Know your beach-this week from the beach

#2 in a series of guest blog posts by Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists Bobby Arispe and Jen Strongin.

Here it is, my first official day as a beach naturalist, and I am a little nervous. I have been through lots of training at the Aquarium, I have had days out on the beach learning to identify things, but now it becomes official—I get to put on the red hat and a vest with a ton of pockets! My first shift was at Constellation Park or, as we call it, South Alki. Which is kind of awesome for me since I live down the street. It was a beautiful sunny day and a cool breeze was in the air. It was going to be a short shift and not a very low tide (-1.28), but it was my front yard and I knew where all the creatures like to hide. I slid on my wellies and headed down to meet the rest of my Beach Naturalist team. We got signed in and grabbed our conversation counters. My nervousness kicked in again—what if I don’t have as many conversations as the other volunteers? The team was great and we were laughing and excited to get out on the beach.

I headed out to the large boulder wall, where I knew I would find lots of creatures. I poked my head into the larger openings and cracks between the boulders.

The sun was peeking through the gaps in the rocks and I came across this great little scene—a sunbeam coming through a gap in the rock, revealing a hidden little world for sea stars and anemones.

At the boulder wall I found lots of purple sea stars, and some of the largest anemones I have seen yet. There was so much life on and in between these rocks.

I came across an old leather boot that had become home to a couple thatched barnacles. Above the boot I found a brilliant orange sea star hanging out (literally) with a group of purple stars. The boot became my marker to show people the vibrant colors of our local sea stars.

Beachgoers were starting to show up and it was time to earn my red hat. I was a little nervous with the first few people, but I realized that the people coming out were just as excited as I was to find and learn more about the many creatures that live just off the shore. I got to have great and comical conversations about the saggy-baggy-anemones hanging out, just waiting for the tide to come back in. I got to show people a colony of aggregating anemones and explain how they split and clone themselves—we even had one starting to split. I got to have so many great conversations with people. I was a beach naturalist!

From the boulder wall I moved out to some smaller rock outcroppings. I met a family that had two of the most excited little explorers. We hunted for creatures and found the largest purple sea star I have ever seen. The two sisters were ecstatic. “STARFISH!” they exclaimed to everyone in earshot! I think they were doing a better job getting people over to see it than I was. It was really great to kneel with them and talk about sea stars. They knew so many facts that I was impressed, and I totally had to step up my game.

We went on the hunt again and found a mottled sea star and lots of sea cucumbers. The interaction with these two little sisters and their parents really helped me understand why what we do as beach naturalists is so important. We are helping people learn about the waters that are around us and how important each creature is in the food chain from the smallest nudibranch to the salmon and orcas.


Before I knew it the tide was coming back in and I had enjoyed 26 conversations with people on everything from iridescent red algae to ocean acidification. It was a great first shift and I am ready for more.


About Bobby:

Bobby is new to the Beach Naturalist program, joining after encouragement from a co-worker who is a seasoned volunteer.

His passion for the Salish Sea started when he and his wife moved to Seattle three 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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Seattle Aquarium staff lend a helping hand in marine mammal rehabilitation

Julie & Mariko

Seattle Aquarium bird and mammal team members Julie Carpenter and Mariko Bushcamp recently traveled to The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California to assist in the care and rehabilitation of sick and injured marine mammals. The Marine Mammal Center is a nonprofit research hospital and educational center dedicated to global conservation of marine mammals through their rescue and rehabilitation work, as well as educational outreach and scientific research efforts.

Julie and Mariko were able to assist in important rehabilitation efforts, learn more about the West Coast marine mammal stranding network, and bring back a wealth of knowledge to the staff and visitors of the Seattle Aquarium. Through this collaborative relationship, we hope to continue to educate people about the critical work being conducted at The Marine Mammal Center and the many environmental issues affecting marine mammals.

Learn about Julie and Mariko’s experience in this five-part blog series.

Part 1: An opportunity to assist at The Marine Mammal Center

Julie and Mariko arrived in Sausalito in late April to assist in the care of The Marine Mammal Center’s current group of approximately 200 marine mammal patients in need of rehabilitation. The Center’s main headquarters lie in the Marin Headlands, with additional satellite operations throughout California in San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Anchor Bay and Fort Bragg. The Center’s response network encompasses approximately 600 square miles of the central and northern California shoreline. The Center has also opened a new Hawaiian monk seal hospital on the Big Island of Hawaii called Ke Kai Ola.


Maps © The Marine Mammal Center

To date, The Marine Mammal Center has rescued more than 21,000 marine mammals. The number of animals rescued varies seasonally and annually. The Center has experienced an ongoing increase in sick and injured animals since the facility opened in 1975. On average, about 600–800 marine mammals are rescued annually due to a variety of issues including malnourishment, premature separations from their mothers, consuming or becoming entangled in marine debris, gunshot wounds, oil spills, shark bites, cancer, and various diseases including domoic acid poisoning (a neurotoxin produced by algae which can accumulate in shellfish, sardines, anchovies and other small fish) and leptospirosis (an infectious type of bacteria).

Typically, The Center rescues California sea lions, northern elephant seals and Pacific harbor seals. However, in recent years, they have seen an increase in northern fur seals, Guadalupe fur seals and Steller sea lions in need of rehabilitation.

Part 2: Northern elephant seals
Part 3: California sea lions, northern fur seals and Guadalupe fur seals
Part 4: Pacific harbor seals
Part 5: Rehabilitators working together with zoos and aquariums


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Know your beach-this week from the beach

#1 in a series of guest blog posts by Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists Bobby Arispe and Jen Strongin.

Lincoln Beach

Blue skies, warm temperatures and some of the lowest tides of the year made last week an especially great time to be at our local Seattle beaches. During the late spring and throughout the summer, when the sun, moon and earth are aligned, we get to enjoy exploring the beach during minus tides. These extra-low, low tides occur twice a month, during the new and full moons. We have minus tides during the winter too, but they occur at night when not everyone is as inclined to bundle up and brave the cold, wet wintery weather (we still do anyway, and it is amazing but we will tell you more about that later in the season)! It is a really special time on the beach when the minus tides are in full swing because they give us the opportunity to observe some unique, beautiful and amazing animals that are normally under the water and out of sight.

You would not believe what we saw out there this past week—a 17-inch long California sea cucumber, a humpback whale breaching off Golden Gardens beach, bald eagles, moon snails laying eggs, flatfish, sea pens, huge Dungeness crabs, shrimp, sea stars and…lots of octopuses!

pacific red octopus

Pacific red octopus

It is not uncommon to see an octopus now and then on our local beaches, but during this past low-tide series we observed record numbers. A grand total of seven were reported from a single day at Lincoln Park beach in West Seattle! While Lincoln Park was the beach where we saw the most octopuses, they were also observed by our team of naturalists at South Alki, Richmond Beach and Saltwater State Park.

We have two common species of octopus in Puget Sound: the giant Pacific octopus (GPO) and the Pacific red octopus. It can be difficult to determine which species you are looking at when they are out of the water at low tide. Size can be a clue—if the animal is larger than 1.5 pounds (using your eyeballs to guestimate that weight!) it could be a GPO. If the animal is 1.5 pounds or smaller and you are able to see three small flaps of skin (papillae) under the eyes that look like eyelashes, you might be looking at a Pacific red. The safest bet is just to exclaim, “Octopus!” excitedly like we do when we see one in the wild.

If you do encounter an octopus on the beach, make sure to give it the space it needs. These intelligent, curious animals are not normally aggressive toward people but will deliver a painful, venomous bite with their sharp beak if handled when they are feeling stressed out. Being out of water during low tide can be very stressful for many of our intertidal dwellers so we do our best to be respectful guests while visiting their homes on the beach.


Next up—nudibranchs! These beautiful, and often tiny, invertebrates are worth kneeling down and taking a closer look for among kelp, rocks and even on the underside of moon snail egg collars. Besides being beautiful to look at, nudibranchs have some pretty awesome powers—like being able to ingest and store the stinging cells of their prey to use for their own defense! Seen on our beaches this week were several species and their egg masses including opalescent nudibranchs, barnacle-eating dorids, sea lemons, shaggy mouse nudibranchs and leopard dorids.

Invertebrates rule on our beaches but we also have plenty of beautiful fish that we get to observe at low tide like tide pool sculpins, gunnels (those fish that look like eels!) and plainfin midshipmen to name a few.

Plainfin midshipman

Plainfin midshipman eggs

We observed a number of midshipmen on several of our beaches this week. These amazing fish can actually spend quite a long time out of the water during low tide by breathing through their skin! If you see one hiding under a rock, not to worry, it can stay right where it is. That is its home and it may be a proud papa, guarding eggs. Beach etiquette tip of the week—leave things where you find them. Excited about your discovery? Bring a naturalist/teacher to the creature.

Our next low-tide series starts Sunday, June 19 and ends Wednesday, June 22. Come join us on our local beaches and we will help you observe the intertidal zone with the eyes of a curious naturalist!

Photo 9-11 collage - tubeworm pea crab, painted anemone, leather star

More critters you may see on a Seattle summer low tide beach! Clockwise from top: a tubeworm pea crab, a leather star, and a painted anemone.

About Jen:

Jen writes:

“I ventured westward from Albany, NY and fell madly in love with our city from the moment I arrived. It was 21 years ago this August when Seattle first charmed me with its lush, forested parks, beautiful beaches, and water and mountain views (when the skies are clear enough) all around.

I spent the first half of my 21 years here immersed in Seattle’s wonderful coffee culture. My husband and I owned and operated Victrola Coffee on Capitol Hill until 2008. We sold our business that year to spend more time with our newborn son and I have been a stay-at-home, homeschooling mama and budding photographer and naturalist ever since! It started with me taking my young son to the beach, gazing into tide pools and wanting to know more about what we were looking at. Soon, I was going to the beach by myself, every low tide I could, and following the Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists around asking questions. :)

I signed up to be an interpretive volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium in 2013, became a beach naturalist volunteer in 2014, and this will be my first year as an official member of the Seattle Aquarium staff as a beach captain. My favorite place to be is on the beach, with my camera, sharing my love and knowledge of our intertidal dwellers with the hope that I will inspire others to love and protect the Salish Sea and the ocean beyond.”

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Seattle Aquarium corals lend a helping polyp to deep-sea researchers

#2 in a series of guest blog posts by Seattle Aquarium Marine Science Interpreter Lindsay Holladay:

In the week I’ve been aboard E/V Nautilus, we’ve surveyed a shipwreck, collected fragile glass sponges from a rare, deep-sea sponge reef, and discovered a series of new methane seeps along the Astoria Canyon. But a big science objective remains for one of my shipmates, Dr. Meredith Everett, coral researcher from NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center. She wants to know what kinds of deep-sea, cold-water corals are living off the West Coast. In order to answer this question, she’s using a cool new technology called eDNA (environmental DNA) sampling. In this process, researchers like Meredith collect and sequence the cells and DNA shed from animals in the environment. She knows this eDNA process works on corals because she tried it out at Seattle Aquarium! That’s right, our very own corals collected from Neah Bay by Seattle Aquarium’s fish and invertebrate team played a role in supporting Meredith’s research.

Seattle Aquarium’s coral holding tank containing Swiftia spauldingi and Gersemia sp.

First, Meredith assessed samples of water from corals living in holding tanks behind the scenes at Seattle Aquarium. Corals are delicate animals that prefer a narrow temperature range, so they can be challenging for the Aquarium to display; however, you can view some species like sea whips and orange cup corals in the Puget Sound Fish exhibit. Meredith chose to sample Swiftia spauldingi and Gersemia sp. because they represent species found off the coast of Washington. Just as she had hoped, her eDNA analysis was able to detect the presence of the coral species in tanks where they were present and not in the empty tanks. In fact, Meredith’s eDNA technique was so effective, she could detect the presence of sea pens, which also happen to be coral, from outside the Aquarium in exhibits where water was pumped in from Puget Sound.

Dr. Meredith Everett, with a specimen of coral, Swiftia spauldingi, one of the species she studies.

Meredith is now aboard E/V Nautilus along with me and 22 other members of the Corps of Exploration. She is ready to collect water samples using ROV Hercules. Using a manipulator arm, Hercules will trigger a niskin bottle, collecting a sample of water at a specific site. Meredith can then extract DNA from the cells shed by nearby coral colonies, sequence the DNA and learn what corals were in that area.

Meredith Everett shows Lindsay Holladay how she transports the water samples in one-liter containers from niskin bottles on ROV Hercules to the wet lab on board E/V Nautilus.

What’s great about this type of research is that it’s non-invasive, meaning Meredith can leave the wild corals in place. Corals are an integral part of deep-sea ecosystems: they provide food and habitat for a number of fish and invertebrate species. Very little is known about deep-sea corals, other than what we learn from species found as bycatch.  Meredith is excited to see what the water samples can tell us.

One of Meredith’s first samples collected aboard E/V Nautilus and filtered in the wet lab. This water could contain important information about deep-sea coral communities in Quinault Canyon.

I’m thrilled to continue this exploration of the Cascadia Margin. I’ve already learned so much about deep-sea biology and geology from all the experts on board, including Meredith. We still have two weeks of exploring south along the Cascadia Margin and lots left to discover. You can follow along and ask your own questions at!

Meredith shows Lindsay the growing collection of vials containing filtered and preserved DNA. They will be sequenced and analyzed back on shore.

About Lindsay:
Lindsay Holladay is a marine science interpreter at Seattle Aquarium and a 2016 Science Communication Fellow with the Ocean Exploration Trust. She is currently spending three weeks aboard the E/V Nautilus, exploring methane seeps and deep-sea ecosystems along the Cascadia Margin.



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Plentiful, prodigious plankton!

Many animals in the ocean begin their life as drifters, or plankton. The word plankton comes from the Greek work planktos, meaning to wander. Some plankton wander their entire lives—they’re called holoplankton and include diatoms, dinoflagellates, krill and copepods. Others, called meroplankton, wander for a short time until they grow up and settle to the bottom or grow into a free-swimming form—these include most larval forms of echinoderms, crustaceans, and most fish.

Plankton are generally divided into three groups: zooplankton, phytoplankton and bacterioplankton. Zooplankton are animals; sometimes the eggs or larvae of larger animals. Phytoplankton are plants; they live near the water’s surface where there’s enough light to support photosynthesis. And bacterioplankton are, simply, bacteria: one-celled organisms that live their whole lives as plankton.

Survival is the key to success

Most zooplankton are very small but have adapted many ways to survive. Some have transparent bodies, bright colors or bad tastes. Scientists have also discovered that many tiny larval fish and crustaceans quickly become excellent swimmers with incredible endurance.

Plankton on the move

Many types of zooplankton migrate deeper into the water during the day (maybe to avoid predators and lower metabolism in colder water to save energy) and come up at night—to feed on phytoplankton. Plankton are heavier than seawater and depend on locomotion to stay in the water column. Some move through action of cilia, antennae, jointed appendages, muscle contractions and/or jet propulsion.

Making a living

Phytoplankton produce their own food through photosynthesis. Sunlight allows phytoplankton to bloom, which is then a major food source for zooplankton. Barnacle nauplii (larvae) use appendages to sieve particles from water. The young of clams and snails (veligers) use cilia to filter food particles into a “food groove” that leads to the mouth. Some developing echinoderms, such as sea urchin and sand dollar larvae, use well-developed arms to sweep food into their mouths. Some larvae may not feed at all while living as plankton, such as the blood star, which relies on energy stored in the egg.

Strength in numbers and diversity

A teaspoon of seawater can contain millions of plankton. The smallest (called picoplankton) measures less than two micrometers (micrometer = one millionth of meter) and the largest (called siphonophore) can grow 130 feet long (40 meters).

We’re all connected to plankton

Copepods, perhaps the most abundant type of animal in the world’s oceans, sustain many marine fish populations. Baleen whales, such as the humpback whale, consume 1.5 tons of planktonic animals and small fish each day.


This photo of a microscopic image shows a barnacle molt with mites crawling around inside the empty legs.

Want to learn what other animals depend on plankton? Visit the Seattle Aquarium! And learn more by reading our plankton fact sheet.

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