) are locally impacted by climate change in different ways, she says. Gray and humpback whales are spending more time foraging near the coastlines and within San Francisco Bay. Bottlenose dolphins are expanding northward, and often outcompeting harbor porpoises.

“These charismatic animals can be really valuable as indicators for different oceanographic changes just because of their ability to capture attention and affection from people,” Lane says. “If we pay close enough attention to what they’re doing, that can clue us into more fine scale changes in the environment.” 

Over the last four years, Lane has seen gray whale populations drop by 40%; many that show up in the Bay Area are malnourished—the result of shrinking sea ice far to the north, or more specifically, the algae that grow beneath it. Ice-dependent algae supported a once-massive supply of tiny, nutrient-dense arthropods and amphipods that formed an essential part of the gray whales’ diets. Their loss means that the whales arrive in the Bay Area hungry, and seeking out the most abundant food sources; which happen to coincide with busy shipping ports and a high density of recreational vessels, each of which could be deadly to a whale they happen to collide with. 

During surveys, one goal is to photograph the cetaceans, which can be individually identified through their markings.

“We get to know some of their personalities a little bit more, in the process,” says Lane, adding that although some scientists may disagree that marine mammals have personalities, she has doubt. “Some whales are really friendly and some are evasive.”

This year Lane’s team tracked one gray whale individual who spent a record-breaking 75 days within the Bay. Partway into its stay, it’s health sharply declined and Lane’s team observed that it had a ship strike scar on its side; later, its body was found washed up near Point Reyes bearing scars from a larger, ultimately fatal collision. 

“It was struck not one time but twice while it was just trying to forage and heal and take care of itself,” Lane said.

A New Year’s brew of weather. Photo: Scott Sewell

Beyond the impact of her research, Lane enjoys mentoring budding scientists working to make the field a more inclusive environment.  In her view, while science, engineering and technology fields are now more welcoming to women, it is still mostly white women “like me.” 

The maritime industry is even less welcoming.  “I get a lot of rude and uncomfortable comments at the harbor, and at least at our local fuel dock, I’m the only woman boat operator that I’ve ever seen there. And so when we pull up to the dock as a group of young women who are competent and confident on the water, I think that really says a lot.”

Regardless of any hurdles, Lane is thriving in her new home, and enjoying all that life by the bay has to offer. Now—whether she is working in The Marine Mammal Center’s office near Rodeo Beach, out on a survey boat, or trail running along the headlands with her dog—the ocean she spent her childhood dreaming about is never far away. 

“It’s where I work, it’s where I live, it’s where I play; it’s just become home to me,” Lane says. 

EXTREMES-IN-3D

SERIES CREDITS

Managing Editor: Ariel Rubissow Okamoto
Web Story Design: Vanessa Lee, Tony Hale, Afsoon Razavi
Science advisors: Alexander Gershunov, Patrick Barnard, Richelle Tanner
Series supported by the CO2 Foundation.
Reporting supported by Pulitzer Center, Connected Coastlines.

Special Credits for Work & Play Story
Reporting: Janoff profile by Alastair Bland; Lane profile by Jacoba Charles
Top Photo: Grant Ly
Special thanks to Giancarlo Rulli at The Marine Mammal Center for coordinating with KneeDeep on this story.