Ever wondered where the Aquarium gets new animals for its exhibits? Not surprisingly, it isn’t simply a matter of heading to a local beach with a bucket at low tide. Below, staff aquarist Kathryn Kegel provides a behind-the-scenes peek at the Seattle Aquarium’s cold-water collection methods.
Each year, the Fish and Invertebrate team mounts many collecting trips into the local waters of Washington State. The reasons for doing limited wild collections are many. We primarily collect animals that are young—for example, the many young-of-year* rockfish we display in the Puget Sound Fishes gallery. In order to continue displaying these unique critters, they are continually replaced as they outgrow the smaller exhibits (and are sometimes released back to the wild as adults!). Additionally, many of our exhibit animals live short lives naturally and need to be replaced, and sometimes animals are needed for new exhibits. All of our collecting is based off an annual permit which we apply for and receive from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which states how many animals we are allowed to collect and where we can collect them. Every animal that we collect and bring into the Aquarium is counted and entered into our collection database.
The Fish and Invertebrate team collects from the field throughout the year, but our big collecting time is during the summer. We make two weeklong trips to Neah Bay, where the bulk of our cold-water collecting is done. These trips are boat-based SCUBA diving trips with a team of four people, doing a total of four dives per day. We also do a three-day, low-tide collecting trip to the Neah Bay area every other year around May. We do smaller local trips as needed here in the Puget Sound throughout the year for giant Pacific octopuses and eelgrass animals such as tubesnouts.
Most of our collecting is done by SCUBA diving. Fish and invertebrates are collected by hand or net and transferred to a water-filled bag until we are back on the boat, where the animals are moved to a cooler. For longer trips with multiple days of diving, we have buckets and barrels with holes in them that are attached to lines with a float on the top. These holding containers stay out in a sheltered, calm bay until we are ready to head back to the Aquarium. Animals are transferred back to the Aquarium in coolers or large totes, on the back of our flatbed truck or in our van. The vehicles are set up with an oxygen system to make sure the water stays properly oxygenated during the trip. We also use ice packs to help keep the water temperature down during transport. Once back at the Aquarium, the animals are counted and then transferred to holding tanks, where they are monitored for a couple of weeks as they acclimate to their new environment.
Visit the cold-water exhibits on your next visit to the Aquarium and ask a staff member or volunteer to show you some recent additions to our animal collection!
*Young-of-year fish are less than one year old and from eggs that spawned in the current year.
People around the world celebrated World Oceans Day on June 8—but the Seattle Aquarium expanded the festivities into two days with World Ocean Weekend on June 13 and 14. Through a variety of engaging demonstration and fun activities, Aquarium guests learned how everyone—no matter where they live—can be an ocean hero while helping to keep our marine environment clean and healthy. A popular children’s ocean hero, Captain Barnacles of the Octonauts, was even on hand to lend his support to the cause!
Local ocean heroes The Northwest Straits Foundation featured their derelict gear removal program, which is responsible for restoring 790 acres of Puget Sound habitat to health by removing 5,500 derelict fishing nets and 3,800 derelict crab pots. And The Nature Conservancy challenged our guests to take a pledge against plastic water bottles. The Aquarium café joined in by suspending sale of plastic water bottles for the weekend while promoting their regular practices of using sustainable seafood and compostable service ware.
Want to learn more about being an ocean hero? Visit our website to download our “top 10 ways to help Puget Sound!”
We announce with deep sadness that Siku, our female harbor seal, delivered a premature, stillborn pup on Sunday, May 31. This was 10-year-old Siku’s first pregnancy. Necropsy results are pending. In the meantime, Siku is doing well and has already resumed eating.
A life-threatening situation with a happy ending is also a sobering reminder of how critically important it is to keep marine habitats clean and free of pollution. On May 22, Memorial Day, a young visitor to the Aquarium tossed a small object into the main sea otter pool, where northern fur seals Flaherty and Leu were spending the day.
The child’s mother notified staff and let them know that the object was a “stress ball,” made of stretchy cloth and scented with dried lavender. As soon as the ball entered the pool, the fur seals began tossing it around—similar to the way they sometimes play with their food. Although Aquarium staff entered the exhibit mere moments after being alerted to the presence of the foreign object, no ball was found.
Flaherty and Leu were shifted back to the fur seal exhibit and a quickly assembled Aquarium dive team searched the sea otter pool for the ball, but to no avail. On Tuesday morning, Dr. Lindsay Helvey and the staff of Northwest Equine Veterinary Associates, and our staff veterinarian, Dr. Lesanna Lahner, took some digital radiographs which confirmed that Leu had ingested the ball. Dr. Lahner then did some research on similar balls sold nearby and discovered that they are primarily filled with whole flax seeds.
In the warm liquid environment of Leu’s stomach, the ball expanded and the contents became sticky with a gelatinous coating. The ball was not only too big to pass from Leu’s stomach into his intestines, but also too big for him to regurgitate. It was stuck.
By midday, Leu was clearly in distress and becoming less and less responsive. Dr. Lahner organized and led an all-star team of specialists—including Dr. Betsy Lutmerding of the Navy’s Marine Mammal Foundation; Dr. Justin Rosenberg, veterinary intern at the Vancouver Aquarium; Dr. Kendra Bauer, veterinary intern from Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium; veterinary technician Teresa Casson of the Animal Surgical Clinic of Seattle; and human gastroenterologist, Dr. Darik Taniguchi and his wife Jo Taniguchi, who is a nurse, both of Seattle Gastroenterology Associates—to come to Leu’s aid. The team worked into the wee hours of the night during a four-hour medical procedure, carefully cutting open the ball and removing enough flax seeds to make it possible for the ball to be safely pulled out through Leu’s mouth.
The procedure went well and Leu is now recuperating nicely. He’ll remain under veterinary care and off exhibit for the next several days as Aquarium staff continue to monitor his condition. Comments Curator of Birds and Mammals Traci Belting, “We tell many stories to our guests about the perils of foreign object ingestion when wild animals consume human-generated trash. Unfortunately animals in the wild don’t have an expert team to save their lives the way fur seal Leu did.”
Since 1999, the Seattle Aquarium has hosted biannual sea otter conservation workshops. These workshops over the years have developed into the largest meeting of sea otter biologists in the world and include delegates from the US, Canada, Europe, Russia and Japan.
This year’s workshop, held at the end of March, was the biggest one yet. It included three days and 54 presentations on wild sea otter population trends, biology, ecology, outreach, advocacy, veterinary medicine, captive husbandry and conservation. The workshop provided an opportunity for sea otter experts from around the world, including representatives from every U.S. institution that keeps captive sea otters, to gather and exchange information.
According to Seattle Aquarium’s Shawn Larson, curator of conservation research, “almost everyone active in sea otter research and conservation attends this unique conference to exchange ideas, develop new partnerships and strengthen old ones … There really is no other meeting quite like it!”
The Seattle Aquarium is home to five charming sea otters including Sekiu, who was born at the Seattle Aquarium in January of 2012, and Mishka, a rescued Alaskan sea otter pup who joined the Aquarium family on Super Bowl Sunday 2015.
The Seattle Aquarium is passionate about these outgoing and intelligent mammals and proud to be a leader in sea otter conservation locally and around the world.