In November of last year news reports of the killing of a giant Pacific octopus near Alki Point raised questions about the possible need for protective measures for the species. The Aquarium called for a review of options by the State of Washington, and has been working closely with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state Department of Natural Resources and other community partners to help identify the best management option for the giant Pacific octopus.
In February, the Department of Fish and Wildlife announced the appointment of a citizen’s advisory group to review questions raised by the public related to giant Pacific octopus species management. Seattle Aquarium Conservation Manager Mark Plunkett was one of the 12 citizens named to the advisory group. The Aquarium is serving as a host for meetings of the advisory group and for a public workshop. In addition, Aquarium biologists Tim Carpenter and Kathryn Kegel have shared research about the species developed by Aquarium staff, and the Aquarium is keeping City elected officials and others informed about progress.
Over the course of spring and summer, following further advisory group and public meetings, we expect that the group will make recommendations to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. Detailed information about the special advisory group and its efforts can be found at http://wdfw.wa.gov/.
Last Saturday, April 13, Sharon Melin, wildlife biologist at NOAA’s National Marine Mammal laboratory, came to the Aquarium and shared her experience with wild northern fur seals. Working with biologist Julie Carpenter and our male northern fur seal Commander, she demonstrated how satellite tags are placed on adult fur seals to track their ranges (see photo).
Tracking has shown scientists that in winter, from about December to March, animals from the two main populations, Alaska and California, gather together off the coast of Washington. Here they swim constantly, feeding on schooling forage fish such as herring. They are completely pelagic at this time—which means they’re living in the open ocean—and only an injured or ill animal would leave the water and haul out on land (such strandings should be reported to the Marine Mammal Stranding network at 800-562-8832).
Commenting about Commander, Sharon said, “I could never get this close to a healthy adult male in the wild. A wild male of his size would be very aggressive toward humans. At his current weight of 329 pounds, Commander is about the size of typical adult males from the San Miguel area in California; males from the Alaska population can weigh 800 to 900 pounds.”
The southern population of northern fur seals in California is actually increasing, but the Alaskan population is declining. “We think the decline in the north may be due to decreasing food availability and disease,” said Sharon. The Alaskan population still represents about 90% of the entire population of northern fur seals; these animals are found in conjunction with remote islands in Alaska and Russia.
Happily, Commander never has to worry about his food. The enrichment item in our photo, an empty five-gallon water jug with a 3” hole, contains herring on ice. Yum.
If you volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium, chances are you have that one animal that’s your favorite. For me, it’s two: our northern fur seals, Commander and Woodstock. We’re extremely lucky to have them here at the Aquarium, as there are only 12 northern fur seals in aquariums nationwide. Commander is a 9-year-old male fur seal that we have on breeding loan from the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. Woodstock (or Woody as we like to call her) is a female who was born here at the Aquarium 23 years ago! Looking at our fur seals, it’s hard to believe that Commander is much younger than Woody. This is because fur seals have the largest sexual dimorphism of all mammals—which means that there is a huge difference in sizes between genders. Females weigh about 110 pounds. A male’s weight fluctuates seasonally and can be as low as 300 pounds in the winter and 600 pounds in summer!
Many people mistake northern fur seals for sea lions, which is very easy to do. They are in the same subgroup of pinnipeds, which includes sea lions and true seals, like our harbor seals. Fur seals and sea lions are in a separate family than the true seals, called Otariidae, which means they have external ear flaps, which true seals lack. Both fur seals and sea lions have nails on their back flippers that are used for grooming.
While both Woody and Commander are in my favorite species at the Aquarium, Commander is definitely my favorite individual animal. I love to do my volunteer shift down in the Family Activity Center where I can watch him through the large under water windows in his exhibit. He loves to swim and I enjoy watching how graceful he is. Woody is just adorable to look at; she likes to take naps on her deck when it’s nice and sunny outside.
Fur seals are also great climbers, a skill that they show off during feedings. Because they can walk on all four limbs, they are able to climb forward and backward, something true seals cannot do. Commander is an excellent climber, which he demonstrates when he climbs the rocky wall of his exhibit to look at Woody through the glass in the neighboring exhibit!
To see these majestic creatures, visit us here at the Seattle Aquarium. Who knows, maybe you’ll even see me there with my favorite animals!
With the Sound full of amazing creatures like orca whales, harbor seals and giant Pacific octopuses, why should we care about little old plankton? Because, says Dr. Ginger Armbrust, the health of plankton in the ocean ultimately determines the health of the planet. “Phytoplankton are responsible for generating about half the oxygen on Earth,” she says, “So every other breath you take, thank a phytoplankton!”
Dr. Armbrust, Director for the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington and principal investigator of the Armbrust Lab, will share highlights from her research on phytoplankton during the second of our Sound Conversations events at 7pm on April 11. Watch the video clip below, then join us to learn about the critical role these organisms play in our global carbon cycle, and ultimately, in our global climate. Tickets are $10 per person; click here for more details and to register.
Here at the Seattle Aquarium we have four sea otters: Adaa, a 13-year-old male found on an airport runway; Lootas, a 15-year-old female found orphaned in Alaska and rehabilitated back to health here; Aniak, a 10-year-old female born here to Lootas; and Sekiu, our 1-year-old female born to Aniak and Adaa.
Sea otters are an important species in the food chain as they keep sea urchin populations under control so they don’t eat all the kelp, which protects many other species. At one point, over 100,000 sea otters called the Pacific Northwest home, but the Washington sea otter population was hunted to extinction at the turn of the 19th century. The reason otters were so prized was because their fur is the densest in the world, with anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million hairs per square inch of skin. In the late 1960s, many otters were collected from Alaska and re-released off the coast of Washington in an effort to repopulate this area. Fortunately, they are now protected from hunting and have made a recovery in Washington waters. Today there are roughly 1,100 sea otters off our coast.
Sea otters are a special type of marine mammal because they don’t have a layer of blubber to keep them warm. Instead, they rely on their thick fur and high metabolism to do the job. Otters need to constantly groom their fur and blow air into it to stay warm. You can watch them do somersaults in the water and see the air bubbles coming off them here at the Aquarium.
Sea otters need to eat around 25% of their body weight every day; roughly 15–20 pounds. At the Aquarium, their diet consists of a variety of shellfish, squid, fish, crabs and shrimp.
As a volunteer, I get to interact with these animals on a weekly basis. My favorite time to visit them is during evening trainings, when they swim up to the windows to look at the people walking by. It’s also fun watching them feed. Each otter has a special “station” they are trained to go to during feeding times. This helps the biologists identify which animal is which, and also makes sure no one is left out of receiving food.
Come down to the Seattle Aquarium this weekend during Marine Mammal Mania (April 5-7) to learn more about these adorable animals!