As you may remember, last fall the Seattle Aquarium began rehabilitating an olive ridley sea turtle that had stranded along the Oregon coast (read our original blog post for all the details). We’re happy to report that, after months of expert care at the Aquarium, Coral recovered to the point that she was healthy enough for the next phase of her rehabilitation, at SeaWorld San Diego.
In late January, she was safely transported—by the U.S. Coast Guard on board a C-27 cargo jet, no less!—to southern California. Accompanying her on the flight were Lab Specialist Amy Olsen of the Seattle Aquarium and Dr. Clarke from SeaWorld. After arriving, Coral quickly settled into one of the SeaWorld’s large, outdoor turtle pools, and began receiving care in the capable hands of SeaWorld’s staff.
Olive ridleys are considered to be the most abundant sea turtle species on Earth—but their numbers are declining, due largely to human impacts, and they are now protected under the Endangered Species Act. Their average life span in the wild is 50 years, and Senior Veterinarian Caitlin Hadfield estimates that Coral was between 18 and 25 years old, and very nearly fully grown. Which means that, assuming she recovers to the extent that she’s able to be released back into the wild, Coral should have many years to live her life in the open ocean. We at the Seattle Aquarium wish her all the best!
Olive ridley sea turtle fast facts:
What’s in a name?
The “olive” in this turtle’s name provides a clue—it refers to the species’ greenish skin and shell.
Home and (not) dry
Olive ridley sea turtles generally spend their lives in warmer waters (including the southern Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans), but they are also found further north. Solitary animals, they prefer the open ocean and may migrate thousands of miles across the sea every year.
Healthy olive ridleys don’t often come to shore—except during nesting season, when females gather on beaches to lay their eggs.
Along with their close relatives, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, olive ridleys are the smallest sea turtle species: fully grown, they reach about two feet in length and weigh up to 100 pounds.
Dinner is served!
Olive ridley sea turtles eat mostly carnivorous diets composed of crabs, shrimp, jellyfish and snails.
The giant Pacific octopus (GPO) is the largest octopus species in the world—yet little is known of its biology and ecology. Nor is it possible to know exactly how many GPOs are living in Puget Sound. But, with volunteer assistance from the local dive community, the Seattle Aquarium has been working to learn more about our local GPOs since 2000 with our annual octopus census. Each October, Aquarium and local divers take to the Sound in search of GPOs. When they spot one, they take note of the water depth, den type, habitat, the animal’s size, if eggs are present, weather and water conditions, and more. 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.
The census began as an informal affair, with sightings reported via email, phone call and, in one notable case, on a paper towel. It became more structured over the years. The most recent major change took place in 2016, when the census moved from January to October—and the Aquarium selected six sites for staff divers to survey each year, in addition to sites throughout the Sound visited by volunteer divers. Three of the sites are in octopus-protected areas; three are in non-protected areas. The hope is that, over time, we will gain insights into the stability of GPO populations in these areas.
The word “octopus” is from Ancient Greek, not Latin, so technically the plural is octopodes. But because the word has been in use in English for hundreds of years, it takes the standard plural: “octopuses.”
That was just one of the insights offered by Dr. Sylvia A. Earle as she accepted the Seattle Aquarium’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award at our Chairman’s Dinner on January 25. This annual event honors community and scientific leaders who have worked to preserve and protect marine environments both locally and around the world.
In 2007, the Aquarium presented Dr. Earle with the Seattle Aquarium Medal, which is presented each year to an individual whose leadership and lifetime accomplishments reflect the Aquarium’s mission. She was selected for her pioneering research, writing and exploration that helped increase understanding of the ocean and make its protection an international priority—work that she continues to do as the ocean’s most visible proponent.
Recognized by the Library of Congress as a “Living Legend,” Dr. Earle is chairman of deep ocean exploration and research and an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. She has led more than 60 research expeditions worldwide, involving in excess of 7,000 hours underwater, and is founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance (S.E.A.)/Mission Blue, founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research Inc. (DOER), chair of the advisory council for the Harte Research Institute and former chief scientist of NOAA.
This year, the Seattle Aquarium Medal was replaced by the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award—and, upon presenting it to Dr. Earle, Aquarium President & CEO Robert W. Davidson also announced that the Medal is being renamed. It will henceforth be known as the Seattle Aquarium Sylvia Earle Medal. The first award under the new name will be given at our 2019 Chairman’s Dinner.
Seattle Aquarium Conservation Research Award
Megan N. Dethier, Ph.D., a research professor in the biology department at the University of Washington who is in full-time residence at the Friday Harbor Laboratories, received the Seattle Aquarium Conservation Research Award, which honors individuals performing leadership research in the field.
Since the late 1970s, Dr. Dethier has been working on the shoreline ecology of the Pacific Northwest. She designed a marine habitat classification system for Washington state, and has worked with the National Park Service and various Washington agencies designing shoreline mapping and monitoring programs. Her current research efforts are mostly focused in Puget Sound, investigating the linkage between physical features of shoreline habitats and their biota, and the effects of human impacts (such as shoreline armoring) on this linkage.
Scott S. Patrick Inspirational Award
President & CEO Davidson presented longtime board member George Willoughby with the Scott S. Patrick Inspirational Award. Named for the late Aquarium board member and Seattle Seahawks executive who served with extraordinary passion, the award annually recognizes the Seattle Aquarium board member whose service best exemplifies the passion, leadership and enthusiasm which characterized Scott Patrick’s life and board service.
Pictured from left to right: Jim Wharton, director of conservation and education; Robert W. Davidson, president and CEO; Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, Lifetime Achievement Award winner; Bob Donegan, board chair; George Willoughby, Scott S. Patrick Inspirational Award winner; Dr. Megan N. Dethier, Seattle Aquarium Conservation Research Award winner.
A career in marine science doesn’t always require a degree in marine biology—staff members at the Seattle Aquarium possess a wide variety of educational and employment backgrounds. For instance, Seattle Aquarium Community Partner Program Coordinator Jasmine Davis spends her days at the Aquarium helping to increase access for underserved audiences throughout the community via our Connections program. Away from the office, she’s embarked on a fascinating educational journey, some of which she shares with us below.
From Seattle to Baja: scientists connecting to place through marine science
Last year I was accepted into Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to pursue my master’s degree in teaching biological sciences. As a part of my graduate course I get to travel to biodiversity hotspots around the world—and this past summer I was able to travel to the Baja Peninsula to explore the geography of the area, including the Sea of Cortez, as part of a course focused on applying field methods as a foundation for ecological questions and conservation practice.
Through this course I learned about the fundamental tools needed that allow us to investigate and interact with the world around us. By understanding the process of how science is performed, I am better able to inform the public on environmental concerns.
Out of this trip I was able to come up with a comparative research question that I spent the rest of the semester collecting data on and analyzing through the tools I learned in the class. My research question focused on diversity and inclusion within marine science and analyzed how the Seattle Aquarium Connections program is helping to make a difference in reaching a more ethnically diverse audience. Being a scientist within marine conservation is not just about the amazing animals I was able to interact with—but also about the people. How we engage and interact with people, how each and every one of us has a connection to the ocean, and how culture and heritage are key components to this connection. Thinking about ethnic diversity within marine conservation is just one way that I choose as a scientist to think differently and challenge what marine science looks like.
During my trip not only did I have the opportunity to participate in science, I also got to experience it by stepping out of my comfort zone and authentically engaging with a sense of place. My experiences of this place connected me to the land and the water in a similar way that we at the Seattle Aquarium try to emulate for those who do not have the opportunities to go out in Puget Sound: To evoke the same awe and wonder that connects you to marine science and inspires you to want to take action to conserve this marine environment.
In our first blog post, we shared details about the reef surveys conducted in Hawaii by the Seattle Aquarium every winter since 2009. In 2017, our ninth consecutive year in Hawaii, we added a water quality component to our marine fish/coral surveys as part of a NOAA coral reef health grant we received to support this work.
Coral reefs and their associated fish assemblages are threatened and disappearing worldwide. Monitoring reef fish and coral health stability, growth or decline is important for the management of these fragile ecosystems. In addition, measuring the presence or persistence of toxic chemicals in these areas will shed light into how such chemicals may be producing negative effects on the reefs.
Twenty-one samples were taken, at depths ranging between 15 and 45 feet, in four different areas of the Big Island, over a span of five days. Because 2017 was our first year conducting water quality tests gathered at depth in these reef systems, our sample size is limited: one sample taken at one point in time. It’s important to put these values in context with data from other agencies with larger sample sizes and long-term datasets.
What did we measure and what were the results?
Enterococcus: A fecal indicator bacteria that occurs normally in the gut of vertebrates. If contained, there is no disease risk, but it may cause infections if introduced to other parts of the body. Results ranged from zero to 50 colony-forming units per 100 ml of water. All values were under the maximum sample value used to close Hawaii beaches.
Figure 1-Enterococcus results
Microplastics: Found in four out of seven sites.
PBDE (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers): Flame-retardant chemicals used in a wide variety of products. Hawaii banned the use of some forms of PBDE in 2004. Two samples had values just above the minimum detection limit of the assay (>0.04 ppb).
Pyrethroid: A common insecticide (the natural form is extracted from chrysanthemum), it’s chemically synthesized for large-scale use. Aquatic invertebrates and fish have been found to be sensitive to these chemicals. Five samples had values above the minimum detection limit (>1.085 ppb).
DDT (Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane): An organochlorine insecticide that was shown to be highly toxic and was banned in the U.S. in 1972. Twelve samples had values of >2.637 ppb. Because the DDT values are much higher than expected, we believe that matrix interference is occurring, and this assay cannot be accurately used for saltwater samples.
Glyphosate: The active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup™. The manufacturer claims that Roundup is harmless to animals and humans because the mechanism of action it uses (which allows it to kill weeds), called the shikimate pathway, is absent in all animals. However, the shikimate pathway is present in bacteria and targets beneficial as well as harmful bacteria, and thus may negatively affect fish, invertebrates or mammals. Results: Measured in all samples tested, over the minimum detection limit (>0.24 ppb).
Figure 2-Toxics results
Nitrates (as N): Nutrients found in human and animal waste, as well as the breakdown of plants. At high levels, nitrates encourage algal blooms, which can cause low oxygen levels in the water and lead to the death of oxygen-dependent marine organisms. Values ranged from 1.38 to 10.68 µmol/L.
Orthophosphate (as P): The reactive form of phosphate, produced by natural processes of decaying plants and animals and man-made sources such as partially treated/untreated sewage, runoff from agricultural sites, and application of some lawn fertilizers. Similarly to nitrates, it can cause algal blooms at high levels. Values ranged from 0.04 to 0.25 µmol/L.
Silica (as Si): Compounds present in all living organisms. Silicon and phosphorous or silicon and nitrogen ratio are thought to contribute to the type of algae that will dominate: diatoms versus cyanobacteria. Results ranged from 2.54 to 81 µmol/L.
Ammonium (as N): One of several forms of nitrogen that, at high levels, cause direct toxic effects on aquatic life. Results: below minimum detection limit of <0.36 µmol/L for all sites.
Some substances were found at higher rates in some sites than others—for instance, enterococcus and PBDE were highest at Site 1 (in Puako) and Site 4 (in Old Kona), suggesting influx of water likely from septic systems carrying these contaminants. Pyrethroids, glyphosate, nitrates, orthophoshates, glyphosate, DDT and ammonium were found in approximately equal amounts among all sites—meaning that these chemicals were used equally at each site.
Overall, the water quality in these areas was relatively good at depth. Because the samples were taken at the reef level (not in surface waters, and not along the shoreline), it’s expected for them to be lower than what other research groups may have reported in surface and shoreline waters. These levels are baseline and should be repeated to determine significant trends.