New animals at the Aquarium's Closer Look table

A recent collecting trip to Neah Bay has brought some fascinating new critters to our Closer Look table—including a few that are lesser known and fantastically camouflaged. Come get to know them during your next visit to the Seattle Aquarium!

kelp poacher

Kelp poacher: Even though this fish lives in shallow water along our coast—and can sometimes be found in tide pools—it wasn’t discovered and described as a species until 1979, and still very little is known about it. The maximum depth for this species has been reported as 36 feet, but our collecting team found this animal 50 feet below the surface, sitting on top of rocky reef amongst the kelp.

Sand dollar

Pacific sand dollar: After capturing various kinds of plankton and detritus, sand dollars use their spines, tube feet and pedicellariae (minute, pincer-like structures) to move the food to their mouth which contains a small Aristotle’s lantern—a conical structure of calcareous plates and muscles described by Aristotle as resembling a lantern.

scaled crab

Scaled crab: This crab is related to the umbrella crab described below—they’re both members of the family Lithodidae. Other lithodids include: rhinoceros crabs, heart crabs, Puget Sound king crabs and Alaskan king crabs.

slime star

Slime star: When threatened, this sea star secretes large amounts of mucus.

smooth aligatorfish

Smooth alligatorfish: This fish is a species of poacher, a group of bottom-dwelling fish whose bodies are completely covered with rows of bony plates that meet but do not overlap. These fish swim by “rowing” with their pectoral fins since their bodies are relatively rigid and inflexible.

umbrella crab

Umbrella crab: The shape of this crab’s shell helps it to blend in well with small rocks and shell pieces on the sea floor.

Where did the animals go that were on the Closer Look Table before? Some went behind the scenes, but look for others popping up in new places. For instance, you can find our abalone and sand dollars in the Life on the Edge tide pools. (Did you know sand dollars are touchable, gently and with one finger? Come see what they feel like!)

Interested in learning about the Seattle Aquarium’s cold-water collection methods and strategy? Read our recent blog post!

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Counting the road to recovery for Washington’s sea otters

sea otter survey collage

Shawn with the spotting scope counting otters

Curator of Conservation Research Shawn Larson with the spotting scope counting sea otters.


Washington State’s annual sea otter survey is now complete—and the Seattle Aquarium was an active participant. Our Curator of Conservation Research Shawn Larson recently shared some background on the species and how the survey works:



The history of the sea otter in Washington State is complex. We lost our last native sea otter in 1910; a victim of the maritime fur trade. The final pelt that was taken was sold by the hunter for $1,000, which at that time was enough to buy a house. That’s why sea otters were hunted to extinction: they were more valuable dead than alive.

In 1911, sea otters (along with other fur-bearing marine mammal species) were given protection from fur trade hunting under an international fur seal treaty. But Washington was without sea otters for over 60 years until, in 1969 and 1970, 59 otters were moved from Amchitka Island in Alaska to areas along the Washington coast near La Push. It’s thought that most of the translocated animals died—many animals were found washed ashore dead soon after. It’s estimated that the otters we see off the Washington coast today are descended from as few as 10 animals.

The transplanted sea otters were monitored sporadically for the first two decades after their introduction to Washington waters, but have been surveyed formally each year since 1989. The Aquarium has been involved since 2001. The annual survey occurs over one week in late June or early July and includes partners from many organizations.

survey team

This year’s team included representation from the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, United States Geologic Survey, Washington Department Fish and Wildlife, University of Washington, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Makah tribe, Quinault tribe and Rite Brothers Aviation.

The survey encompasses the entire Washington coast—from the Columbia River to the south, to the corner of northwest Washington near Tatoosh Island, and into the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Neah Bay. Rafts (or groups) of sea otters are commonly found in rocky intertidal areas where kelp is growing and rocky reefs provide some protection for the waves.

Washington Coast: Rocky intertidal, kelp and otters resting at the edge of the kelp and rocky reefs.

Red circle is around the otters.

The actual survey is conducted over three consecutive days, and involves counts taken from the ground as well as photos taken from an airplane. The reason for this is that counters on the ground are able to provide a more accurate count than the plane’s pictures, which often catch just the main raft of otters and miss outlying individuals as well as, sometimes, moms with small pups.

Ground and plane counters

Ground counters go to their sites (5-6 sites per year) and wait for the plane to fly over their site. When the plane flies over the ground counters get their official count noting the time and number of adults and pups.

Five or six sites are selected each year; ground counters hike to their assigned sites and wait for the survey plane to fly over. When it does, the ground counters take their official count, noting the time and number of sea otter adults and pups. If conditions are good, the plane flies over twice each day.

group of sea otters

In 2014, we counted a high of 1,573 otters.

The highest single-day count becomes the official count for that year, and reflects numbers from the plane’s photos as well as the ground counters. In 2014, we counted a high of 1,573 otters. The 2015 count won’t be finalized until later this year—it takes time to make the count from all the photos taken by plane.

Overall, the increase in the Washington sea otters since the annual counts began has been about eight percent per year—one of the highest growth rates for otters populations anywhere. 

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Seattle Aquarium conservation update

One of the goals of our 2011–2030 Strategic Plan is to “provide leadership across our community as the region’s premier platform for marine conservation education and ecosystem understanding.” One way we work to achieve that goal is by aligning with like-minded organizations and initiatives to strengthen marine conservation efforts. Our work in this area is highlighted by two recent activities:

Green Marine is an international organization of hundreds of ship owners, ports, terminals, shipyards, suppliers, governmental bodies and environmental groups dedicated to environmental excellence in the maritime industry. In 2014, the Seattle Aquarium became the first American aquarium to affiliate with this effort, joining the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia as well as the Port of Seattle. In May of 2015, we hosted the West Coast’s first Green Marine conference.

I-1401 Mark and Vulcan

State Initiative I-1401, “Saving Animals Facing Extinction”, goes to voters this November. If passed, it would be a felony to sell, buy or trade particular animal species, or their parts/derivatives, within the state of Washington. Animals that would receive this protection include elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards, pangolins, sea turtles, sharks and manta rays.

The initiative closely matches a national effort launched this year by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), of which the Seattle Aquarium is an accredited member, to encourage all member organizations to engage in endangered species action and education.

Our board of directors voted to authorize the Aquarium to work closely with leading partners, including Vulcan, the Woodland Park Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, the Humane Society, and others, to support I-1401. On July 1, we hosted a press conference highlighting the collaborative support for this effort, and delivery of 300,000 signatures to the Washington Secretary of State’s office.

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A quiz: what do you call a group of sharks?

Hint: it’s the same thing you do when you’re chilly! Just like their counterparts on dry land, groups of marine animals have names that can be pretty surprising. Take our quiz and see how well you do! Answers are listed below.

Group name options: Army, Bed, Cast, Rookery, Run, School, Shiver, Smack, Raft, Walk, Wreck

WCN animal group collage with numbers



1. Walk of sea snails, 2. Rookery of seals, 3. School of rockfish, 4. Run of salmon, 5. Army of herring, 6. Bed of urchins, 7. Raft of sea otters, 8. Shiver of sharks, 9. Smack of jellyfish, 10. Cast of crabs, 11. Wreck of seabirds.

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Explained: the mystery of Mr. Potato Head at the Seattle Aquarium

Mayhem and Mr. Potato Head 2

“Why is there a Mr. Potato Head in that exhibit?” It’s a question we often hear from curious visitors. Our answer starts with the big word “enrichment.” It’s described by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (or AZA, of which the Seattle Aquarium is an accredited member) as “a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history. Environmental changes are made with the goal of increasing the animal’s behavioral choices and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors, thus enhancing animal welfare.”

Essentially, enrichment is an opportunity for animals to satisfy their behavioral needs, optimize their level of mental stimulation, and create a rich, variable environment. Aside from being a requirement of AZA accreditation standards, it can be a lot of fun!

For instance, bubbles and other changeable features mix up the look of the harbor seal exhibit. Ice toys exercise our mammals’ minds and bodies as they work to get the frozen treats inside. Hard hats and fake kelp provide something for those busy sea otter paws to manipulate. But it’s important to remember that good animal husbandry is also a form of enrichment. Interactions with a diver, a gravel wash, or a change in lighting can be a stimulating and varied experience for our mammals, birds and fish alike.

harbor seals and ice



Enrichments are designed and carried out on a varied schedule to elicit specific goals; for example, to stimulate a natural nesting behavior or to encourage foraging. They’re offered to invertebrates once a week; fish twice a week; octopuses three times a week; and birds and mammals every two days. They fall into five major categories:




  1. Environmental. Example: water temperature changes for fish to stimulate seasonal behaviors like mating.
  2. Sensory. Example: ice, spices and even music added to the harbor seal exhibit.
  3. Food. Example: Delivering food to our shorebirds in multiple ways—scattered around the exhibit, raked under the sand or hidden in PVC pipe.
  4. Behavioral/social. Example: Opportunities for interaction with other animals (including humans) such as our octopus blind date event every February.
  5. Toy/manipulative. Example: Buoys, boomer balls, Frisbees and other objects for our fur seals to manipulate with their mouths and flippers.

enrichment itemsIn order to provide safe, appropriate and effective enrichments, our life sciences staff must have a deep understanding of the animals’ natural behaviors. That includes both the species’ natural history as a whole and the unique behaviors of the individuals or communities in our care. Enrichment for a fur seal will look different from a sea otter and even more so from a cuttlefish.

Come see enrichment in action on your next visit to the Seattle Aquarium!



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