Part 2: Katmai sea otter research trip 2017

Dr. Shawn Larson, the Aquarium’s curator of conservation research, was recently part of the team for the Southwest Alaska Network’s (SWAN) Nearshore Vital Signs monitoring program 10-day research trip. The eleven participating researchers were affiliated with the United States Geologic Survey (USGS), National Park Service (NPS), University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Seattle Aquarium. Below, she recaps highlights from the second half of the trip. You can read Part 1 here.

Day 6: June 24, 2017

Today we moved the boat to Kinak Bay and anchored overnight in Hidden Harbor, a very beautiful spot. I was part of the mussel crew in the morning, and then in the afternoon we did black oystercatcher surveys “bloys” into “misty lagoon” with the incoming tide. The black oystercatcher surveys involve finding a pair of nesting oystercatchers and then finding their eggs or chicks. If there are eggs, we measure them by floating them in a container of water to determine their relative development (an egg that sinks is just laid and a floating egg is close to hatching). If there are chicks, then we gather the shells around the nest to determine what the parents are feeding their young. The oystercatcher, like the sea otter, is an indicator species of the health of these waters.

Day 7: June 25, 2017

The next day we pulled anchor and left for our final survey site in Kukak Bay, the end of which is near where Tim Tredwell, “the grizzly man,” was killed by a grizzly as he was camping near them. A documentary was made about Tim Tredwell and his connection to the Katmai grizzlies. My task for the morning was to be part of the soft crew digging clams and mussels. We were visited by a relatively tame red fox who tried to help us with our survey gear and our boat anchor line.

Day 8: June 26, 2017

Day two in Kukak. Today we need to gather sea otter foraging data, black oystercatcher surveys and marine bird and mammal surveys. Our goal is 50 foraging bouts for sea otters the entire trip but I think we’ll get more.

Day 9: June 27, 2017

We moved to the entrance of the harbor into a place called Devil’s Cove. We anchored there and finished marine bird and mammal surveys, and sea otter forage bouts. We perched on one rock in the middle of the outer bay and gathered over 38 bouts! For the trip we gathered over 75 bouts—way past our 50-bout goal.

Day 10: June 28, 2017

Today we are heading home! It’s been a great trip on board the Dreamcatcher and a life-changing experience in the Katmai National Park!

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Part 1: Katmai sea otter research trip 2017

Dr. Shawn Larson, the Aquarium’s curator of conservation research, was recently part of the team for the Southwest Alaska Network’s (SWAN) Nearshore Vital Signs monitoring program 10-day research trip. The eleven participating researchers were affiliated with the United States Geologic Survey (USGS), National Park Service (NPS), University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Seattle Aquarium. Below, she recaps highlights from the first half of the trip.

Day 1: June 19, 2017

Travel day. Left Seattle at 6am for Anchorage, Alaska and then on to Homer where we met our boat for the trip, the Dreamcatcher. She is a 97-foot vessel with six staterooms, three crew rooms, a sitting room, a movie room and a large galley. She was originally designed to host oil exploration teams and has since shifted to hosting conservation research teams. The crew of four—Captain Rob, his wife Star, their friend Carol and their granddaughter, Lily—welcomed us. We loaded all the gear, went out to dinner and then headed out to the Katmai coast where we arrived in the early hours of the morning.

Day 2: June 20, 2017

First full day on the Katmai coast, which is southwest of Anchorage and on the Alaska Peninsula just east of the beginning of Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain. The weather was nice with sunny skies and a slight breeze; the temperature in the mid-‘60s. We were still on our way to our first survey sites but stopped and put the two zodiacs (inflatable boats) and work crews into the water and to land on the beaches of adjacent Islands to scan for beached sea otter carcasses to gather the skulls for age analysis and other studies.

This data informs researchers about the age structure of the mortalities, which is an indicator of the relative heath of the population. In a healthy population, the carcasses should be primarily the very young and the very old—which is normal. If there are many carcasses that are young- to middle-aged adults in the prime of their breeding years, this is a strong indication there is a problem with the population.

We also found some sea otter scat (poop) in the rocks and bushes well above the high tide mark, indicating that sea otters had rested or hauled out in these areas—which was surprising because some of these rocks were 20 feet above high tide level.

We also collected data on what the sea otters had been eating based on the shells in the scat, and found evidence that they had been eating clams, crabs, mussels and small fish like capelin or sand lances.

Day 3: June 21, 2017

Today we anchored in our first two survey sites in an area of the Katmai coast called Amilik Bay near a beautiful area called Geographic Harbor. We had six intertidal surveys to conduct: the rocky survey where all kelp and invertebrates are surveyed along a 100-meter tape; the soft survey where all invertebrates are surveyed in soft sediment along 100 meters (yes, this requires digging for clams in the sand); and the mussel survey where mussel densities along a 50-meter transect along the intertidal area are assessed.

In the afternoon after the tide came up, we conducted marine bird and mammal surveys along several kilometers of coastline, black oystercatcher surveys (called BLOYs), and looked for feeding sea otters to gather foraging data.

This was to be the pattern for the next seven days. Our goal for sea otter foraging in this area for the next couple days was to gather 30 foraging bouts—a bout being one sea otter foraging and documenting what it is eating for up to 20 consecutive dives. We count dive time, surface time, the prey being eaten, the number of prey and the size. This gives us an indication of how many calories the otter is consuming and expending during foraging. In this area saw most of the sea otters were eating clams.

Day 4: June 22, 2017

Day two in Amalik Bay. This morning it was raining and breezy. We have another full site to survey here and I was part of the mussel and rocky crew. I entered data of what types of intertidal algae and invertebrates were found one meter below the 100-meter survey tape. There were many different types of algae and invertebrates; a very rich site.

The work is intense, crawling around on slippery intertidal rocks and counting everything that’s alive—algae and invertebrates. It takes all morning.

The other crew was on a soft survey site and when we were all back to the boat, we found out that while digging clams they were visited by a coastal brown bear (aka grizzly) walking along the beach. The bears along this coast are very numerous and all crews saw bear signs but only a couple were visited by one up close. This bear, like many along this coast, was curious about the crew and what they were doing, and moved their survey tape and knocked over some of their buckets full of clams and sand. The crew stood quietly at one end of the beach watching with their rifle, bear spay and flares. The bear was just curious and didn’t bother them.

In the afternoon we landed on Mink Island and found a high spot to view sea otters, hoping for some foragers. The afternoon was bright and clear, the sun almost too bright for foraging operations but we did get a couple of bouts.

Day 5: June 23, 2017

Day three in Amalik Bay. Today it’s all about foraging otters. That’s all we have left to do here. We spent most of the day on Mink and Little Mink islands. We saw a mother bear and two cubs through our spotting scope over on Takli Island, just wandering the beaches with the cubs playing on the surf. We also saw lots of foraging otters and gathered a lot of data. It was a great day.

Check back soon for part two of this story!

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Hatchlings at the Seattle Aquarium

Meet the “lumpsuckerlings!”

As you might imagine, rearing baby lumpsuckers from eggs is a challenging process. But Seattle Aquarium staff have found success for a long time and have contributed to the larger community’s general understanding of this adorable fish species’ early needs. Since 1978, the Aquarium has documented ways of rearing larval lumpsuckers, including releasing several hundred six-month old, Aquarium-raised lumpsuckers to the San Juan Islands back in 1995.

Female lumpsuckers typically lay their eggs in an empty barnacle shell, where a male then takes on guard duty. In the care of humans, hatched larval lumpsuckers will usually eat brine shrimp nauplii (larval brine shrimp), but finding the ideal food source can be a sticky task for aquarists as the fish develop.

The most recent clutch of hatched lumpsuckers at the Seattle Aquarium are currently six weeks old and are thriving on a diet of rotifers (microscopic animals) and newly hatched nauplii. Ultimately, they will be introduced to previously frozen food like euphasids (shrimp-like, planktonic marine crustaceans related to krill).

Red octopus hatchlings

After six months of incubating behind the scenes, a clutch of Pacific red octopus (Octopus rubescens) eggs hatched and were sent on their way back out to Puget Sound. Aquarium staff allowed the larval octopuses to freely flow through the outflow since they will have the best chance of survival in the wild.

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Join the Seattle Aquarium and say goodbye to single-use plastics!

In a blog post a few weeks ago, we told you about our move to eliminate plastic beverage bottles, lids and straws at the Aquarium—and now we’re excited to let you know about our involvement in the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP) and its “In Our Hands” campaign to reduce use of disposable plastics.

The ACP, composed of 19 public aquariums—including the Seattle Aquarium—was created to inform, guide and coordinate action by public aquariums across North America to advance conservation of the ocean, lakes and rivers. The first project? A coordinated campaign to reduce single-use plastics called “In Our Hands.”

Ocean plastics are a very serious—and growing—issue. A few stats to illustrate the extent of the problem:

  • Approximately 8.8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean each year—equivalent to one dump truck full of plastic per minute.
  • Plastic debris can now be found in almost every marine habitat on Earth, from polar sea ice to major ocean gyres to the bottom of the deepest ocean trench.
  • If current practices continue, plastic input into the ocean is expected to double by 2025.
  • Fifty-four percent of all marine mammal species, and 56 percent of all seabird species have been affected by entanglement (mostly by plastic rope and netting) or ingestion (mostly by plastic fragments and microplastic) of marine debris, and the frequency of encounters has increased over time.

The solution is in our hands. And you can be part of it by choosing alternatives to single-use plastics and encouraging others to do the same! Learn more on our website.

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Know your beach-this week from the beach

#5 in the 2017 series of guest blog posts by Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists Bobby Arispe and Jen Strongin.

Leather Star

Did you make it out to the last series of minus tides on our local beaches? If not, don’t despair! We have another set of some of the lowest tides of the summer coming up July 21–25. I had the great pleasure of working during the past two low tides at several beaches: Lincoln, South Alki and Seahurst.

Each beach has its own flavor. If you want to spot an octopus, Lincoln is your best bet. If you want to see sea stars, crabs, moon snails and nudibranchs, South Alki won’t disappoint. If you want to see living sand dollars, huge clams and maybe an unusual find or two, Seahurst is your place.

All three beaches are marine preserves. This means the habitat is protected and collecting or harvesting of any kind is not allowed—what you see on the beach, stays on the beach (bring your camera to document what you find)! I love that we live in a city that values the conservation of our very special marine habitats.

Every visit to the beach is an adventure with new discoveries. At South Alki this past week, along with all of my favorite animals, I saw a couple of unexpected surprises. The first was a juvenile salmon that swam into the collapsible forest of eelgrass right next to me. It was the first time I had seen a salmon during low tide at my home beach. Our forests of eelgrass provide an important habitat for young fish like salmon and sand lance. It gives them shelter and a place to hide from predators. I would have loved to take a photo of that beautiful salmon but it was so fast and the eelgrass did its job of hiding it!

Beach etiquette tip of the week: Eelgrass is the “unwelcome mat” for us humans. Walk around it when you can to avoid trampling juvenile fish, eggs and other animals hiding there!

I do have some photos of the second surprise. At the north end of South Alki, my friend and fellow beach naturalist, Preston, showed me some ten-tentacled anemones. Super small, maybe an inch in diameter at the most, these beautiful anemones are worth seeking out. They burrow into the sand and quickly withdraw their tentacles and disappear if disturbed.

Burrowing Sea Cucumber

At Seahurst Beach, I was convinced I had found a crazy, tentacle-headed worm! A young visitor, exploring the many holes left behind by clams on the beach, had found a couple of these interesting-looking animals. After taking lots of photos and video and observing it for a while, I went home determined to find out what it was we’d been looking at. It turns out, it was a species of burrowing sea cucumber, Leptosynapta clarki. This beautiful, worm-like sea cucumber feeds on bits of organic material in the sand. You can see its feeding tentacles at work in the video above. It also lacks respiratory structures and instead, absorbs oxygen through its skin.

Striped Nudibranch

At Lincoln Beach, my favorite discovery was a striped nudibranch, Armina californica. One of the larger nudibranchs, this species can reach six inches in length. You’re likely to find it part buried in the sand, hunting for its favorite food: sea pens.

Basket Top Spaghetti Tube Worm

I admit to being a bit disappointed that my burrowing sea cucumber at Seahurst wasn’t a cool worm. We have so many beautiful and interesting marine worms here in the Salish Sea. Take, for example, the basket-top spaghetti tube worm, pictured above. You might overlook it, thinking it’s some algae or detritus, but it’s really a spectacular structure. The worm builds a tube-shaped home and then adorns the top of it with this intricate, fibrous basket. The basket may serve as protection, camouflage or even a filter for food.

Red Banded Commensal Scale Worm on a Striped Sun Star

The red-banded commensal scale worm is often found living on a host of another species, like this striped sun star. It is very territorial, and has been known to bite attackers of its host or other commensal worms hoping to join the party!

Bat Worm and Flat Worm

Although its common name is bat star worm because of its commensal relationship with bat stars, this striking polychaete worm is often found living on its own here in Puget Sound. Muddy sand, pilings and floats are good places to find one.

Northern Feather Duster Tube Worm

The northern feather duster worms are my favorites. They look like flowers in bloom when they are under the water. Their fringy tentacles are used for both feeding and respiration (and for wowing us land dwellers!). They build their tube homes out of mucus and sediment.

Calcareous Tube Worms on a Cockle Shell

Look on and under rocks and you’re sure to see evidence of calcareous tube worms. Their maze-like, calcium carbonate homes give their soft bodies protection from predators. Like the northern feather duster, the various species of calcareous tube worms use fringy tentacles to feed and breathe.

We look forward to seeing you out on the beach! Don’t forget to tag photos of all of your beach finds with #beachnaturalist #knowyourbeach #beachnaturalists #seattleaquarium. Happy tide pooling!

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Meet Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists on local shorelines this summer! Check our website for dates, times, locations and directions.

About Jen:

Jen writes:

“I ventured westward from Albany, NY and fell madly in love with our city from the moment I arrived. It was 21 years ago this August when Seattle first charmed me with its lush, forested parks, beautiful beaches, and water and mountain views (when the skies are clear enough) all around.

I spent the first half of my 21 years here immersed in Seattle’s wonderful coffee culture. My husband and I owned and operated Victrola Coffee on Capitol Hill until 2008. We sold our business that year to spend more time with our newborn son and I have been a stay-at-home, homeschooling mama and budding photographer and naturalist ever since! It started with me taking my young son to the beach, gazing into tide pools and wanting to know more about what we were looking at. Soon, I was going to the beach by myself, every low tide I could, and following the Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists around asking questions. 🙂

I signed up to be an interpretive volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium in 2013, became a beach naturalist volunteer in 2014, and this will be my second year as an official member of the Seattle Aquarium staff as a beach captain. My favorite place to be is on the beach, with my camera, sharing my love and knowledge of our intertidal dwellers with the hope that I will inspire others to love and protect the Salish Sea and the ocean beyond.”

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