Cool jobs at the Aquarium: facilities team

“No two days are the same!”

That’s a sentiment echoed by many on the Seattle Aquarium facilities team, which handles a broad array of tasks in the areas of engineering, maintenance, custodial, safety and security. “We support the entire organization, working behind the scenes and for our visitors. We’re not the stars of the show, but we’re important,” says Facilities Manager Jesse Phillips-Kress. “We’re facilitators.”

The skill sets of facilities team members are just as diverse as the tasks they do. “We’ve got everyone from a traditionally trained engineer, to a biologist, to tradespeople and jacks-of-all-trades,” says Jesse. The team is critical for the operation and safety of the Aquarium and, as such, someone who can respond to an emergent need is on-site every minute of every day. That’s especially important for our animals, when an exhibit malfunction can mean life or death if not addressed quickly.

7,000,000 gallons per day

Unlike land-locked aquariums that must “make” their own salt water, the Seattle Aquarium’s waterfront location allows us to pump directly from Puget Sound. Approximately seven million gallons of seawater come in and out of the Aquarium each day. For comparison, our largest exhibit, the Underwater Dome, holds about 250,000 gallons.

Only water destined for exhibits with filter-feeders like barnacles and anemones, which depend on the plankton in “raw” seawater to survive, is untreated. Water for our remaining exhibits is filtered to varying degrees and, in the case of tropical exhibits, heated as well. “It’s a complicated process,” says Engineer Bob Kiel. “We’re trying to replicate the habitat and conditions for optimum animal health, and in a way that provides a dynamic presentation for our visitors.”

What flows in also, eventually, flows back out. Facilities team members periodically test the water being returned to Puget Sound to ensure it falls below the allowable limits set by regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Departments of Ecology and Agriculture.

“When you’re on water, everything shifts”

Building maintenance at the Seattle Aquarium has an extra layer of intricacy because of our location over Puget Sound. Although the force of the tides can’t be felt, their movements exert a definite impact on our building. “Nothing stays square,” laughs Jesse. “Even something as simple as hanging a door becomes much more involved.”

Whether it’s hanging doors, creating custom animal life support systems, reuniting a lost child with their parents, or installing tiny ladders in the gutters to aid baby gulls who have accidentally slipped down the roof – every day on the facilities team holds new challenges and opportunities to learn.

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The octopus: our thriving neighbor

Pigeons, squirrels, gulls, raccoons and…octopuses?

We’re all familiar with the many animals that live among us as they forage for food and navigate around buildings and parks throughout the city. But you might be surprised by new research that shows that a very different neighbor, our very own giant Pacific octopus, has something in common with these city-dwelling animals.

Synanthropic species is a scientific classification for animals who have learned to live in urban environments. The term describes undomesticated (wild) animals or plants that live in close association with people and that adapt to benefit from our activities.

A new study published in the journal Urban Ecosystems this past February, has shown a preliminary link between urban habitats and giant Pacific octopus populations. The research, which was coauthored by one of the Aquarium’s very own staff Amy Olsen, found that giant Pacific octopus numbers were greater in deep water, urban areas around Puget Sound in comparison with more rural locations.

Why do researchers think octopuses like living by people?

More common species of synanthropes like birds and rodents, often thrive in cities due to the abundance of food that we as humans unwittingly provide for them. However, researchers theorize that giant Pacific octopuses have become our neighbors not because of food—instead they are seeking out urban areas because of the habitat generated by human debris.

As an invertebrate octopuses can do amazing things with their bodies and will often make sunken boats, old piers or even a discarded bottle their home. An adult octopus can weigh up to 150 pounds and have an arm span 20 feet across—yet they can fit themselves through a hole about the size of a lemon. Any diver will tell you that it is not uncommon to see an octopus make a den in an abandoned tire or some other piece of debris found at the bottom of Puget Sound.

Learn more about this amazing species by visiting the Aquarium!

The giant Pacific octopus is the largest species of octopus in the world. They can change color and texture at will, and the Aquarium is highly invested in their success.

Every year the Aquarium participates in an annual census to track how the local octopus population is doing. The data collected, and the changes in it from year to year, provide insight into how these important animals use habitat and affect the areas they inhabit. This year with the help of staff and volunteer divers, we were able to count 39 giant Pacific octopuses at 16 dive site locations.

Come visit us at the Seattle Aquarium to view Vincent, our male giant Pacific octopus or read more about the many amazing adaptations of octopus on our website.

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Eelgrass: nursery of the sea

Meadows of grass growing below the surface of Puget Sound? It may not be the same as the grass on your local playfield—but it’s there, and it serves a vital purpose.

You’ve probably seen eelgrass on the beach at low tide. Many people mistake it for seaweed, but it’s a perennial, underwater grass, and it spreads the same way grass does on land—with rhizomes.

Eelgrass is found in subtidal and intertidal estuaries, bays and coves in temperate climates throughout the world. Like perennial plants on land, eelgrass grows in the spring and summer, then decays in the fall and winter. Eelgrass blades can grow to be up to three feet long.

What makes eelgrass so extraordinary—and unique—is that it provides an important, irreplaceable home for young marine creatures including crabs, salmon, scallops, herring and more. That’s because eelgrass blades provide food for an array of invertebrates, which in turn become a rich food source themselves.

At low tide, eelgrass shelters small animals, protecting them from warm temperatures and predators. And, similar to grass on land, eelgrass helps prevent erosion—by cushioning the impact of waves. Eelgrass also benefits humans by filtering polluted runoff.

Juvenile salmon, or fry

No other underwater plant duplicates what eelgrass does.  But, as shoreline development has increased around the world, eelgrass has declined. Dredging ravages eelgrass beds. Docks can block the light that eelgrass needs to grow. Rising temperatures may also cause eelgrass diebacks. And, when eelgrass is destroyed, entire populations of fish and invertebrates are affected.

Eelgrass restoration efforts are underway, locally and worldwide. In 2010, the Washington state Department of Natural Resources recommended a 20 percent restoration of eelgrass by 2020. Whether or not the goal is attainable remains to be seen—but work continues, with “gardeners” cultivating eelgrass in tubs, and divers planting the specimens below the surface.

Sculpin eggs on eelgrass

You can help preserve eelgrass simply by not walking on it when you visit the beach. Instead, kneel at the edge of the eelgrass bed and gently explore below the blades. Interested in learning more about eelgrass? Join the Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists this summer!

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Oysters with a side of plastic?

oyster

Plastics are everywhere—including in our shellfish

Last year, scientists at Belgium’s Ghent University released a sobering study revealing that shellfish lovers may be ingesting up to 11,000 particles of microplastics along with their favorite meals each year.

The news isn’t better closer to home. Research conducted on shellfish harvested along the coast of British Columbia in 2016 confirmed the presence of microplastics in the animals’ bodies.

Long story short: if you’re eating shellfish, you’re probably ingesting plastic as well. And, if current trends continue, you may be consuming 780,000 microplastic particles each year by the end of the century. What that means for human health is currently unclear.

It’s estimated that over 150 million tons of plastic are in the ocean today, with an additional eight million tons entering it every year. And once that plastic is in the ocean, it doesn’t disappear—it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming the microplastics that are being found in fish and shellfish.

plastics on the beach

But you can take action to help reduce the flow of plastic into our ocean. One of the simplest ways? Choosing alternatives to single-use plastics, such as water bottles, straws, cup lids and utensils. You can also voice support for Seattle’s proposed ban on plastic straws and utensils, set to go into effect in July, with your friends, family and community.

microplasitcs

Monitoring microplastics at the Seattle Aquarium

It’s well known that plastic debris is commonly found in the ocean and Puget Sound. The negative impact of macro (greater than 5mm) plastic trash is clear when it involves the entanglement of marine life, causing health problems and death.

Less clear is the widespread damage to the marine ecosystem from systemic problems caused when animals ingest microplastics (less than 5mm). Once these plastics are absorbed into plankton and animals higher in the food chain, they bioaccumulate and are known to alter normal bodily functions.

The level of plastic contamination within the nearshore waters of Elliott Bay is currently unknown. But with member and donor support, we’re actively measuring microplastic debris in the Aquarium’s incoming water, and in our reef survey sites in Hawaii, to establish a baseline level of plastic contamination and track changes over time. Data collected through this effort will give us an idea about the scope and breadth of the problem in our immediate environment, and in the tropical reefs we’ve adopted.

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Be on the lookout for some special visitors to Puget Sound!

Here at the Aquarium we have plenty of incredible things to see right inside our building—but sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get a special treat just off the pier. This past St. Patrick’s Day, some fortunate Aquarium guests had the chance to view a wild bottlenose dolphin cruising through Elliott Bay.

Bottlenose dolphins are not common to our local waters but our friends at Cascadia Research have reported regular sightings of a small group of five to six bottlenose dolphins since September 2017. Members of the Orca Network and Cascadia Research, along with collaborators from California, have been able to identify two of the dolphins that have been photographed as mature females with the nicknames “Miss” and “Stump.”

Seen from Seattle Aquarium March 17, 2018.

The two identified females are at least 35 years old and have been observed off the coast of California since the early 1980s. Researchers were able to identify the females using unique nicks and marking on their dorsal fins, similar to the way local researchers are able to identify individual orca whales. While bottlenose dolphins have made brief appearances over the past two decades in Puget Sound, they are not a resident species in our area. In fact, “Miss” and “Stump” are almost 1,000 miles from home, which is the San Francisco Bay Area.

Keep your eyes peeled to help researchers!

Local researchers and volunteers have been trying to spot and photograph the bottlenose dolphins in an attempt to see who is traveling with “Miss” and “Stump.” They need high-quality photographs so they can spot unique identifiers and better understand why the bottlenose dolphins might be traveling so far north.

If you see bottlenose or other species of dolphins anywhere in Puget Sound, please call in your reports to Cascadia Research at (360) 943-7325, or email danderson@cascadiaresearch.org.

Join us for Marine Mammal Mania!

Dolphins, orcas, sea otters and seals all make us want to celebrate the many incredible species that either visit, or call our region home. Each spring the Aquarium celebrates marine mammal species of all kinds as part of our fun-filled event called Marine Mammal Mania!

The event takes place from April 6–15 and­­­­ includes hands-on activities, special talks and demonstrations devoted to our many marine mammals.

Visit our website to view the schedule of events. We hope you’ll join us!

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