What are those gray toilet plungers on the beach?

It’s a question often asked of our beach naturalists when they volunteer on local shorelines during low-tide days each summer. The photo below offers a great hint. The animal is a moon snail, and the gray “plunger” is the snail’s egg case. They’re a common sight on Seattle beaches in the summertime, and they are commonly mistaken for litter. They look like rubber, but they are actually made of sand, with a middle jelly layer that contains the snail’s eggs. The mother moon snail turns upside down to lay her egg mass, and as it emerges, the mother’s mucous adheres sand to the outside of the egg mass, and the collar shape forms as she moves her shell and foot. The eggs (roughly 500,000 of them) take about six weeks to hatch.

moon snail 01

In the photo below, you can see a microscopic peek inside that egg collar (for a chance to check out the microscope that captured the image, visit the Aquarium for Family Science Weekend, May 28-30!).

moon snail 02

Another common sight on the beach that invites questions? Clamshells, like the one pictured below, with sunken holes near the hinges. How do the holes get there? Perhaps you guessed it—they’re the work of moon snails. They use their radula (or rasp-like structure of tiny teeth) to drill holes in clamshells—then it’s clam on the half shell for lunch!

moon snail 03

Interested in learning more about the amazing creatures on local beaches during low tide? Join Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists this summer! They’ll be stationed at a dozen Puget Sound shorelines on low-tide days throughout the summer. Click here for the complete schedule, locations and accurate directions.

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Spotted seahorses now at the Seattle Aquarium

Five spotted seahorses (Hippocampus kuda) are now on display in our Tropical Pacific exhibit! They join our one lined seahorse (Hippocampus erectus).

The Seattle Aquarium has traditionally displayed lined seahorses—but we made the decision to switch to spotted seahorses because they’re found in the tropical Pacific (and are thus a good match for the theme of the exhibit), while lined seahorses are native to the Western Atlantic and Caribbean.

Spotted seahorses prefer sea grass habitats in sheltered bays and estuaries. They feed on small invertebrates such as shrimp. This species can be nearly 12 inches in length, but animals often appear shorter due to the way their tail curls up. They are variable in color, despite their alternate common name: yellow seahorse.

Our sole remaining lined seahorse is not the only fish at the Aquarium that mixes with a school of a different species. Look for the following loners in our exhibits the next time you visit!

pile perch

Pile perch with blue striped perch in the Underwater Dome

Look for pile perch’s more deeply forked tail and the dark, vertical bar on the side of this fish’s body. In contrast, the blue striped perch has many thin horizontal stripes.

yelloweye rockfish

Yelloweye rockfish with canary rockfish in the Octopus Exhibit

The juvenile yelloweye has a deep red-orange color and two prominent white horizontal stripes, which fade away as the fish matures. Canary rockfish have only one prominent white stripe, along their lateral line.

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California-bound with Tucker the sea turtle

Seattle Aquarium Laboratory Technician Amy Green recently traveled to San Diego with Tucker, a rescued olive ridley sea turtle that was rehabilitated at the Aquarium. Tucker was joined by Comber, a rescued Pacific green turtle that was rehabilitated at the Vancouver Aquarium. Both turtles will continue care at SeaWorld Rescue before release into the wild.

Sea turtles are among the animals protected under the recently passed Washington State Initiative 1401, which prohibits trade of 10 land and sea animals (and/or their parts) in our state, and also aims to reduce our state’s contribution to the illegal poaching and animal trafficking that are dramatically reducing populations of endangered species in the wild.

Today, in honor of Endangered Species Day, Amy shares highlights from her experience traveling with Tucker:

The day was upon us—Thursday, April 21 was moving day! Seattle Aquarium staff members including Conservation Research Curator Dr. Shawn Larson, Lab Specialist Angela Smith, Veterinarian Dr. Lesanna Lahner, Director of Public Affairs Tim Kuniholm and I spent the morning preparing for Tucker’s big day. Preparations included checking the turtle travel boxes, packing any medical necessities, and organizing logistics of the trip. Aquarium Engineer Bob Kiel, along with Rob Sorensen, designed and built our custom turtle shipping box. The inside of the wooden box is lined with foam and neoprene to keep Tucker comfortable during the trip. It has rows of holes near the lid to allow for air movement. After one last check, the turtles were both placed in their respective boxes, and off we went to the U.S. Navy base.

Seattle Aquarium sea turtle shipping box. Designed and built by Bob Kiel and Rob Sorenson. Turtle stencil by Amy Green.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) requested the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard with the flight transport. They coordinated to schedule travel during regular pilot training; the Coast Guard used this opportunity to train for other emergency situations that could involve passengers requiring critical care during the flight.

Vancouver Aquarium Veterinarian Dr. Karisa Tang, Laura Todd of USFWS, KING 5 environmental reporter Alison Morrow and I accompanied Tucker and Comber on the flight, onboard a C-130 Hercules aircraft (super cool!). The flight was “slow and low” to keep the air temperature up in the mid-70s for the turtles. Both turtles kept calm during the flight, which was about four hours long.

A U.S. Coast Guard C-130 Hercules, used to transport both rescued sea turtles to San Diego.

Dr. Lesanna Lahner with Coast Guard pilot and crew.

The plane was equipped with jump seats and headsets.

View out the window of the Puget Sound.

Upon arrival in San Diego, SeaWorld Rescue crew members began moving the turtles from the transport boxes to their own animal crates. We loaded up into the vans to head to the SeaWorld Rescue facility, in Mission Bay, California.

Tucker being unloaded from the C-130 Hercules.

We drove into SeaWorld, and prepared to unload both turtles. Each was wrapped carefully in a sling and put on a cart to be weighed. Tucker was first, and after being transported into the holding pool, he immediately swam to the opposite end. He started small dives along the pool and was quite active, which was a relief to see after a long transport. Both turtles were now in their new temporary home.

SeaWorld Rescue team members carefully wrap Tucker in a sling to be carried and weighed easily.

Tucker in his new pool at SeaWorld Rescue San Diego.

This whole endeavor couldn’t have happened without the combined effort and collaboration of many parties. Tucker and Comber’s care, treatment and recovery will continue at SeaWorld Rescue, under permit by the USFWS. They have expected release date of late summer, when the ocean has warmed enough to ensure the best chance of successful survival and return to the wild.

From left to right: Mike Price, assistant curator of fish and invertebrates (SeaWorld), Amy Green, laboratory technician (Seattle Aquarium), Dr. Karisa Tang, veterinarian (Vancouver Aquarium), and Laura Todd (USFWS).

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Shark or sturgeon?

“Is that a shark?” visitors ask, pointing at a large, greyish fish hovering near the bottom of the Seattle Aquarium’s Underwater Dome exhibit. What they’ve noticed is one of our three sturgeons. No, they’re not sharks, but similar to them, sturgeons have a cartilaginous skeleton and an ancient appearance.

Some Aquarium guests are surprised to see a sturgeon in salt water, associating them more with freshwater sport fishing. Sturgeons are anadromous, migrating from freshwater to salt water and back, like our local salmon. Local sturgeons typically spend more of their lives in estuarine or marine environments, where they are less susceptible to rapid habitat changes, and return to freshwater only periodically to spawn.

Sturgeons are technically the most threatened group of animals on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened species. However, most of the critically endangered species are isolated to Europe and Asia, where females are harvested for their unfertilized eggs. Beluga sturgeons in the Caspian Sea are considered to the world’s finest producer of roe, or black caviar, in the luxury food market. Thankfully, U.S. Fish & Wildlife protections have thus far kept our endemic populations below the critically threatened level.

The Seattle Aquarium is home to two species of sturgeon: green and white. Keep reading to learn more about them!

green sturgeon

Green sturgeon, Acipenser medirostris

Distinguishing features: Darker, greenish coloration; barbells are located closer to the mouth. There is also a large scute (bony plate) behind the dorsal and the anal fin that the white sturgeon does not have. Typically has between eight and 11 dorsal scutes. Has a dark stripe along the underside.

Maximum size: 7 feet

Life span: up to ~70 years

Conservation status: IUCN Near Threatened

Fast fact: These two green sturgeons came to us from Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) in the early 1980s. They were already full-sized when they arrived at the Aquarium, so we do not know their exact ages. Their role at WDFW had been to help keep salmon pens clean by feeding on mortalities; however they had to be moved when they began also eating the live salmon!

white sturgeon

White sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus

Distinguishing features: Paler, grey coloration; barbells (whisker-like sensors under their chin) are located closer to the snout than the mouth. Those taste-bud structures sometimes get them mistaken for catfish, another fish with large barbells. Typically has between 11 and 14 dorsal scutes.

Maximum size: 12 feet (official record)

Life span: >100 years

Conservation status: IUCN Least Concern

Insider fact: When our single white sturgeon arrived from a WDFW sturgeon hatchery in the early 1990s, it was only about two feet long. With continued health, it could still double its current size.

Look for the sturgeons on your next visit to the Underwater Dome Seattle Aquarium—and stop by the Life on the Edge tide pools or Puget Sound Fish exhibit to see sturgeon poachers, named for their resemblance to the much-larger sturgeon!

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Tucker and Comber: sea turtle FAQ

comber and tucker collage

Comber, on the left, is a Pacific green sea turtle. Tucker, on the right, is an olive ridley sea turtle.

Q: Why are the two turtles named Tucker and Comber?

A: When Tucker arrived in Seattle in December, he was in unresponsive and in critical condition. Tucking his tail was the first sign of life he showed. Also, it was unclear whether he was male or female: male adult sea turtles can be distinguished from females by their much larger tails. Once his tail was finally seen, it could be determined that he was male.

Comber was named for the place that he was found in January: remote Combers Beach, Vancouver Island, north of Victoria, B.C.

Q: What kind of turtles are Tucker and Comber?

A: Tucker is an olive ridley sea turtle, an endangered species in the Pacific Northwest. They are the smallest sea turtle in the Pacific, at 22 to 31 inches when fully grown and a maximum weight of about 100 pounds.

Comber is a Pacific green sea turtle, a threatened species on the U.S. West Coast. Pacific green sea turtles are the largest hard-shell sea turtle, growing to about three feet in length and weighing 300–350 pounds.

Q: Where do turtles like Tucker and Comber normally live?

A: Many species of sea turtle are found throughout the Pacific Ocean, although they mostly occur in the tropical and subtropical areas. They generally venture no further north than Southern California on the eastern Pacific coast but, they do occur in temperate regions including the relatively cold waters of Oregon and Washington coasts. Some sea turtles even occur in Alaska! Our coastal waters are highly productive and provide excellent food resources. However, sea turtles aren’t typically found on our beaches unless they’re seriously sick or injured. Olive ridleys are the most frequently stranded sea turtle in the Northwest, followed by the Pacific green sea turtle.

Q: When and where were they found?

A: Tucker was found near Cannon Beach on December 14, 2015. He was rescued by the Seaside Aquarium staff and transferred by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Seattle Aquarium.

Comber was rescued by Parks Canada staff on January 23, 2015. He was located between Victoria and Tofino, British Columbia on Vancouver Island and immediately transported by ferry to the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Both turtles were provided critical care to treat hypothermia, dehydration and other injuries.

Q: What are their sizes and status?

A: Tucker is a just about two feet long and weighs in at 66 pounds, and is one of the few male olive ridleys that have been treated in the Pacific Northwest. Read our previous blog post for details about his diagnosis and treatment.

Comber is more than two feet long and weighs around 84 pounds. He was hypothermic but in otherwise relatively good condition when he arrived for treatment. As he warmed, he quickly became active and began feeding. He has responded well to his treatment, and caretakers look forward to his return to the wild.

Q: How are distressed turtles treated?

A: Aquarium staff treat hypothermia by providing the equivalent of intravenous fluids and gradually warming the turtle, eventually reintroducing them to water. As they warm, the recovering turtles begin feeding after about a week and a half to three weeks. Olive ridleys seem to be particularly prone to buoyancy after stranding. Buoyancy is caused by air trapped within the turtle’s body that inhibits diving and requires special handling during transport. With continuing treatment and care, the turtles are expected to be returned to the wild when the sea surface temperatures have warmed off the coast of southern California.

Comber's arrival

Comber was transported from the Vancouver Aquarium to the Seattle Aquarium, before heading to SeaWorld San Diego.

Q: What will happen to Comber and Tucker after their transport?

A: They will be taken to a U.S. Navy base and transferred to specialists from SeaWorld San Diego. Their treatment and recovery will continue at SeaWorld, under permit by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with an expected release date to the Pacific Ocean in July or August. The release date will occur when the ocean has warmed enough to ensure the best chance of a successful survival and return to the wild.

Q: Why do sea turtles strand on Northwest beaches so far from warmer water?

A: We really don’t know why turtles become stranded—research is ongoing to try to determine the causes. Generally, stranded turtles are “hypothermic” or “cold-stunned” and cannot function normally. Often, other illness or injury stresses turtles, making them unable to effectively respond to cold water by returning to warmer waters. Entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris, motorboat collisions or ingestion of non-food items such as plastic bags that resemble jellyfish (a turtle favorite), can all lead to injury and stress that can eventually cause stranding.

Strandings are often seen in late fall and early winter when ocean conditions are transitioning, possibly trapping turtles in colder waters. Severe storms and weather conditions can displace turtles northward as they follow currents or search for food. Turtles can get trapped in cold waters during these events. As cold water reduces their body temperatures, the turtles become less able to swim and feed, and more susceptible to ocean and wind currents, and injury or illness. These factors can also eventually lead to stranding.

Q: Why do we rescue sea turtles so far north?

A: All sea turtle species that strand on beaches in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia are listed as threatened or endangered species in the U.S. and suffer a variety of threats including destruction and alteration of nesting and feeding habitats; incidental capture (bycatch) in commercial and recreational fisheries; entanglement in or ingestion of marine debris; and vessel strikes. Returning an endangered species to the wild is important to the future generations that those individuals will produce. The experience gained from treatment of these animals ensures that we will have the knowledge to respond to a more serious event, like an oil spill, in the future.

Tucker Release 02

Q: How did the U.S. Coast Guard become involved in transporting a turtle?

A: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requested the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard with the transport, hoping they would be able to include her transport in their training routine.

The Coast Guard is an environmental protection agency working closely with the environmental protection community and other agencies involved in animal rescue. Sometimes their aircraft, vessels, and personnel are available to help transport animals for treatment, relocation, or return to the wild in conjunction with other operations or required training missions.

Q: What should I do if I find a turtle or other sea animal stranded in an unnatural situation?

A: Call the local authorities. In Washington, Oregon and California, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network can be reached at 1‑866-767-6114. In British Columbia, stranded turtles can be reported at www.wildwhales.org or 1-866-472-9663.

Important points to keep in mind:

  • Sea turtles are listed and protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and wildlife laws of each state. All sea turtles, both dead and alive, are legally protected.
  • Callers should be prepared to describe the exact location of the turtle, whether it appears to be dead or alive, and the estimated weight of the animal or length of its shell to help responders estimate the number of people needed lift the turtle.
  • If possible, stay near the animal to help orient officials and protect the turtle from scavengers.
  • Due to the considerable travel distances that may be involved, and the possibility that another turtle stranding could occur at the same time, response can be delayed. Please be patient.
  • Due to safety considerations, personnel may not travel at night to isolated unfamiliar areas.

Q: What can I do to help sea turtles?

A: Besides notifying the authorities if you see a stranded animal, one of the most important things you can do for sea turtles is to conserve our ocean. Visit the Seattle Aquarium website for ideas!

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