Seattle Aquarium staff lend a helping hand in marine mammal rehabilitation: Part 3

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
Part 2: Northern elephant seals
Part 3: California sea lions, northern fur seals and Guadalupe fur seals

The U.S. population of California sea lions is currently estimated to be around 300,000 animals, all on the Pacific coast. According to wildlife biologists, the species is now at “carrying capacity”—near the highest level the environment can sustain. California sea lions are the most common marine mammal patient at The Marine Mammal Center. Although the population of Guadalupe fur seals is increasing, the species is still listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Northern fur seal wild populations are decreasing by four to six percent each year and they are also listed as depleted under the MMPA.

 

The daily care and medical needs of sea lion and fur seal pups are similar to that of elephant seal pups, but a more gentle yet quick approach is needed to accommodate their small size agility, and natural aggressiveness. Animals requiring tube feedings receive thinner tubes and staff providing restraint must be conscious of the animals’ large and delicate flippers. Animals are usually placed into kennels for weigh-ins due to their ability to rotate their rear flippers underneath them, which allows them to run quickly.

Photo ©The Marine Mammal Center

Many of these animals suffer from malnourishment due to their inability to find the fish stocks that were once plentiful. Research shows that overfishing and warming ocean waters associated with an El Niño could be major contributors to the declines in local fish populations. Entanglement in marine debris is another major cause of marine mammal strandings. According to a multiple-year study published in 2014 in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, it is estimated nearly 270,000 tons of plastic is floating in the world’s ocean and that plastic is broken up into more than five trillion pieces.

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Seattle Aquarium staff lend a helping hand in marine mammal rehabilitation: Part 2

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
Part 2: Northern elephant seals

Elephant seals pups are the second most common patient at The Marine Mammal Center (California sea lions are the most common, more on that later) and are admitted primarily from February through June. These pups are usually washed away from their rookery (breeding grounds) during storms or have not successfully learned how to forage resulting in malnourishment.

Julie and Mariko tube feed an elephant seal

Julie and Mariko tube feed an elephant seal
Photo © The Marine Mammal Center

Care of these animals includes daily cleaning, feeding, medical checkups and regular weighing. All care follows specific guidelines to ensure animal and human safety. Protocols must be followed to avoid the animals becoming too acclimated to humans. Talking is only permitted when necessary and at low volumes. Large boards are placed between the animals and humans in an effort to keep the animals from acclimating to people walking near them. Elephant seal pups that do not know how to hunt for food or swallow whole fish are initially fed using a tube. Tube feeding is not as difficult as it sounds since marine mammals are designed to swallow large fish whole. A small feeding tube is passed down the animal’s throat and into its stomach relatively easily, then one person gently restrains the animal while the other person places the tube into the correct position so a mixture of blended fish, fish oil, vitamins and medications can be poured through the tube. Other animals are kept away with boards to ensure safety. Tube feeding is done two to four times a day depending on the animal’s specific needs.

Elephant seal weighing

Mariko waiting her turn to wheel her elephant seal onto the scale for weighing
Photo © The Marine Mammal Center

Weighing the elephant seals was definitely one of the “cuter” jobs. Elephant seals, like our local harbor seals, can only crawl on land using their small front flippers, so they are briefly lifted into a wheelbarrow and wheeled onto a platform scale. Elephant seal pups usually weigh about 70 pounds at birth; they more than triple their body weight to 220–250 pounds during the approximately four weeks they nurse to receive milk from their moms. Maternal care usually ends at that point, and the moms abandon their pups on the beach.

The Center’s elephant seal patients are often admitted weighing less than 100 pounds. When pups appear more food-motivated they begin “fish school,” where fish is offered in a variety of ways to elicit their hunting instincts. All feeding data and observations are carefully recorded for analysis.

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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

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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