The coronavirus pandemic has left Isla Vista businesses without their customers, professors without their lecture halls and students without each other.

But, at UC Santa Barbara’s Campus Lagoon, life endures.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“[A] phenomenon that I love is the cooperative hunting between the fish hunting diving birds … and the snowy egrets,” Lisa Stratton, the director of ecosystem management at the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration (CCBER), wrote in an email. “They work together to push the fish toward the shore where the egrets hunt and push the fish back out in the water for the diving birds.”

Besides attracting a great deal of sunset photos and nostalgia for UCSB students in quarantine, the Campus Lagoon plays host to a wide variety of flora and fauna. These include the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), the western pygmy blue butterfly (Brephidium exilis) and — one of Stratton’s favorite birds — the bufflehead, a small sea duck.

The lagoon is also home to a smell that a previous Nexus article mildly termed “pungent.” According to Stratton, this aroma arises from a mix of “dead and decaying algae” — comprising phytoplankton species Ulva lactuca and Ulva intestinalis — that forms on the surface of the lagoon and subsequently sinks to the bottom.

“It doesn’t really smell that much, but when the sulphurous smells do reach the surface it can smell a little,” Stratton said.

Previous students bore witness to a more serious stench: The rowing team’s plastic dock, stationed in the middle of the lagoon at almost all times, would often be covered in avian feces when not in use.

But according to Stratton, a yearslong drought in Santa Barbara made it difficult for the team to reach the edge of Lake Cachuma, their usual rowing spot. As a result, they ended up practicing mainly in the lagoon, disturbing the dock “enough to keep the birds off,” Stratton said.

Despite the large role the lagoon serves in its ecosystem and the distinct impression it leaves on students, it is not an entirely natural formation. “In the 1940’s the various low points around the lagoon were more shored up to create more permanent berms that isolated the lagoon hydrologically from the ocean,” Stratton wrote. “This meant it would really dry down in the fall and the fish would die and it would get a little smelly.”

The area remained under ownership of the military until sometime in the mid-1950s, when UCSB purchased the land. According to Stratton, the university then began manually pumping sea water into the lagoon to increase its depth during the dryer months as well as constructing weirs to allow the lagoon to drain consistently in order to counteract the smell.

Other characteristics of the area brought about by its former owners have persisted for longer. The military introduced invasive species such as ice plants (Carpobrotus edulis) to the area, and dry farming during the 1930s killed off most of the native biota, Stratton said.

The CCBER is continuing a long-term effort to restore the area to its previous state. These projects, according to Stratton, include a biannual prescribed burn — first attempted in 2006 by graduate student Alice Levine — to clear out nonnative plants such as ripgut brome (Bromus diandrus) and replace them with native wildflowers and shrubs.

But rising sea levels leave the continued existence of the lagoon uncertain, according to Stratton. On the bright side, “Much of the area that we have restored is essentially self-maintaining,” she said, “and if the berm [between Campus Point and the Research Experience & Education Facility] breaches, the system could potentially not need to have water pumped in it.”

“I think the lagoon is getting closer to ideal from our restoration,” Stratton said. “I really get … a lot of joy sharing this awareness, experience and the opportunity to do something restorative with my staff and the students who work with us.”