Know your beach-this week from the beach

#7 in a series of guest blog posts by Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists Bobby Arispe and Jen Strongin.

The author checking out Graceful Cancer Crabs with the kids

Wouldn’t you like to have a day on the beach with Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists giving you and a few of your closest friends an intimate tour of life in the intertidal zone? Although you can come visit us any time we are out working on our local beaches, we move from group to group, answering questions, making sure we spend time with all of our visitors.

But this year, at the annual Seattle Aquarium Splash! auction, one lucky family bid on and won a special, private tour at Constellation Beach in West Seattle. They got to invite a few friends and have my fellow beach captain, Barbara Owens, and me all to themselves!

We spent two glorious hours together, exploring during the low tide. The highlights of our day were seeing all the different species of anemones and getting to gently feel each one; finding several species of crabs in different habitats and getting to observe them skittering about through the seaweed and rocks; checking out tube worms; using magnifying glasses to look at a teeny, tiny sea urchin up close; and, of course, laying claim to a sand bar island.  :)

Painted anemone row at Constellation Beach

These painted anemones are like our old friends at Constellation Beach. Did you know that they can live for up to 80 years?! We visit them year after year and always stop to say hello.

Barbara and the kids searching the field guide

Barbara and the kids searching the field guide

The large, rocky breakwater at the south end of Constellation Beach is a treasure trove of amazing intertidal life. Barbara and the kids were consulting their field guide, looking to identify one of the many chitons they saw. It turned out to be a very large Hind’s chiton. These animals can grow up to 4″ in length.

Hind's chitonWe got to see one of my favorite crabs, a purple shore crab, as we continued to explore in and around the rocks. They are a common species but I think they are pretty spectacular with their deep purple carapaces and fancy, polka-dotted front claws.

purple shore crabThe next time you visit the beach, if you’re in a sandy area, squat down and look across the sand. You might notice what looks like hundreds of small, transparent tubes sticking up. These are actually the homes of an animal called a bamboo tubeworm. Inside the tube is a segmented worm. The worm scrunches down in the tube to hide during the low tide and emerges once it’s covered back up with water.

bamboo tubeworm Moving over to the smaller rocky, breakwater at Constellation Beach, we saw more beautiful chitons, a mama crab with a clutch of eggs under her belly and the teeniest sea urchin ever. The kids pulled out their magnifying glasses to get a closer look and I, of course, pulled out my camera.  :)

tiny urchin Before saying goodbye, we found one last intertidal gem—a huge, healthy, gorgeous purple sea star, basking in the sea lettuce as the tide was coming back in.

purple sea starThank you so much to the wonderful families who came out with us! We appreciate your generous donation to the Seattle Aquarium and we hope to see you on the beach again soon.

One of the greatest joys of being a beach naturalist is getting to share our curiosity and appreciation of all the natural beauty on the beach with so many people. There is nothing quite like seeing that “aha” moment happen for someone as they learn something new. My favorite encounter at the beach last week was a wonderful family visiting from Texas. They were all excellent beach stewards, especially the grandmother who was carrying a plastic bag with her to clean up trash from the beach. She was picking up what she thought were chunks of rubber but as it turned out, they were moon snail egg collars! We had a great conversation about moon snails—everything from how they lay their eggs to how they drill holes in clams with their radulas. Her eyes sparkled with that “aha” moment and it made my day!

Beach etiquette tip of the week: Carry a small garbage bag to pick up trash.

Here are some more of the highlights of my time on the beach this week from Constellation Beach and Saltwater State Park:

red rock crab eating clamWe happened upon this HUGE red rock crab enjoying a clam for lunch. You might notice that this crab is missing its two larger front claws as well as couple of other smaller ones here and there. In spite of its disability, this crab was making it work! It may have had some gulls to thank for cracking that clam open…

Crabs were the highlight of our day at Constellation for sure. I saw several male crabs, both red rock and Dungeness, moving in and out of the protective beds of eelgrass, carrying females around. I am certainly glad human mating rituals are not the same as our crustacean friends! Females release pheromones that signal to the males they are almost ready to molt. When the male and female connect, he embraces her and carries her around for several days or more, until she sheds her old shell (exoskeleton). Once she has molted and her outer shell is soft, the male can transfer his sperm. In a very gentlemanly fashion, he will carries her around for another several days, until her new shell hardens, to ensure she’s safe from predators (and possibly other suitors!).

Polychaete worm in a clam shell

The beach at Saltwater State Park is loaded with all sorts of beautiful shells. I’ve learned that if you look under the empty ones, there’s always something interesting to see! This week I enjoyed watching periwinkle snails moving along an obstacle course made of barnacles; limpets navigating a terrain with tiny orange-striped green anemones; a mossy chiton taking a rest; and this lovely and colorful polychaete worm.

I can’t believe our beach season is almost over! Our last low tide series will be July 31-August 3. Come out and join us—we look forward to exploring with you.

 

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 first 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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Our tufted puffins are lovebirds!

puffin bond

We have a new bonded bird pair in our alcid exhibit! Green Band tufted puffin (female), also known as Gertie, and Purple Band tufted puffin (male) have paired up. Both animals hatched here at the Aquarium, two years ago in July 2014. This is the first year they’ve grown breeding plumage: a bill plate plus the species’ distinctive yellow tufts (not pictured here).

(A quick note about birds’ names—or lack thereof—at the Seattle Aquarium: birds can be notoriously difficult to tell apart. So they’re identified primarily by the colored bands on their legs…kind of like the parents of identical twins putting I.D. bracelets on their babies to keep track of who’s who! But referring to an animal as “Purple Band” can feel a little impersonal, so some of the birds end up getting named by staff members—like Green Band becoming Gertie.)

Most alcids form long-term bonds. Courtship involves rubbing bills, strutting and “skypointing” (pointing head and bill up to the sky while keeping wings and tail raised). Males also perform head-jerking displays.

After courtship comes the commitment, and it’s a doozy. In the wild, tufted puffins prefer steep, grassy slopes for their nests. After finding a suitable spot, the pair takes turns to dig a burrow between two and seven feet long. Since they have only their bills and feet to work with, this excavation takes an entire breeding season to complete. The pair doesn’t actually use their finished nest until the following summer—when the female lays a single egg.

After the egg is laid, the pair takes turns incubating it—and, once the chick hatches, the parents share responsibility for its care and feeding. With so much involvement from both parents, the value of this bird bond is very apparent!

Plan a visit to the Seattle Aquarium to see our “lovebirds” in person! In addition to Green Band and Purple Band, other current bonded pairs in the exhibit include: Red Blue Band tufted puffin (male) with Yellow Band tufted puffin (female); Orange Band tufted puffin (male) with Orange Band rhinoceros auklet (female); Yellow Band common murre (male) with Black Band common murre (female); and Green Orange Band rhinoceros auklet (male) with Yellow Band rhinoceros auklet (female).

But be aware: bird relationships, just like those of humans, don’t always work out and as animals mature, social dynamics may shift. Interested in learning more about the birds at the Seattle Aquarium? Check out our animal fact sheets!

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Know your beach-this week from the beach

#6 in a series of guest blog posts by Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists Bobby Arispe and Jen Strongin.

I can’t believe my first beach naturalist season is getting into the home stretch. I have one more shift coming up towards the end of the month at Saltwater State Park. Since I was not scheduled for a shift this past weekend, I thought I would recap the training process and share my favorite photos.

classroom training

The newbie training started in May with evening classroom time at the Seattle Aquarium. There were over 60 new volunteers and we were eager to start learning. We got to get hands-on with anemones, urchins and even a really large moon snail. In the weeks that followed, we learned a lot about the nearshore—the area between the forests and into the shallow waters. The nearshore is essential to all of the creatures that live in the Puget Sound. We took a (figurative) deep dive in the lives of salmon and learned how integral a healthy ecosystem is for these fish, as well as orcas. We learned about algae, plankton, ocean acidification and tides. During that classroom session, we got a microscopic view of all the life that’s in a couple drops of seawater, pulled right out of Elliott Bay. And then we got cake! An amazing cake representing the nearshore and intertidal zone, complete with fondant sea stars and nudibranches, candy straw tube worms, and fondant salmon.

Classroom training cake

Our first on-the-beach training at Saltwater State Park got canceled due to storms and high wind, but a few weeks later we all met at Carkeek Park to work on identifying the many creatures that live in the low tidal zones. We had our guidebooks and the knowledge of beach naturalist captains as we explored the beach. We also focused on the nearshore, and walked through the edge of the forests and streams that feed into the Sound.

Carkeek training

Our next training beach walk was on South Alki, where veteran beach naturalists joined us. It was exciting to learn from so many different people, each with their own favorite creatures and knowledge.

 

After all of our studying and reading, we got our official red hats and nametags at the final training session at the Seattle Aquarium. All of the beach naturalist volunteers and staff were present for that evening’s session. We learned about the importance of eelgrass and the Washington Department of Natural Resources’ efforts to track, study and recover the dwindling eelgrass beds. We also learned how the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is using mussels to monitor and measure the water quality of the Puget Sound.

BN hat

And then it was dress rehearsal time. I was scheduled at Lincoln Park. I got to put on the red hat and the many-pocketed vest and practice my beach conversations. Our group got to see an octopus, which I am pretty sure is a rite of passage for a new beach naturalist.

Lincoln park BN

Lincoln Park octopus

Before signing up to volunteer, I really had questioned whether I could find the time to volunteer. It seemed like a lot of commitment: the evening classes; shifts on the beach. The chance to learn something new and feel a deeper connection to the waters that surround me made the time worth it in the end. I was able to fit in the training and beach shifts around a busy work week. I encourage anyone with a passion for the sea to sign up next year. Not only will you learn many new things, you will be encouraging future marine biologists and scientists—modeling proper beach etiquette and creating an interest in conserving and protecting our waters. I know that I am hooked and will continue to volunteer with the Seattle Aquarium.

About Bobby:

Bobby is new to the Beach Naturalist program, joining after encouragement from a co-worker who is a seasoned volunteer.

His passion for the Salish Sea started when he and his wife moved to Seattle three years ago from San Antonio, Texas.

Bobby is an avid photographer and enjoys capturing his adventures of the Pacific Northwest. During the week you will find him biking to work where he leads a creative team at a local marketing agency.

 

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Summertime is orca time!

Summer offers the best chance to see our Southern Resident orca pods in Puget Sound, and it’s also the time of year when Aquarium visitors have lots of questions about orcas—especially about how and where they can see them. Thanks to NOAA Fisheries for helping us to provide the information below!

Orcas, also known as killer whales, belong to the Delphinidae family. Does that word look familiar? If you think it has something to do with dolphins, you’re correct—and orcas are the largest dolphin in that family. But, due to their size (over 30 feet!), orcas are also considered whales.

Orcas can be found in all oceans and adapt to almost any conditions. They are toothed whales, related to sperm and pilot whales, and apex predators—vulnerable only to large sharks. They travel and hunt in groups called pods. Three types of orcas are found on the West Coast of North America: resident orcas; transient (or Bigg’s) orcas; and offshore orcas. Each type has differing habits and eats different kinds of prey.

Southern Resident orcas are the only resident population found in U.S. waters—they’re icons of the Pacific Northwest and inspire widespread public interest, curiosity, and awe around the world. They depend on salmon to survive. They’re also endangered and among the most contaminated marine mammals in the ocean.

About Southern Resident killer whales

The Southern Resident orca population is composed of three pods: J, K, and L. Individual animals are identified by a number based on pod membership and birth order (J2, for example, is the oldest-known member of J pod—she’s estimated to be 103 years old and is also known as Granny).

Composed of 29 orcas, J is the pod most likely to appear year-round in the waters of the San Juan Islands and Southern Gulf Islands, lower Puget Sound (near Seattle), and Georgia Strait. K pod is the smallest of the three pods in the Southern Resident community, with only 19 members. L is by far the largest of the three Southern Resident pods: its members currently total 36.

Where are they seen?

Each year, the Southern Resident orcas spend several months of the summer and fall in Puget Sound. But it’s good to exercise care when deciding how to try to view them. Research has found that orcas spend more time traveling and less time foraging when vessels—including small craft such as kayaks—are present, according to NOAA Fisheries’ 10-year report on the Southern Residents. Orcas also change their behavior by increasing their activity at the surface, including swimming in more erratic patterns, when vessels are close. Regulations and guidelines for viewing orcas from vessels can be found at bewhalewise.org.

What’s the best choice to view orcas without disturbing them? From shore. Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island is a prime spot. Other land-based viewing sites—including the Seattle Aquarium—are listed at thewhaletrail.org. We don’t often see orcas from our pier, but it’s been known to happen and you never know, you may get lucky on your next visit!

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Pokemon Go comes to the Seattle Aquarium

Are you one of the millions of people playing Pokémon Go? If so, expand your search to the Seattle Aquarium! We’re home to three PokéStops, and many happy players have discovered various Pokémon while enjoying our exhibits. As the Pokémon Go craze began to gather steam, we at the Aquarium noticed some distinct similarities between different kinds of Pokémon and our marine animals. See below for a roundup, then come see these animals in person on your next Aquarium visit—and catch a few Pokémon while you’re at it! Don’t forget to share your captures with us by tagging @SeattleAquarium or #SeattleAquarium. Good luck catching them all!

Tentacool vs. moon jellies

Tentacool is an aquatic Pokémon based on the box jellyfish. Tentacool may end up stuck on beaches when the tide goes out—and, since its body is largely composed of water, it will shrivel up, risking death from dehydration if it stays out of the sea for too long.

Moon jellies are made up of 98% water. If they get washed up on the beach on a warm and sunny day, they can literally evaporate to almost nothing!

Krabby vs. hermit crabs

Krabby is an omnivore and a scavenger; it rarely hunts for itself. It can filter feed by harmonizing bacteria in the sand, but this is rare. It is territorial, and in beaches where there is little food, fights between Krabby are common.

Hermit crabs are pretty easygoing about what they eat. In fact, they’ll dine on just about anything they can find in the water that surrounds them, including small fish, invertebrates (such as worms), plankton and any food particles that happen to be floating by.

Psyduck vs. tufted puffin

Psyduck is a medium-sized yellow duck Pokémon. Only the feet and the bill are tan. The other body parts are all yellow. Psyduck has three black hairs on top of its head, and its hands are on its head due to its constant headache.

During the summer breeding season, tufted puffins display an ornamental bill plate, as well as brilliant orange legs, a white “face mask” and distinctive golden tufts above the eyes.

Poliwag vs. skates

Poliwag is so soft its organs are actually visible. It also has trouble walking on its feet due to its lack of arms, which causes it to be unbalanced.

Skates have very pale skin that reveals internal organs. The underbelly of a skate looks like a face, but it is just the fish’s nose and mouth—the eyes are on the top of its body.

Magikarp vs. salmon

Magikarp have the Swift Swim ability, which increases Magikarp’s speed when it’s raining. Despite being strong in the past, its descendants are considerably weaker. It struggles to swim against even the weakest of currents.

Adult salmon face a lot of challenges as they make their way from the ocean back to freshwater. They may get caught in a fisherman’s net, or by a hungry bear, eagle or otter. They may have to swim through polluted waters near populated areas. They may have to overcome high obstacles—some manmade, like dams; others natural, like waterfalls.

Seel vs. harbor seals

Seel is a sea lion Pokémon. It is covered with dense white fur to keep it warm underwater.

Unlike sea otters and river otters, harbor seals don’t rely on fur to stay warm. Instead, their thick layer of blubber provides insulation while storing energy, adding buoyancy in the water and contributing to their streamlined shape.

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