The oyster larvae didn't make it. Millions died. But a prize lobster survived, as did a 2-year-old swell shark and a rare juvenile rainbow scorpion fish.
On Monday the researchers and students at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies counted their losses, gave thanks for their victories and prepared for more work as the institute tried to recover from the fire that burned 4,200 acres on Santa Catalina Island.
The fire cut off all power at the institute, along with most communications between the facility and the outside world.
"We suddenly felt more remote than ever," laboratory manager Lauren Czarnecki said.
The institute is near Two Harbors, a community of about 200 which, though only 20 miles from Avalon, takes about two hours to reach over bumpy roads. Even with a speedboat and calm seas, it takes about 45 minutes to reach the seaside institute from Avalon.
The trouble started about 2:30 p.m. Thursday when "my phone went dead while I was talking to my boss on the mainland," said Maureen Oudin, administrator of the lab complex. "Then eventually all the phones went dead, one at a time. Then the cellphones, fax machines and the Internet went down."
On the other end of the line, at USC on the mainland, was Tony Michaels, director of the institute. His staff began "scrambling" and he repeatedly tried to call the institute, saying "Tell me what you need." He wasn't sure if the message reached his colleagues.
But an hour later, fragments of a phone message somehow got through to USC: "Get dry ice, get dry ice."
It was clear what that meant. Something was wrong with the deep freezers that held 10 years' worth of DNA samples from all manner of sea creatures.
"We bought up all the dry ice we could find at local grocery stores," Michaels said. By next morning, they loaded the dry ice onto a 46-foot sport fishing boat used by the institute.
On the island, the fire never threatened the facility, but the power outage was taking a toll. The 25 staff members and nine marine biology students had realized that they were losing a battle to maintain the tanks at the facility's interpretive center. Aeration, filtration and cooling systems had stopped.
The night before, a bucket relay was started to bring ocean water up a steep hill to the institute, which is a quarter of a mile away from the surf. But temperatures in the tanks, normally kept at 59 degrees, the ambient sea temperature around Catalina, began to rise.
So by Friday morning a new bucket relay began -- back to the ocean. Down to the sea went creatures from the interpretive center: moray eels, starfish, lobsters, bass, sheephead, opal eye fish, even small sharks.
"We released as many of our touch tank creatures as possible," Czarnecki said. "All told we released a few hundred creatures, if you include the sea snails."
But the deep freezers, normally kept at 112 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, had risen about 60 degrees in only an hour Thursday. By Friday, "we had to move fast," Czarnecki said.
The rescue crew from USC arrived about 9:30 a.m.
"We did a quick triage to determine which DNA samples had the highest priority," Michaels said.
The DNA is being used on a variety of experiments concerning population genetics. The scientists decided to first save samples used in studies on "metabolic efficiency," essentially research into what "makes oysters and urchins grow fast or slow."
The samples and dry ice were packed into "freezer safes" and rushed back to the mainland and to USC.
A generator borrowed from a homeowner in Two Harbors allowed researchers to save some creatures in a tank, including three sharks. Although some adult urchins died, a major experiment on young ones was saved, Michaels said.
Still, there were casualties. The oyster larvae used in research couldn't take the rising temperatures.
"We lost 100 million oyster embryos," Michaels said. "No problem there, though. We can get more."
But what to do about dozens of adult oysters that had been maintained at the center for years?
To save a decade's worth of research, more than 100 adult oysters were placed in plastic baskets and hung from the sides of boats moored in the harbor.
Elsewhere on Catalina on Monday, life was continuing to return to normal. Tourists were trickling back to the island, and firefighters were leaving. Many left with leis made of sea shells or bright ribbons around their necks.
Debbie Avellana, owner of Debbie's Island Deli, stood by the dock to give the leis to the firefighters "as a token of my gratitude and the overall feelings of the people on this island."
Miles away at the institute, bucket relays have stopped. Although some small household generators were brought from the mainland over a few days, the first large, 4,000-kilowatt generators arrived Monday and roared into action about 10 a.m.
"Until we have telecommunications back on line, we're not in the clear," Czarnecki said. "They are telling us it may take 10 days to a month before that happens."
The research center is usually a placid place, the only sounds the slapping of waves or calls of seabirds. That was replaced by the roar of the generators, but to the staff at the institute, it was a sweet sound.
"By the end of the day, we've become used to the generators," Czarnecki said.
Sahagun reported from Avalon, Padilla from Los Angeles.