Digging deep during Sound Conversations with Jeff Renner

Jeff Renner

Guest post by Jeff Renner

Emmy-award-winning producer of science documentaries Jeff Renner recently hosted the first of our 2017 Sound Conversations events, devoted to Rialto the rescued sea otter and the Seattle Aquarium’s partnership with The Seattle Times in telling the amazing story of his rehabilitation. Below, Jeff shares a recap of the evening. Interested in our upcoming Sound Conversations events? Details and registration here.

It looked like a soggy brown rag discarded on the beach by a careless hiker. But as wilderness ranger Joseph Alcorn approached, he saw the ‘rag was moving—it had a head, a tail, four paws and it was shrieking. ’It’ was an infant sea otter—just weeks old, struggling and barely alive. The National Park Service ranger felt certain the tiny otter wouldn’t survive much longer. He called the Washington Sea Otter Stranding Network, which began searching for rescue facilities. Call after call failed to find assistance, until the Seattle Aquarium responded.  

Upon first inspection, the Aquarium staff biologists and veterinarian felt the little sea otter had little chance of survival. But as days passed, Rialto—named for the beach on which he was discovered—began to put on weight and gain energy. The transformation was stunning; so stunning that Rialto soon earned the nickname “He Who Will Not Be Ignored.”


It was an amazing story, and it captured the attention of Seattle Times environmental reporter Lynda Mapes and photographer Alan Berner. The human interest aspect of the plucky little otter’s recovery was undeniable. He moved the hearts, the compassion of all who saw him. But Mapes and Berner also saw the remarkable story not readily apparent to Seattle Aquarium visitors: the story of the behind-the-scenes scientific expertise that supports both ground-breaking research and animal rehabilitation. And there was the important marine conservation message exemplified by Rialto. That’s why The Seattle Times decided to go “big” on the story, just as the Aquarium went big on the little otter’s care. Both efforts represented considerable investments of time, money and passion.

Lynda and Alan shared this remarkable story as the first guests at the Seattle Aquarium’s Sound Conversation series on March 2. It was like sitting next to Lynda at her newsroom desk, or as a photographic assistant to Alan. Both shared their professional approach, their perspectives, and yes, even their growing sense of affection for this compelling little pup. What emerged from the work of Mapes and Berner, and the stories they shared during the evening Sound Conversations, was the larger importance of expanding our understanding of the health of sea otters along the Washington coast, and the important role they play in the health of our ecosystem.

Although Rialto has moved to a permanent home at the Vancouver Aquarium, his brothers and sisters in the wild act as an important check on sea urchins, a favorite food. Uncontrolled, sea urchins devastate the kelp forests that serve as an important habitat for fish, and absorb part of the impact of waves, protecting sensitive beaches and shorelines. The award-winning work of Mapes and Berner stimulates us all to discard quick answers, to take a more considered view of our environment, to question whether short-term gains truly offset long term costs…and to be more critical consumers of information in this age of “alternative facts.” Lynda Mapes summarized the need well: “We don’t share our toothbrush, because we know we need to watch what goes into our body. We also need to watch what goes into our mind.”

Expect to have your mind “stretched” a bit by our next Sound Conversations guest, writer Jonathan White, on April 6. This Orcas Island resident has travelled the globe, from the Northwest to China to France to the Arctic and back, all to piece together the complex story of tides, featured in his critically acclaimed book, Tides: the Science and Spirit of the Ocean. It’s a story that profoundly affects each of us, and in more ways than we can imagine. The impact and origin of tides has engaged some of the greatest scientific names over the ages, including Aristotle, Copernicus, Kepler and Newton. You’ll learn more about their work, successes and yes, failures.

Tides: the Science and Spirit of the OceanThink tides only affect the oceans and coastal environment? Not true. The tides impact water well inland, our atmosphere, solid earth and even our own bodies. Jonathan will share colorful stories and examples of each of those impacts, as well as the important effect most familiar to us—along our beaches. The Northwest Coast Native peoples have a saying: “When the tide recedes, the table is set.” The ebb and flow of the tides is fundamental to the flourishing of shellfish, in fact all aspects of our marine ecosystem that are instrumental to the health and prosperity of our region.

Jonathan will outline the impact of “future tides”—the impact of tides on the rotation of the Earth, its distance from the moon, how tides are already amplifying the effect of rising sea levels, and how they are beginning to serve as a potential source of energy—clean, but not without challenges and complications.

And finally, when we hear the word “shark,” our pulse tends to quicken. Having dived with sharks in the Atlantic, Caribbean and the Pacific, I can tell you mine does! You may be surprised that Puget Sound serves at least as an occasional home to some very, very large sharks. Award-winning KCTS producer Michael Werner will unfold the story of these “mystery sharks” in our last Sound Conversations event, on May 17.  Join us!

Posted in Conservation, Seattle Aquarium | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

All about urchins

It’s no surprise that these colorful echinoderms are also known as the hedgehogs of the sea: they’re round like balls and covered with long, movable spines. They’re also one of the most popular animals in the touch pools of our Life on the Edge exhibit. Read more about them on our website, plan a visit to the Aquarium to touch one for yourself, and learn a few more tantalizing urchin tidbits with this blog post!

True or false? Most sea urchins are venomous.

False. Most species of sea urchins have spines that are solid and do not contain venom. Some members of the families Echinothuridae and Diadematidae have sharp, hollow spines with a venom gland. Also, there are flower urchins in the genus Toxopneustus that have venomous pedicellariae. The banded sea urchin, Echinothrix calamaris, in display in our Pacific Coral Reef exhibit, belongs to family Diadematidae, and is venomous.

Which of the three species of sea urchins on display in our tide pools are commercially harvested in Washington?

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regulates the harvest of both green and red urchins in Washington waters. According to records, 23,798 pounds of green urchin were harvested from central and south Puget Sound in the 2016–2017 season, which is now closed. The largest harvest from last season was 170,904 pounds of red urchin harvested from the San Juan Island zones.

And which local species are NOT on display?

The white sea urchin, strongylocentrotus pallidus and the heart urchin, Brisaster latifrons. Heart urchins are the most common urchin found in Puget Sound sediment monitoring. These odd-shaped urchins are deposit feeders and have tiny pincers on the end of their pedicillariae (small, wrench-shaped appendages).

Did you know? Sea urchins sometimes cover themselves in rocks.

Why do they do this? Ask one of our knowledgeable interpreters during your next visit to the Seattle Aquarium!

Posted in Seattle Aquarium | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Teens, rain and freezing sludge on board the R/V Centennial

Guest blog post by Lyra Dalton

Lyra Dalton is an avid beachcomber, marine adventurer and cephalopod enthusiast who has been working at the Seattle Aquarium as a youth engagement mentor and citizen science instructor for the past year, as well as doing educational programming and youth engagement at Woodland Park Zoo. She loves to share her passion for marine life, ecology and conservation with anyone who will stick around long enough to listen. A life-long resident of the Puget Sound area, she grew up more in the ocean than beside it and loves to get her hands wet sharing what she’s discovered—in the classroom, on the beach or in her writing. Below, Lyra shares her experience as an educator on a field research excursion with a group of teens.

Waking up to rain on the morning of an outdoor field trip is normally the kiss of death when working with teens. It’s a universal signal that attitudes will be bad, no one will be wearing enough layers, and you will spend the rest of the day talking in an overly cheerful voice trying to pull your students out of the depths of teenage misery. I was taking 20 teens out onto the R/V Centennial, a marine research vessel owned by the University of Washington, to drag a dredge net along a patch of seafloor and look for animals. In good weather, this is an amazing opportunity to see bottom-dwelling animals, spend time out on the water, see what field research looks like, and get a killer view of the Olympic Mountains—what educator could hope for more? In the rain, this is an opportunity to get wet and cold and then dig through freezing sludge with your bare hands.

When we showed up at the boat things were looking a little bleak. It started to rain harder and there were more teens than raincoats present. I braced for the worst, drained the rest of my coffee, and counted the attendees. To my amazement, they were all present. We headed out onto the boat in a break in the drizzle, explored, lowered the net and started to drag it. The rain started again, but as we began to bring up the net everyone gathered outside to watch, crossing the fingers and toes they could still feel that something amazing would emerge. It kept raining, and blowing wind. The winch kept malfunctioning, and the net stayed under water. As I lost feeling in my fingertips, I thought I should maybe pop inside, but a stalwart group of teens remained, watching, waiting and learning. As anyone who has been involved in field research can tell you, for every beautiful day you enjoy outside, there’s likely to be two days where it’s too hot or too cold, and things don’t go as planned. We talked about this and I found that rather than buoying my teen’s spirits, they were buoying mine. These tough Northwesterners had no problem hanging out in the rain for two hours. And when the net finally emerged, depositing a huge pile of freezing mud, they rolled up their sleeves and painstakingly dug through it.

To the people who wince a little when I tell them I work with teens and give me a pitying look, I hand this back to you. I love marine science, have been a patented science nerd for as long as I can remember, and I still felt reservations about sticking my hands into that mud—but the teens did it. They did it with smiles and enthusiasm. There was some shrieking and frozen fingers, but there were also sea cucumbers smaller than my fingernail that they pulled from the sludge. Tiny snails emerged, a baby kelp crab; they pulled out giant fish-eating anemones dripping with slime and passed them around, wondering and laughing at the gelatinous texture. They braved marine worms with rings of terrifying teeth, and carefully placed each animal into tanks for further examination. When they were done, their fingers were so cold that warm water burned when it touched them, but no one regretted a moment.

Once the boat had docked we all huddled indoors while parents arrived to pick the teens up. I looked around at my soaked charges and ventured a question, “So, what did you guys think?” Every student smiled back at me, raised thumbs up, nodded, and agreed, “It was awesome!” They loved it. If I’d said come back tomorrow, I think they would have agreed to then and there.

I work with these teens because they inspire me. Every day I get to see their passion, their drive, and their dreams for the future. I walk away with so much hope and faith in what they can, and will accomplish. Their dedication to marine science and conservation reminds me why I want to work in this field and defies every teenage stereotype I can come up with. This trip on the Centennial was just another reminder of how much teens have to offer, and how important it is that they get opportunities to learn, grow and remind us what they’re made of.

About Lyra:

Lyra Dalton is an avid beachcomber, marine adventurer, and cephalopod enthusiast who has been working at the Seattle Aquarium as a youth engagement mentor and citizen science instructor for the past year, as well as doing educational programming and youth engagement at Woodland Park Zoo. She loves to share her passion for marine life, ecology, and conservation with anyone who will stick around long enough to listen. A life-long resident of Puget Sound, she grew up more in the ocean than beside it, and loves to get her hands wet sharing what she’s discovered, in the classroom, on the beach, or in her writing.

Posted in Seattle Aquarium, Teen Programs | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Aquarium for all: Open House welcomes diverse families

With generous support from members and donors, each October the Aquarium invites community members to enjoy a special night of learning, inspiration and fun. Attendees come from households receiving support from selected human service organizations in King County. For many, it is their first opportunity to visit the Aquarium.

To make the evening accessible for all, admission is free. Because many of the families are new to the United States, signs are printed in eight languages: English, Somali, Amharic, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Arabic, Chinese and Spanish. Volunteers from the Aquarium and our community ticket partners provide interpretation services in nine different languages. And the evening’s talks are given in English, Cantonese and Spanish—all in the name of removing barriers to engaging with the wonders of the ocean.

The Seattle Aquarium partners with the Environmental Science Center (ESC), which initially created and hosted the Open House event, to produce it. The ESC is also the source for the youth volunteers, students from Highline High School’s Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, to staff activities and provide interpretation services. ESC also provides much of the evening’s transportation for families and volunteers traveling to/from the event.

Last fall’s event drew 684 people—mostly families, who eagerly explored exhibits and chose from activities including squid and salmon dissection demonstrations, a make-your-own shark headband station, a diver show and more. Thank you for the support that allows as many people as possible to engage with our mission of Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment!

Increasing Aquarium access        

Through social services agencies and community centers run by the City of Seattle Department of Parks & Recreation, the Seattle Aquarium’s community ticket program donates complimentary admission tickets to families who might otherwise experience barriers to visiting us. For more information, visit SeattleAquarium.org/community-tickets.

Posted in Seattle Aquarium | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Seattle Aquarium 2017 Hawaii reef research report

2017 marks the ninth consecutive year that Seattle Aquarium staff members have conducted reef fish surveys at eight sites along the northwestern side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Below is a recap from the team, which included Aquarium staff members Alan Tomita (fish counter and chef), Amy Green (water quality analysis), Joel Hollander (fish counter and dive safety officer), Tim Carpenter (camera operator and equipment lead) and Shawn Larson (camera operator and trip leader).

Day 1: February 2

This is year nine of our annual Hawaii reef research where we go to Hawaii in early February to survey eight sites around the northwest side of the Big Island of Hawaii using scuba and underwater cameras. This year we received a $35,000 NOAA coral conservation grant to conduct our fish and coral surveys as well as to add a water quality component to determine the relative health of the nearshore marine environment.

Today was a travel day. We left Seattle at 10:30am and 45 degrees, and arrived in Kona at 3:30pm and 75 degrees. Nice change. The rest of the day was spent picking up water quality and diving supplies as well as food. We arrived at the home of our hosts, Dom and Marie Addario, in Puako at 6pm. We were greeted by a very large humpback whale breaching. It’s wonderful to be back!

Day 2: February 3

First full day in Hawaii. The water looked very nice and inviting with small waves and no wind. We stayed in Puako and were able to get four surveys on both sites 1 and 2, as well as collect water samples for water quality (DDT/DDE, a legacy pesticide that is persistent in the environment and toxic; pyrethrins, a popular pesticide and toxic to aquatic life; PBDE or flame retardants, used in a variety of products and toxic; glycophate, the active ingredient in Roundup and thought to be potentially toxic to coral reefs; nitrate, a nutrient found in fertilizers and in sewage; phosphate, a nutrient found in detergents; ammonia, a compound found in sewage and fertilizers; enterococcus bacteria, a bacteria indicative of sewage contamination; and microplastics that have become widespread in  the marine environment and toxic to marine life). Our sites in Puako are semi-protected which means there is no aquarium collecting of fish and fishing is limited to pole fishing only, no nets or spearfishing. These sites had many fish in the surveys—more than we have seen in previous years.

Day 3: February 4

Another great day in northwest Hawaii. Perfect conditions for reef surveys and water quality sampling. We drove up to our sites 6 and 7 in Mahukona. These sites are not protected and any type of fishing is allowed as well as aquarium collecting. The weather and water were perfect and we were able to conduct four surveys on each site and collect water quality samples. Later in the day, back down in Puako, we tried to survey site 5 which is at the end of Puako Road and a popular surf spot when there are waves. When we got there, sure enough there were surfers and the waves were too large for us to shore dive. We were done for the day.

Day 4: February 5

Today we headed south from Puako to our sites 3 and 4 off of the Old Kona airport. These two sites are also semi-protected, like Puako. Today we were treated by meeting our new boat captain, Mark Johnston, who took us to our sites in his Parker 25 boat. This was a welcome change as these sites are relatively far from shore and involve a long surface swim when diving from shore. The swell was a little big and we did have some surge conditions underwater but the fish diversity was high and there were lots of fish to survey.

Day 5: February 6

Today we are back in Puako but the swell was too big for us to access our last Puako site, site 5, from shore. We tried our best but it was too big and we risked everyone being beaten up by the waves and banged on the lava. So we went to other access points where we could get in the water to search for more sites and new fish. We found garden eels, bi-colored anthias fish and wire coral. Very nice dives.

Day 6: February 7

Today wasn’t the best day for diving: the swell was big, four to six feet,-and we couldn’t access site 5 from shore. We tried to charter a boat through Kohala Divers, where we get our scuba tanks in Kawaihae, but the boats weren’t even going out! We had to do something, so we drove 2.5 hours south to South Point and hiked to the famous “plastic beaches” and the green sand beach. We hiked for three hours and were able to document the plastic trash that has washed ashore here from the edge of the North Pacific gyre which is full of floating plastic debris and estimated to be three to four times the size of Texas. The south end of Hawaii is on the edge of the North Pacific garbage patch in the gyre. We collected a water sample to test all our water quality parameters and of course microplastics.

Day 7: February 8

Today the swell was big again but the wind had died down. We still couldn’t survey our site 5 from shore but we were able to charter a boat from Kohala Divers and get out on the water. The swell however was still very big at site 5 and we were only able to survey the deepest section of our transect. In addition, the visibility was poor with lots of stirred-up sand in the water, making seeing and counting fish difficult—the data from this day will definitely have an asterisk on it as less than ideal and not comparable to other years. In the evening we gave a talk to 30 people in the historic Puako church about our research and its findings thus far. They were a great audience and appreciated the work we do for their reef.

Day 8: February 9

Today we can’t dive as we fly tomorrow so this is called a de-gas day. But there was lots of work to do. We traveled two hours from Puako to the other side of the island to the University of Hawaii Hilo to give a talk to a marine science class about our research. We also dropped off water samples from our surveys to the researchers there to run the nutrient analyses such as ammonia, phosphate and nitrates. The class was very interested in our work and asked lots of great questions. From there we traveled another two hours back over to Kona to give a talk at the harbor for the Kona community about our work. Again, we had about 30 people who were very interested about our work and supportive of our efforts. Later that night we took our research partners with DAR (Division of Aquatic Resources) out to dinner. This is our last day in Hawaii; tomorrow we fly home. It’s been a great trip!

Posted in Conservation, Seattle Aquarium | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment