2015 Hawaii collecting trip (Part II)

Every other year, biologists from the Seattle Aquarium go to Hawaii to collect new warm water animals for our exhibits. This blog post is the second in a series that highlights the biologists’ experiences and gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at a collection trip.

Day 5—August 21: Lest you think a business trip to Hawaii is all glamour, here’s a look behind the scenes at our office. Note the non-existent chair, overturned bucket desk, and stunning view of concrete and colleagues’ feet. It’s not fancy, but work is still getting done. The spreadsheet you see is where we keep track of the fish and invertebrates we’ve collected.

humble office

Our humble office.

Day 6—August 22: At the end of each day, we place our collecting totes in the shallow water and work together to transport fish and water to our van where coolers keep the water the same temperature the fish are used to living in. It was another good collecting day in Haleiwa. We collected cleaner wrasses, coral banded shrimp, yellow tangs, and raccoon butterfly.

Catch from August 22

Catch from August 22.

Catch from August 22

Catch from August 22.

Day 7—August 23: We had hoped to dive in a different location today. The entrance and exit from this particular dive site is difficult on a flat water day. Today the conditions were too rough to safely enter the water. So, we got back in the car and drove an hour back to the north shore where the conditions were calm enough to be safe.

August 23 conditions

August 23: Conditions too rough at planned dive site.

August 23 diving

August 23: Andy and Bryan diving on the calmer north shore.

August 23 diving (2)

August 23: Andy and Bryan diving on the calmer north shore.

Day 8—August 24: Unlike our own carry-ons, we pack the fish with great care to ensure their safe travel. Each fish is placed in a double bag and newspaper cushions are placed between fish bags. The small bags go into a big bag, which sits in a cooler that is nestled inside a well-taped packing box. It took us about two hours to pack nine boxes of fish. It’s a very hot and sweaty process! Once the fish are all packed up, they are shipped to Seattle on an overnight flight. Due to the care we take selecting, packing, and transporting the fish, their survival rate is high.

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2015 Hawaii collecting trip

Every other year, biologists from the Seattle Aquarium go to Hawaii to collect new warm water animals for our exhibits. This blog post is the first in a series that will highlight the biologists’ experiences and give readers a behind-the-scenes look at a collection trip.

Day 1—August 17: Our team went to work as soon as we landed: Visiting dive shops, making Home Depot runs, grocery shopping, and getting our two rental vans set up for collecting. We will spend two days collecting on the north shore of Oahu in Haleiwa (a one-hour drive from Waikiki). Our collection site has great access and is a place we have had great success collecting in previous years. Our collecting team includes: Andy Sim, Alan Tomita, Tim Carpenter, Brain McNeil and Andrea DosSantos.

shipping boxes

Shipping containers.

Day 2—August 18: Today was our first collection day. We spent a lot of time checking the fish locations and conditions. At the end of the day, we took our fish to Waikiki Aquarium for holding, picked up shipping boxes, and met Bill and Jean Bothby for dinner. The Bothbys won the opportunity to participate in this trip at Splash!—the Seattle Aquarium’s annual auction.

Day 3—August 19: The Bothbys joined us for our second collection day. Jean Bothby is a volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium’s Pacific Coral Reef exhibit and was a rock star in the water! She collected over 10 fish in just 2 hours. With Jean’s help, our team was very successful and got many of the top fish on our list: Leaf fish, butterfly fish, file fish and eels. At the end of the day, one of our vans headed to the Waikiki Aquarium to drop off more fish for holding while the other van went back to our rental house to wash and dry our gear.

dive gear

Dive gear hanging out to dry.

collecting containers

Collecting containers, cleaned and drying.

Stay tuned for updates on when the new animals will be on exhibit at the Aquarium!

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A new puffling for the Seattle Aquarium!

baby puffin 2015

For the second year in a row, we’re happy to announce the hatching of a new tufted puffin chick (or, to use what may be the cutest word ever, puffling). The chick hatched on Saturday, August 1 and, along with its parents, is being closely monitored by Aquarium biologists.

The puffling will remain out of view in its burrow for the time being, with both parents delivering fish for their offspring to eat over the next several weeks. If all continues to go well with the chick’s growth and development, visitors to the Aquarium may be able to see the adult-sized chick starting to fledge, or venture outside of the burrow, when it’s approximately 45 days old.

We’ll be sure to post more info and pictures as they become available. In the meantime, read our blog posts about the two pufflings that hatched last summer:

Fun fact: Tufted puffins can hold up to 20 small, slippery fish in their bills at a time! For cool facts, check out the tufted puffin fact sheet on our website.


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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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