Seattle Aquarium nighttime low-tide beach walks

The regular beach naturalist season begins this weekend! As we begin to get excited for the season, guest blogger and beach naturalist Bobby Arispe recaps his winter nighttime low-tide  beach walk. 

Nighttime low-tide walk at Constellation Park (South Alki) in West Seattle. Hosted by the Seattle Aquarium's Beach Naturalists.

The Seattle Aquarium’s nighttime low-tide beach walk holds a very special place in my heart. It was this very walk last year that got me hooked on discovering the world that lives just below our waters. That’s when I had my first interaction with the wonderful and knowledgeable beach naturalists. They were so passionate and excited about even the smallest of creatures. I was hooked and signed up the next day for beach naturalist training that would come in the spring.

What’s so special about going out to the beach, at night, in the cold? You get all bundled up, put on your wellies and, with a flashlight in hand, your exploring is focused. You begin to really look and study what’s in your narrow beam of light. The smallest changes in color can really stand out—like the bright yellow of a tiny Monterey sea lemon, the rich purple of an ochre star, or the glass-like tones of a painted anemone.

I had the opportunity this winter to go out and photograph during a couple late-night minus tides. Photographing at night, in the water and cold, can get a little tricky. I tend to go a little all out, bringing a tripod and an off-camera flash. I am glad to make it back without any camera gear going for a swim! During a low-tide at Constellation Park in West Seattle I got to really focus my attention on a few creatures. I tried different lighting and angles until I was happy with my shot. That’s what is special about the dark—you stay tuned to what is in your beam of light.

Just below the surface of the water, a small shrimp photobombs this painted anemone.

This sunflower star was on the move.

This rose anemone looked like a glass sculpture

My next late-night outing was underneath the Fauntleroy ferry dock. This time I was with a group of really experienced beach naturalists (the kind that know all the Latin names for things). I got to learn so much from their experiences and knowledge. It was below freezing, I was standing in almost knee-deep water, and I had the biggest grin on my face. I got to tickle an orange feathery sea pen, in the pitch black, to see its bioluminescence! It was magical. We found so many interesting creatures that night.

Under the Fauntleroy ferry dock.

Sea pen—it glows in the dark!

Monterey sea lemon, a type of sea slug.

Monterey sea lemon, a type of sea slug.

Leopard dorid, another type of sea slug.

Leopard dorid, another type of sea slug.

Leather star

Leather star

My latest photos were from the Seattle Aquarium’s official nighttime walk at Constellation Park last month. Since I was not scheduled to be leading a group, I turned my camera to all the people who came out (and a few creatures). It was so exciting to see almost so many people show up to explore the minus tide with the beach naturalist guides.

Dog whelk snails and their eggs.

A great turnout on the beach.

This anemone sways in the receding tide.

We found a young giant Pacific octopus!

I hope you will join me and my fellow beach naturalists in exploring the low tide during the daytime this spring and summer! The first low tide beach walk of the season is tomorrow, Thursday May 25. For a full list of locations and dates, visit

About Bobby:

This is Bobby’s second year as a beach naturalist.

His passion for the Salish Sea started when he and his wife moved to Seattle four years ago from San Antonio, Texas.

Bobby is an avid photographer and enjoys capturing his adventures of the Pacific Northwest. During the week you will find him biking to work where he leads a creative team at a local marketing agency.

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Toxins, hormones, a studbook and more: highlights from our Sea Otter Conservation Workshop

The Seattle Aquarium has hosted its biennial Sea Otter Conservation Workshop since 1999. What began as an intimate gathering of about 50 biologists has grown into an international event with over 120 attendees from locations including the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia.

The three-day meeting brings together sea otter biologists, ecologist, experts in animal care, veterinarians, state and federal permitting agents, advocacy groups and others interested in sea otter conservation, with a goal of sharing pertinent scientific information and discussing what needs to be studied or what action steps are necessary to effectively conserve sea otters in the wild and in zoos and aquariums.

Sea otter conservation workshop

Topics covered include: population trends; ecology; food webs; genetics; updates on the status of sea otters living at zoos and aquariums; animal care and training; physiology; veterinary cases; economic impacts; diet diversity; population carrying capacities; reintroductions of sea otters back to portions of their historic range; and strategies for placing non- releasable rehabilitated sea otters in zoos and aquariums; and more.

This year’s workshop, the event’s 10th anniversary, was held March 17–19, and featured Seattle Aquarium staff members presenting on some of research being led here:

Diets developed for sea otters living in zoos and aquariums

We sent a survey to 24 facilities around the world that exhibit sea otters to document the diets of 62 individual sea otters. Data gathered included the specific types of seafood offered, where that seafood was harvested, how much each sea otter ate daily, and how much of the seafood was offered whole (still in the shell) versus prepared (shelled or chopped into smaller pieces).

Sea otter eating

Hormones extracted from sea otter feces

We’ve been collecting fecal samples to extract fecal hormones to determine reproductive activity in our sea otters for over 20 years. We’ve also been looking at routine stress hormones in the feces and wondering what might make stress hormones rise above baseline. Preliminary analysis is pointing toward brief rises in stress hormones when the animals are receiving a veterinarian exam, in proximity to construction projects and giving birth.

Sea otter construction

Toxins in seafood and in sea otter feces

We’ve begun measuring persistent organic pollutants in our animals’ food and feces. Currently we can assay for PBDEs (flame retardants) and DDT/DDE, a legacy, persistent pesticide. We measure levels in the food offered and what comes out in their feces. The levels in the food are higher than in the feces, which means there is a potential that some of the chemicals are absorbed in the animals’ bodies. How much is absorbed and how this affects their health is still unknown. The Aquarium’s sea otters are fed sustainably harvested, restaurant-grade seafood—the same seafood eaten by humans, which means people may be absorbing similar levels of chemicals as well.

sea otter

The Washington state sea otter census

The Aquarium has participated in the annual Washington sea otter census since 2001. Our role is to count sea otters we see from the ground to validate the counts of sea otters in high-resolution photographs taken from a plane. In 2016, over 1,800 sea otters were counted, representing a long-term population growth rate of approximately ten percent per year.

Wild Washington sea otter diet

Since 2010, the Seattle Aquarium has been documenting the types of seafood eaten by wild sea otters off the Washington coast by using high-powered spotting scopes to observe the animals foraging in the nearshore habitat. This information can be compared to data we have from sea otters living in zoos and aquariums and gives us an idea of the health of the sea otters and the health and productivity of the nearshore areas.

WA sea otter surveys

Range-wide genetic diversity

The Seattle Aquarium has been studying genetic diversity in wild sea otters for 18 years. Recently we acquired a new data set of genetic material from across the sea otters’ current and historic range. We compared this to earlier data sets and found that most populations of sea otters have had an increase in genetic diversity. The greatest increase was found in areas where sea otters had gone extinct and then, years later, groups of animals were relocated back into the area. If sea otters from two different groups were relocated, this caused a mixing of genes—which increases genetic diversity. The greatest diversity increase, almost 30 percent, was found in Washington state, where sea otters have been known to mix with populations to the north along Vancouver Island.

Subspecies definitions using genetic data

Sea otters are divided into three distinct subspecies: the common or Asian sea otter, in Japan and Russia; the northern sea otter, found in much of Alaska, British Columbia and Washington; and the southern sea otter, which lives in central California near Monterey Bay. The Seattle Aquarium is using both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA to re-evaluate the subspecies of sea otters. The genetic differences found support these three subspecies but also may suggest that another potentially genetically distinct subspecies lives in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. More research is needed.


The rehabilitation of Rialto

Read our previous blog posts about this amazing story here, here and here.

Sea otter studbook

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) produces regional studbooks which document the pedigree and entire demographic history of each individual in a population. Studbooks are invaluable tools that track and manage animals cared for in AZA-accredited institutions. The Seattle Aquarium maintains the studbook for all 53 of the sea otters currently housed in zoos and aquariums in North America.

Interested in learning more about sea otters? Come visit us at the Seattle Aquarium—and check out our sea otter fact sheet!

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The Aquarium turns 40 this May!

40th anniversary logo

To celebrate our incredible 40 years of hands-on marine experiences and conservation education, we’re giving you 40 fun & fascinating Aquarium gifs!

1. Boop! Come on into the Aquarium and let Skagway the river otter say “hello” to you!

2. Like this common murre, poke your head out and see what’s happening at the Aquarium.

3. There’s always something fascinating happening at the Aquarium—you can see a cuttlefish, rapidly changing colors.

4. We have daily feedings, where you can see our animals being fed and trained—like Barney the harbor seal!

5. Doesn’t that get you as excited as this little fish?

6. Have you ever seen a spotted lagoon jelly? These incredible animals have no brain, no heart and no blood!

7. We have treats for animals and humans alike—here Flaherty the fur seal is trying to find some more fish!

8. Come in and check out some visitor favorites—like this adorable skate!

9. And this funny-looking puffer.

10. Throughout our 40 years, we’ve also done some great conservation and rehabilitation work—like rehabilitating the lovable sea otter pup Rialto.

11. We have exhibits to excite you:

12. And exhibits to soothe you:

13. As well as exhibits to make you laugh:

14. Come in and see if you can spot a clownfish hiding in an anemone. 

15. Or just watch some sea otters relax in the sun.

16. No need to bump your friends out of the way—there’s plenty of space for everyone to see!

17. Come check out the majestic giant Pacific octopus.

18. Run, walk or paddle over—summer is nearly here, and it’s a great time to see the Seattle Aquarium!

19. Summertime is a great time to catch your favorite animals napping in the sun.

20. You can see our diving birds all year round.

21. We’re frequently updating our exhibits. Have you seen the adorable Pacific spiny lumpsuckers that arrived recently?

22. There’s always something new to learn—like how exactly sea otters get clams open! 

23. If you’re lucky, you may see more than just fish in the underwater dome! 

24. Allow yourself to relax in front of the spotted lagoon jelly exhibit.

25. Keep your head up—we have snacks up in the cafe!

26. Some of the incredible sights you may see: an octopus changing colors:

27. Or a river otter playing with his favorite rock:

28. Or a little skate, taking a few steps:

29. So grab onto your best bud

30. and float on into the Aquarium!

31. There’s always something beautiful to look at, like this colorful anemone.

32. Be sure to catch a sea otter feeding!

33. Come try and spot the big blue Napoleon wrasse!

34. The harbor seals are always making a big splash! 

35. And the sea otters are always having a ball.

36. Although our river otters are often napping…

37. They love to play as much as they love to nap!

38. It’s a place for fun and for friends…

39. And there’s always something fun happening at the Seattle Aquarium! 

40. So let’s give a big high five to 40 years of aquatic fun!

Thank you for your ongoing support—here’s to 40 more years of Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment!

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Seattle Aquarium DreamNight-so nice we do it twice!

Aiming to offer the wonders of the ocean to all, the Seattle Aquarium welcomes people with disabilities, injuries or chronic illnesses and their families to DreamNight, a free event held twice each year. Below, we share thoughts from some of the many people involved in this great event—an attendee, an ASL interpreter, and an Aquarium staff member.

Elizabeth, Aaron and their children

“My family attended Dream Night on April 15. We were welcomed by the smiling faces of the wonderful staff. We had no wait time as they were quickly getting everyone signed in. They had maps, earplugs, and an amazing snack setup for anyone who needed it. My kids loved all the activity stations where they could color and make headbands. We were surrounded by helpful volunteers to answer any questions we may have had.

It was so nice being surrounded by families who are so understanding and accepting of the energy levels of our wonderful children. We felt so comfortable and right at home. Not only was it extremely fun for everyone but also educational. They had a designated “quiet zone” for the kids who like a little less sound.

Overall it was an incredible experience that far exceeded any expectation. I’m so grateful to everyone who made this possible, and would highly recommend it to families who find it hard taking their children to places like this on a regular basis. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

—Elizabeth, DreamNight attendee

Miya Williams

“As the doors close and the last visitors leave, a kind of quiet lull settles through the Aquarium, broken by employees and volunteers setting up their tables and preparing for the many delightful talks and activities that will fill the evening.

I’ve been an American Sign Language interpreter for nearly five years now. One of my favorite jobs is when I have the opportunity to interpret for the Seattle Aquarium’s DreamNight. I’ve interpreted for DreamNight the last few years, and each event is filled with a decidedly magical atmosphere. When I’m there, the staff are always so interested and eager to learn what they can do to make their talks and activities more accessible and enjoyable for everyone.

Recently, at my other job, a family came in and the father asked me if I was an interpreter. I told them I was, and asked how they knew me. His daughter then told me that she recognized me from interpreting at DreamNight, and that she wanted to thank me. They explained how it was their first time to the event, that they enjoyed being able to experience the Aquarium in a way that was accessible, and that it was great to be surrounded by diverse families who understood that as well.

I love that through DreamNight I can meet many families, work with the lovely staff of the Aquarium, and together, we can build connections throughout the community.”

—Miya Williams

Janice Mathisen, Seattle Aquarium employee, retired in 2016 after 32 years.

“I had the good fortune of attending DreamNight this year as a community volunteer. I’ve always enjoyed working on this event, but seeing it from a different perspective and being better able to observe the participants reinforced what we learned was so important to the families who attend.

Walking through the bird exhibit I saw a family with a three-year-old boy who became very, very excited. One of his dads quickly knelt by his side and began whispering to him and calmed him immediately. I greeted the dad and his son when they approached me by the oystercatcher exhibit. With tears in his eyes, the dad told me this was the first outing they had managed to take as a family with their autistic son who also has seizures when he gets too excited. I was so impressed at how well his dad was able to calm him. I was so touched at how grateful the whole family was at being able to have an evening out together for the first time and in a setting where they told me they didn’t worry about being judged if their son’s behavior didn’t seem “normal.” By then we were all teary.

This was not the only time I heard this from participants during the evening, and I have heard similar sentiments expressed over the years along with how warm, welcoming and in-tune with participants the staff and volunteers are. I feel privileged to continue to observe and participate.

DreamNight is an international event, but the Aquarium’s involvement with differently abled children and adults started many years ago with a collaboration between the Aquarium and the Little Bit Special Rider program (a therapeutic riding program). Little Bit board member and Seattle Aquarium photography intern Gail Scott teamed with early childhood education staff member Ruth Yeomans to create an overnight event for families served by the Special Rider program. In turn the Little Bit staff provided Seattle Aquarium staff with disability awareness training each year.

These overnights continued for many years with up to 125 participants! The event transitioned to the DreamNight model in 2013, which increased Seattle Aquarium staff and volunteer participation but still included the community volunteers who had been participating for many years. While the original overnight event was very special, the new evening format allowed many more families from many organizations serving this population to participate.

Always innovative and with great consideration of the audience, I look forward to seeing what the DreamNight planners develop for DreamNight 2018.”

—Janice Mathisen


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Wolf eel wrangle at the Seattle Aquarium

wolf eel wrangle

The 2017 wolf eel wrangle is underway! Seattle Aquarium staff members are systematically performing annual check-ups on the Aquarium’s wolf eel population, looking at the condition of wolf eels’ teeth and gums and measuring their lengths, weights and girths.

In addition, aquarists are updating the wolf eels’ database identification photos, looking for spot patterns and unusual blemishes or scars—and this year, they are passive integrated transponder-tagging (or PIT-tagging) each individual fish. This process involves inserting a tiny chip, which can easily be scanned and read digitally, under the skin of each wolf eel. This will aid in tracking the animals as they progress through different exhibits at the Aquarium. Aquarist Angie Deccio says this reminds us that “our wolf eels are considered non-releasable by Fish & Wildlife because most of the younger ones are captive-reared.”

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Although their maximum lifespan is not known, wolf eels are estimated to live at least 20 years. According to Angie, “Some of the recent animals we have lost had their otoliths counted and were estimated to be about 19 years old!” (Otoliths, also called “ear stones,” are hard structures made of calcium carbonate, located just behind the brains of bony fishes. Otoliths have rings that can be used to estimate fish age—similar to rings on a tree.)

With the new PIT tag system, tracking the youngest wolf eels with hatch dates will aid in documenting more exact captive age ranges.

A few fun facts from the first week of wolf eel check-ups:

  • Average length: 5 feet
  • Average weight: Approximately 20 pounds
  • Total number of wolf eels currently at the Aquarium: 14
  • Age of oldest known wolf eels in the Underwater Dome exhibit: Approximately 15 years old

Want to learn more about wolf eels? Check out our animal fact sheet, then plan a visit to the Seattle Aquarium!

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