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Attack of the Sea Slugs!

This is an opalescent nudibranch.

Opalescent nudibranch. The white batch is a colony of animals known as kelp-encrusting bryozoan.  © 2014 Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

Opalescent nudibranch – species up to 8 cm long. The white patch on the right is a colony of animals known as “kelp-encrusting bryozoan”. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Here is one climbing giant kelp with hooded nudibranchs in the background.

Opalescent nudibranch © 2014 Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

   © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

I know! Aren’t they astonishingly beautiful? Opalescent nudibranchs are one of the most powerful ambassadors for shattering the misconception that warm waters are home to more colourful life. They truly help in raising awareness about the incredibly exotic and vibrant life hidden just below the surface in the dark, rich, cold waters of the NE Pacific.

But they help with something else too.

I recently received a video clip of opalescent nudibranchs from Tavish Campbell, taken while with Pacific Wild documenting the life that would be at risk if tanker traffic came to Caamano Sound. Tavish, who is a fellow-diver and appreciator of all things marine, asked, “Hey Marine Detective, what’s going on here?!”  What I saw led me to realize how this species is also a very powerful engager for addressing another default notion we humans seem to have.

We tend to bestow judgemental labels on animals depending on our interpretation of their beauty.  We are inclined to think beautiful animals are “nice”, “cute” and “benign”, and foreign looking animals are “mean”, “ugly” and/or “bad”.

While I appreciate that some organisms may be more aesthetically pleasing than others, there is no “ugly” in Nature and there certainly isn’t “bad”.  Organisms look and live as they do because it works. Their appearance and behaviours are the result of expanses of time longer than we humans, as newcomers, can truly appreciate. Organisms’ adaptation allow them to survive and fulfil their niche in Nature’s puzzle so that there is the greatest chance of balance. [Insert "God" instead of "Nature" if this is your preference.]

Therefore, for example, there are no “bad” kinds of orca but rather orca populations whose job in Nature is to eat other marine mammals. There are dolphins that sometimes kill other marine mammals without this being for the purposes of food (no matter how much this conflicts with the “Flipper-like” identities we have imposed on them). Sea otters do things that definitely are NOT cute and .  . . it also means that beautiful sea slugs will also do what they need to in order to survive.

I take such comfort in not needing to judge Nature. It just is. In contrast, human behaviours too often do NOT enhance the potential of balance in Nature or even the chances of our own survival.

So here’s the jaw-dropping video. Ready . . .?

Opalescent nudibranchs in all their beauty, are extremely voracious predators and, as is evident in the video, will also attack their own kind.  Attacking from behind gives them the advantage of the first bite and the greater likelihood of killing their opponent and eating them.

But, they are hermaphrodites, they need one another to mate! As hermaphrodites, there is not even male-to-male competition for females! So why, when your chances of finding a mate as a sea slug are already pretty limited, would you kill another of your kind instead of mating with them?

I hypothesize that it would have to do with the balance between needing to eat and needing to mate and/or that there is some sort of genetic competition going on. That’s all I got. Insert rap awe and wonder here. I may not know why they do what they do but I do know, there has to be an advantage to their survival.

What I also know for sure is that this gives a whole new meaning to “slugging it out”!

Opalescent nudibranch egg mass. http://jackiehildering.smugmug.com/Underwater/Sea-slugs/

Opalescent nudibranch egg mass. Every species of nudibranch has distinct egg masses i.e. they are species specific.  2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Just another day on the sidewalk in front of my house.

Just another day on the sidewalk in front of my house.

It’s Saturday morning. I open the curtains. And there they are – three sets of binoculars pointed in my direction. Again.

It’s been like this for 2 months now**, leading neighbours to wonder what is going on and if I am okay.

I am, thanks. I’m just peachy; not a feather out of place. In fact, I have a bird’s eye view of something simply wonderous from which I have learned a great deal.

All the activity on my sidewalk – the binoculars; people coming from Kamloops, Calgary, Victoria, Vancouver and possibly further afield (with at least one person sleeping in his car till daylight so he could be the early bird) – it’s not about me at all. It’s about the birds. Against all odds, multiple species of really rare and exotic birds are here together in our little neighbourhood in Port McNeill.

We’re not used to having this kind of “vagrant” in the ‘hood!

It began in early December when, while on a conference call, I almost lost my mind when a brilliantly yellow coloured bird landed in the shrub in front of my home office window; near the feeder I leave out for the Anna’s Hummingbirds who spend the winter here.

Winter range of Hooded Orioles marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology -  - see this link for more information and a larger map    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Hooded_Oriole/id

Winter range of Hooded Orioles marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology – see this link for more information and a larger map.

I scrambled for my camera uttering colourful nouns, thankfully having the sense to put the phone on mute. I got a picture.

I don’t know much about birds and therefore did not trust my ID. Could it be a . . . could it really be . . . a male Hooded Oriole?!

They are not supposed to be here. They should be in palm trees in the Baja in winter but I dared share the photo and my timid ID with those I know to be BC’s leading bird authorities. The responses came back pretty quickly.

They confirmed how rare this sighting was. Apparently, there have only been two previous recorded cases of Hooded Orioles making it through a BC winter – in Terrace in 1998 and in Prince Rupert in 2007. I was determined to do all I could to give this one a fighting chance since the odds of him finding his way “home” were infinitely small.

The photo I sent to the bird experts, timidly asking if indeed this was a male Hooded Oriole. Jeremy Gatten, would recount in his blog “I received an e-mail from Port McNeill resident Jackie Hildering about a bird that she thought might be a Hooded Oriole.  It's a good thing I was sitting on a couch because the attached photo would have knocked me to the floor if I was on a chair or stool!  The extremely crisp, full-frame shot showed a healthy, vibrant male Hooded Oriole in winter plumage.” http://naturalestnaturalist.blogspot.ca/2014/01/a-dick-and-hoor-longest-hardest-wettest.html

This is my first photo; the one I sent to the bird experts, asking if indeed this was a male Hooded Oriole. Jeremy Gatten, would recount in his blog “I received an e-mail from Port McNeill resident Jackie Hildering about a bird that she thought might be a Hooded Oriole. It’s a good thing I was sitting on a couch because the attached photo would have knocked me to the floor if I was on a chair or stool! The extremely crisp, full-frame shot showed a healthy, vibrant male Hooded Oriole in winter plumage.”

I slightly modified the hummingbird feeder. It appeared to meet his needs and he stayed. The word spread about how predictably such a rare bird could be sighted, and the birders started appearing.

Male Hooded Oriole at the feeder.  © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Male Hooded Oriole at the feeder. See his tongue? © 2014 Jackie Hildering

At first I was very worried about how the attention might disturb the Oriole (and me) but many could learn a thing or two from the nature viewing ethics of bird-watchers.

Winter range of Dickcissels marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology -  - see this link for more information and a larger map    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dickcissel/id

Winter range of Dickcissels marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology – see this link for more information and a larger map.

They watch from a respectful distance, never setting foot on my property, truly wanting to witness natural behaviour. They rarely strive to get a photo to affirm their experience and certainly would not disturb the bird for the sake of getting the photo. They appear to “just” delight in seeing a rarity and being able to add a bird species to their list. Certainly there is no “get up and personal” – the phrase I loathe most in reference to wildlife viewing.

Then, things got even more exotic.

With all the birder expertise directed at the shrub with Mr. Oriole, a Harris’s Sparrow* was also spotted (winter range is the south central US), and a Yellow-Rumped Warbler (somewhat less noteworthy as this area is part of their summer range) and . . . a female Dickcissel.

Yes, that’s right – a Dickcissel. I too had no idea such a species existed and certainly would not have been able to discern her from the House Sparrows she often hangs out with. Neighbour Jim Nolan was the first to notice her, and teach me to spell “Dickcissel”! And how exotic is she? Her kind winters in Guatemala and Venezuela.

Female Dickcissel - quite difficult to discern her from the House Sparrows if the light is low and you can't see the yellow markings © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Female Dickcissel – quite difficult to discern her from the House Sparrows if the light is low and you can’t see the yellow markings © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Bring on more birders! And more binoculars on the sidewalk! And more neighbours wondering what on earth was going on.

Bird watchers reference this phenomenon as the  “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect”.  One rare bird attracts birders, who then find another rare bird, which brings in more birders . . . and so on!

In this case it is the “Port McNeill Shrub in Front of My House Effect” and how grateful I am for privilege of a front row seat to the birds, and the birders.

Female Yellow-Rumped Warbler. She's so territorial - chasing the Anna's Hummingbirds away and sometimes even bombs the much bigger Male Hooded Oriole. She is very often near the Oriole. © 2014 Jackie Hilderin

Female Yellow-Rumped Warbler. She’s so territorial – chasing the Anna’s Hummingbirds away and even dive-bombing the much bigger male Hooded Oriole. She is most often near him. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

They have made me reflect more on human behavior and expectations while viewing wild animals. I have become even more attuned to how extraordinary the wildlife of our area is and how, if you are especially watchful and respectful, the reward can be so great.

Clearly, the idiom “birds of a feather flock together” has also been challenged and I am greatly comforted that one rare bird can find another!

Not surprisingly, the birds have further heightened my wonder in Nature and, frankly, in life as well. Why that shrub? Why our neighbourhood in Port McNeill? Random chance? Ideal conditions? I will add this to the many things I will never know for sure.

What I will also allow myself to believe is that the appearance of the birds is evidence that colourful, rare and exotic beings can find my front door!

__________________________________________________

*I never saw the Harris’s Sparrow and have not heard of repeat sightings of this individual from birders.

Note that all photos were taken through the front windows of my home.

See end of blog for range maps for Yellow-Rumped Warblers and Harris’s Sparrows.

** Update April 6, 2014: The female Dickcissel is still a daily visitor. My last sighting of Mr. Hooded Oriole was March 29th. Presumably, he has moved on to new adventures, striving to join with his own kind and find a mate.

Male Hooded Oriole. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Male Hooded Oriole. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

© 2014 Jackie Hildering -8883

Female Dickcissel © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Male Hooded Oriole in flight © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Male Hooded Oriole in flight © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Female Dickcissel - quite difficult to discern her from the House Sparrows if the light is low and you can't see the yellow markings © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Female Dickcissel – quite difficult to discern her from the House Sparrows if the light is low and you can’t see the yellow markings © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Male Hooded Oriole at the feeder. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Male Hooded Oriole at the feeder. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Winter range of Harris's Sparrows marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology - see this link for more information and a larger map  http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/harriss_sparrow/id

Winter range of Harris’s Sparrows marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology – see this link for more information and a larger map.

Winter range of Yellow-Rumped Warblers marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology -  - see this link for more information and a larger map    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/yellow-rumped_warbler/id

Winter range of Yellow-Rumped Warblers marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology – see this link for more information and a larger map.

Still here- February 22nd, 2014. Maybe one of the only photos in the world of a Male Hooded Oriole in the snow? © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Still here- February 22nd, 2014. Maybe one of the only photos in the world of a Male Hooded Oriole in the snow? © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Do you see them?

The January sun streaming down, the light refracted against the hooded nudibranchs . . . the underwater rainbows?!

Hooded nudibranchs are already such ethereal, other-worldy creatures, to see the rainbows dancing against their translucent bodies made me catch my breath and desperately want to capture the beauty for you.

May you dream of underwater rainbows and – maybe- fall even a little bit deeper in love with the NE Pacific Ocean.

For information on hooded nubibranchs (includes images and video of them swimming and their eggs), please see my previous blogs at this link. 

Hooded nudibranchs on giant kelp at about 3 m. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Hooded nudibranchs on giant kelp at about 3 m. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Hooded nudibranchs on giant kelp at about 3 m. © 2014 Jackie Hildering
Hooded nudibranchs on giant kelp at about 3 m. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Hooded nudibranchs on giant kelp at about 3 m. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Hooded nudibranchs on giant kelp at about 3 m. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Hooded nudibranchs on giant kelp at about 3 m. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Hooded nudibranchs on giant kelp at about 3 m. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Yesterday, I completed my 800th dive.

Today, I find myself reflecting on the remarkable journey from my first dives to now.

I dare share my thoughts with you here because  . . . diver or not, I believe there are elements of this life journey with which many can identify and because the feelings I express about “Mother Ocean” is what I think unites us here on The Marine Detective.  Oh – and also, it provides insight into why I tend to snarl when a minority of people, state “You must have a really good camera” after seeing my underwater images, suggesting that it is merely photo-equipment dependent to go deep and deliver evidence of the astounding and fragile life hidden in these cold waters.

I never could have anticipated how the cold NE Pacific would become the greatest force in my life and, as I think often is the case with the most important things in life, the journey has not been easy.

This is how it started.

Shiner  . . . Image in my first dive log. Me just after my 37th birthday with "mask squeeze".

Shiner . . . Image in my first dive log. Me just after my 37th birthday with “mask squeeze”.

That’s me about a week after my 37th birthday. On my birthday itself, while on my 20th dive, I got “mask squeeze”. Every capillary in my eyes burst because I did not equalize the pressure in my dive mask as I descended. This was due to complications while I was learning to dive with a drysuit.

I delight in there now being an island on our coast informally named after me  . . . Shiner Rock. Far more important, however, are the lessons I learned from this dive, and the other 799.

I should acknowledge that 800 dives is not a big deal for some, especially if you are a warm-water diver and if you have been diving since your youth. My diving life has been from age 36 to age 50 and almost all these dives (the equivalent of 25 days underwater) have been here in about 6 to 10°C water, off the coast of NE Vancouver Island.

The decision to take a dive course seemed frivolous at the time but again, as it seems to go, some of our seemingly smallest decisions appear to give life the greatest meaning.

I began my first course in 1999, the year I returned to British Columbia after teaching in the Netherlands for 14 years. I aborted what many would consider an important career trajectory, knowing only that I had to get back to learning from Nature.  I had been working in big city Rotterdam at that time and had become so tired of hearing myself talk about Nature as if it were somewhere else. One surprise whale watching trip on NE Vancouver Island led to my moving here.

My dive course was not typical in many, many ways with my first ever dive being in a glacier fed river in a community that had ocean surrounding it. I will never understand why we did this. But, while in my father’s thin, old wetsuit, shivering uncontrollably and falling while trying to stand on algae-covered river rocks, I saw one salmon. I was in deep, right from the start.

Now, so many dives later, while the lessons don’t EVER stop, the artwork below captures what diving in these waters has brought to my life.

Shinier . . . Me? Artwork by Jennifer Bonnell; presented to me at age 50 as an interpretation of who I am.

Shinier . . . Me? Artwork by Jennifer Bonnell; presented to me at age 50 as an interpretation of who I am. Frame a gift from Tanya Guing.

And apparently . . .  that is also how some people see me. That piece was given as a gift on my 50th birthday last April. . . as a portrait of me. Shining? Passionate? Mermaid-ian? Inspirational? Ocean advocate?

Please know how much I struggled to type that.

I am so moved, so grateful, and so much further incentivized when honoured by people using such references in relation to me. I know fully the personal journey it has been to go from “Shiner” to maybe appearing to be “Shining”. And I know too what diving has brought to my life . . . depth of understanding and and depth of purpose – wanting to shine a light of awareness on what lives in these waters and, thereby, help motivate greater conservation.

The Ocean is the source. The battle force. She is my inspiration. She is the beginning and she is the end. She is where I hide and where I am fully exposed. She has taught me my most valuable lessons and  . . . . I know it’s not over yet. Not by a long shot.

The plan is to do at least another 800 dives.

Thank you so to all of you who are part of the journey.

For a related post, with a poem written after my 600th dive 4 years ago, see “Diving After the Storm  - My 600th Dive“.

With particular depth of gratitude to dive buddies Jacqui Engel and Natasha Dickinson and further members of the Top Island Econauts. 

Fishy Fathers

There’s a whole lotta fish procreation going on in the NE Pacific Ocean right now. This might be a surprise to those who think mating is more of a spring-fling-kinda-thing.

It may be a further surprise that, for many marine fish species here, the males are the protectors of the next generation. The females leave after laying the eggs and the males remain, guarding the fertilized eggs from predators and often also fanning the eggs to ensure they are well aerated.

For a lot of these fish species, the male chooses the nesting site and entices multiple females to lay eggs there so that he can fertilize them. He then has the work of guarding these multiple egg masses and may need to be on the alert for sneak fertilization attempts by other males.

For species with nests of multiple egg masses, you can often tell how many females have laid eggs there because individual females have different coloured eggs. Therefore, the colour of fish eggs is not a good characteristic to determine the species that laid them. Instead, do a quick scan, chances are a piscine papa is somewhere near the eggs, staring at you.

Through the photos below, meet some of these fabulous fish fathers. No deadbeat dads here!

[Note that this is in no way a comprehensive list of NE Pacific Ocean fish species in which the males guard the eggs.]

Whitespotted Greenling

The encounter documented below shows how my dive buddy and I recently had a whitespotted greenling come after us, so intent was he on protecting his egg masses. I was very slow in cluing in that this was why he was swimming around us and deserved getting a little nip in the head.  Notice how small he is relative to us and yet how this did not deter him in trying to get rid of us.

Male White-Spotted Greenling shortly after he nipped my big head in his intensity to guard his egg masses. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male Whitespotted Greenling shortly after he nipped my big head in his intensity to guard his egg masses. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Dive buddy Jacqui Engel pointing at the male White-Spotted Greenling before we clued in and got out of his territory with eggs. Image shows small the fish is compared to us and how big his drive to protect the egg masses that he would come after us. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Dive buddy Jacqui Engel pointing at the male Whitespotted Greenling before I clued in and got out of his territory with eggs. Image shows how small the fish is compared to us and how big his drive to protect the egg masses must be that he would pursue us like he did. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male White-Spotted Greenling intensely guarding eggs. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Here he is intensely guarding eggs. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Whitespotted greenling (Hexagrammos stelleri)
Maximum recorded size: 48 cm
My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: September to December

Kelp Greenling

Most often Kelp Greenling eggs are in the empty shells of giant barnacles as shown below. Although they are a bigger member of the Greenling family, male Kelp Greenlings do not appear to protect their eggs quite as vigorously as Whitespotted Greenlings. They appear to have a really long breeding season in our area.

Male Kelp Greenling © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male Kelp Greenling. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Eggs the male Kelp Greenling was guarding. Most often in giant barnacle tests (shells) like this. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

These are the eggs that the male Kelp Greenling in the above image was guarding. The eggs are most often laid in giant barnacle tests (shells) like this. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Kelp Greenling (Hexagrammos decagrammus)
Maximum recorded size:61 cm
My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: October to March
TMD slide show: Courtship Display in Kelp Greenlings 

Red Irish Lord

Oh Red Irish Lords how I love thee. There is no better ambassador for how colourful life is in these waters since they are brilliant shades, yet astoundingly camouflaged. Red Irish Lords are often easier to find when guarding their eggs since these are less camouflaged. There are so many guarding eggs right now which they often do with their heads positioned right atop the eggs, remaining absolutely motionless.

Another male Red Irish Lord guarding an egg mass - note the very different coloured eggs from the previous image. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Another male Red Irish Lord guarding an egg mass – note the very different coloured eggs in the following image. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male Red Irish Lord guarding egg mass. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male Red Irish Lord guarding egg mass. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Red Irish Lord (Hemilepidotus hemilepidotus)
Maximum recorded size: 51 cm
My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: December to May
Previous TMD blog item on the species: In the Eye of the Lord (the Red Irish Lord That Is!)

Buffalo Sculpin

There are Buffalo Sculpin males guarding eggs at this time of year too but more mating appears to be happen in April and May. Usually, Buffalo Sculpins are even harder to spot than their Red Irish Lord cousins but the variably coloured, bright egg masses give away their location. They too have a strategy of staying right atop the eggs and remaining motionless when faced with annoying human divers.

Male Buffalo Sculpin guarding two egg masses - each from different females. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male Buffalo Sculpin guarding two egg masses – each from different females. © 2008 Jackie Hildering

Male Buffalo Sculpin guarding egg mass. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male Buffalo Sculpin guarding egg mass. © 2007 Jackie Hildering

Buffalo Sculpin (Enophrys bison)
Maximum recorded size: 37 cm
My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: January to May
Previous TMD blog item on the species: Buffalos Mating Underwater

Lingcod

Soon we will be participating in the Vancouver Aquarium’s annual Lingcod Egg Mass Count. Armed with an underwater slate, we will join divers along the Coast in helping determine the health of lingcod populations by looking at the number and size of the egg masses and if they are being guarded by males. And oh what fastidious fathers lingcod males are! The dedication to protecting the egg masses does vary from male to male but, generally, they do not leave their watch until the eggs hatch which can be more than 24 days. They could be guarding masses from multiple females separated by more than 7 m, and if laid by a female 5 years old and older, the egg masses can be the size of a watermelon and weigh up to 14 kg! That’s a lot to protect! (As is also the case for many rockfish, the older the female lingcod, the more eggs she lays). My best lingcod story is that I was marking down “unguarded” on my slate only to have it knocked out of my hands by the male that was very much guarding the egg mass I had been observing! Lots more info on this species at my blog item Lingcod – Fastidious Fanged Fathers

Lingcod male guarding egg mass (with a couple of shrimp on his back). © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Lingcod male guarding egg mass (with a couple of shrimp on his back). © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Lingcod male guarding egg mass. Photo focus a bit fuzzy but the battle wound reveals the perils of egg guarding. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Lingcod male guarding egg mass. Photo is a bit fuzzy but the battle wound reveals the perils of egg guarding. © 2007 Jackie Hildering

Lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus)
Maximum recorded size: 152 cm
My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: January to April (Vancouver Aquarium’s Egg Mass Survey is from early February to the beginning of April).
Previous TMD blog item on the species: Lingcod – Fastidious Fanged Fathers 

Wolf Eel

Here’s a case where it is not just the male that guards the eggs. Mr. and Mrs. Wolf Eel take turns wrapping their long tails around the large egg mass. I hope to one day have the opportunity to get a better image than this but, as a strategy for survival, the egg mass is often deep within the wolf eel couple’s den. Lots more information on this remarkable species at my previous blog item Wolf Eel – No Ugly Fish!

Mr. and Mrs. Wolf Eel sharing duty in taking care of the egg mass. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Mr. and Mrs. Wolf Eel sharing duty in taking care of the egg mass. Female on left and male on right. © 2005 Jackie Hildering

Wolf Eel (Anarrhichthys ocellatus)
Maximum recorded size: 2.4 m
My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: October to January
Previous TMD blog item on the species: Wolf Eel – No Ugly Fish! 

Cabezon

I’ve only once been lucky enough to find a male of this huge sculpin species guarding eggs. They can apparently be very aggressive guarders but this very successful male (he was guarding the eggs of several females) was very tolerant of my presence. They have been documented to mate throughout the year. My one encounter with a male cabezon guarding eggs was in May.

Male Cabezon guarding egg masses from multiple females (egg masses different colours).  © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male Cabezon guarding egg masses from multiple females (egg masses different colours). © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Cabezon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus)
Maximum recorded size: 99 cm

Painted Greenling

In all these years of diving, I have yet to find a male painted greening guarding eggs so that I know for sure the eggs are from this species. Yet something else to be on the lookout for!

Painted greenling. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Painted greenling. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Painted Greenling (Oxylebius pictus)
Maximum recorded size: 25 cm

Grunt Sculpin

And, the stuff of dreams  . . .  to one day chance upon a male grunt sculpin while he is releasing the hatching eggs from  . . . his mouth! For more on that, see my previous blog item Grunt Sculpin – Little Fish, BIG AttitudeThe females apparently also do take on shifts in taking care of the eggs.

Grunt Sculpin. Most often found in empty barnacle tests (not cups!) © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Grunt Sculpin. Most often found in empty barnacle tests (not cups!) © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Grant Sculpin (Rhamphocottus richardsonii)
Maximum recorded size: 8.9 cm
My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island:
Previous TMD blog item on the species: Grunt Sculpin – Little Fish, BIG Attitude 

You need not be a diver to see the eggs of the following two species.
While carefully lifting up rocks in the intertidal during the Spring, you might
come across these egg masses and possibly even the male guarding them. 

Scalyhead Sculpin

I have never seen scalyhead sculpin eggs while diving, likely because they are hidden away and because they are much smaller. The image of the eggs below was taken during a beach walk where students ensured they put the rock back as best they could to reduce the chances of the eggs drying out. Notice the different colours of the looney-sized egg masses? The eggs in this nest are from at least 4 females.

Male Scalyhead Sculpin in a giant barnacle test. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male Scalyhead Sculpin in a giant barnacle test. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Egg masses from at least 4 different female scalyhead sculpins (each female's eggs have a different colour).  © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Photo taken while on a beach walk. Egg masses found under a rock and they are from at least 4 different females (each female’s eggs have a different colour). © 2010 Jackie Hildering

Scalyhead Sculpin (Artedius harringtoni)
Max size: 10 cm
My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: Spring
Previous TMD blog item on the species: Who’s Your Daddy

Black Prickleback

If you find an ice cream scoop mound like this, you have likely found the eggs of the black prickleback and the guarding male is likely very near. When taking students on beach walks, I emphasize the importance of not displacing animals by using this species as an example. Fish like the black prickleback are adapted to being able to wait out the tide in very little water and if the well-intentioned pick up the fish to put him in deeper water, they could be moving papa away from the eggs he was guarding.

Male Black Prickleback guarding egg mass in a tide pool.  © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male Black Prickleback guarding egg mass in a tide pool. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Black Prickleback (Xiphister atropurpureus)
Max size: 32.7 cm
Records of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: Spring

Sources:

Giant pink sea star in final stages of sea star wasting syndrome. Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant pink sea star in final stages of sea star wasting syndrome. Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Deepest of sighs.

I am very sad to report that Sea Star Wasting Syndrome is now on NE Vancouver Island.

I first detected an animal in distress on December 13th but was not sure that it was the Syndrome. Today, I dived the same site (Bear Cove in Port Hardy) and discovered 4 animals that undeniably have been afflicted. I will continue to collect data at that site (and others on NE Vancouver Island) and provide updates here. I am so hopeful that we will not experience the eradication of sea stars as has been the case in other areas where the Syndrome has hit.

Leather star with sea star wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Leather star with sea star wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

I have tried to think up a terrestrial analogy for what is happening to the sea stars so that non-divers might better get a sense of the weight and ecosystem importance of it. However, I can’t come up with a good terrestrial equivalent of an abundant group of highly visible, apex predators. My best attempt is to suggest you think of sea stars like birds of prey. Imagine what you would feel like if you were to notice they were dying, bodies deflating . . . then melting away and that this would progress very quickly and spread like wildfire.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Please see my previous blog item, “Wasted, What is Happening to the Sea Stars of the NE Pacific Ocean?”, for great detail on the symptoms, species impacted, spread of the Syndrome, and how to help understand what is happening by relaying data to the Vancouver Aquarium.  That blog item is updated regularly.

The short of it is:

  • The meltdown of sea stars was first detected in June 2013 in Washington State in ochre stars and in sunflower stars in Howe Sound (BC) in late August 2013 but has now been reported at sites from Alaska to the Mexican border.
  • Sunflower star in distress - potentially wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge.) Photo from a week ago. Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 13, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

    Sunflower star in distress – potentially wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge.) Photo from a week ago. Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 13, 2013.
    © 2013 Jackie Hildering

    The number of sea stars impacted is orders of magnitude greater than any previous known outbreak.

  • Most likely due to a pathogen although so far no disease organism has been identified but further testing is being done, including genomic testing. Toxins and environmental conditions have not been ruled out as the cause (or compounding factors).
  • If it is a pathogen, how quickly it spreads is influenced by the number of animals and if they are stressed. There are likely to be layers of stressors.
  • It has put forward by the scientific community that this could be a normal mechanism for overpopulation in sea stars.

The 1-minute time-lapse video below shows the progression of the Syndrome in a sunflower star over 7 hours.

Yep, it’s terrible.

However, I believe very strongly that, in attempting to raise awareness about marine environmental issues, I must always reflect on “what you can do”. If I do not, I contribute to the spread of a devastating human syndrome: Eco-paralysis. Symptoms include people becoming despondent, overwhelmed, and underactive in undertaking positive socio-environmental change, and often saying “It’s all hopeless”. The cause? This I do know. Eco-paralysis is the result of not seeing the common solutions between environmental problems.

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome is a solid indicator of how little we know about our life-sustaining oceans. It emphasizes the importance of humility and precaution in decision-making around the environment and how we are all empowered to reduce environmental stressors (with emphasis on reducing fossil fuel consumption and chemical use).

Having witnessed what I did today, I am all the more driven to assist others in (1) falling deeper in love with the NE Pacific Ocean by revealing the beauty below her surface and (2) feeling the joy that comes from creating change that is better for the environment and, therefore, ourselves.

What was once a sunflower star. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 23, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

What was once a sunflower star. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 23, 2013.
© 2013 Jackie Hildering

The progression of the Syndrome in 2 days in a giant pink star. (Click to enlarge.)© 2013 Jackie Hildering

The progression of the Syndrome in 2 days in a giant pink star. (Click to enlarge.)© 2013 Jackie Hildering

How to Save a Life?

Today, myself and 2 other members of the Top Island Econauts Dive Club, may have saved a life – a human life.

We were in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing, and were able to save a woman who had become very disoriented while mushroom picking. Had she continued in the direction she thought she needed to go, she would have moved further and further away from where her partner was. When we found her, there was only about another 1.5 hours of daylight left and it is unlikely that any other boats would have been in the area, let alone that they would have heard or seen her.

I am compelled to write about this because I learned a thing or two about enhancing one’s chances for rescue and survival today and it may be of value to share that here. But also, candidly, writing about this helps me reflect on the many “what ifs” around this experience. (Note that I will not share the name of the individual nor the location as I feel this would be a violation of her privacy.)

Of course no one plans to get lost in the woods nor to have an accident but what was shocking to me was how easily we could have missed her.

This individual was quite outdoor savvy and had a system for checking in with her partner; they had radios (they failed); and she had a dog with her (who decided to go home).

She was lost and managed to make her way out of the dense and isolated forest to the edge of the ocean, bettering her chances of someone seeing her . . . but only if a boat went by.

We did go by on our way to the dive site but heard and saw nothing. The engine was on, we were about 1.3 km away, and she was dressed in dark blue and green.

Photo taken today, long before the rescue. Snow on the mountain tops.  © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Photo taken today, long before the rescue. Snow on the mountain tops. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

The dive was not even supposed to happen today! It was planned for yesterday but the weather was predicted to be poor so it was rescheduled for this afternoon.

But then, we only had two divers available meaning there was no one to drive the boat. Had Club member and fellow diver Gord Jenkins not selflessly offered to drive that boat so that Andy Hanke and I could dive, we would never have been on the water today.

But THEN .  .  . we had trouble with the Dive Club boat’s engines whereby we decided it would not be safe enough to take out that boat. We were just going to dive from shore.

But then, I suggested that we could take out my little 17′ vessel named “Fluke” (this is poetic – you’ll see). If we had we had more than 3 people, there is no way we would have had the option to do this. My boat is too small.

And then, there was the decision of which dive to do. Randomly (?) . . . .we chose for the site that ended up being closest to where the lost woman would emerge from the forest.

AND THEN, while Andy and I were diving, Gord heard something far away – some strange bird, a seal, a bear cub? It was a one syllable “blaring like” sound. She would not even have been able to see the boat from where she was, and yet she called.

When we surfaced (the tender boat cannot leave divers), Gord slowly idled the boat toward where he thought he had heard the sound. He was a bit apologetic, not sure if he had really heard something from so far away. We stopped the engine, then Andy and I heard it too – a one syllable sound. A bird?! I made the comment that it sounded like such a “plaintive” call. I got out my binoculars, I could see nothing. We proceeded and then shut off the engine again to make sure we were still heading in the right direction. We heard the one syllable call again. Still, even with binoculars I saw nothing.

Not until we were about 30 m away did we see her – the source of the sound, the woman whose story you have now already heard. Gord saved her life.

I don’t know how he could have heard her, initially from so far away. This dear woman has very powerful lungs and was calling to save her life but still, the acoustics of the area proved to be very favourable allowing Gord to hear her from such a distance.

What if that had not been the case? What if Gord had dismissed the sound he thought he heard?  What if we had dived yesterday (we saw no other boats the whole time we were out today)? What if we had more than 3 people and had not been able to take my boat out? Fluke? I don’t know. This is when my science brain gets all dizzy. I just don’t know.

Oh yeah, and then when we had her in my boat and were heading out to take her back to her partner . . . about 50 Pacific white-sided dolphins happened to storm the boat, leaping in front and alongside it. Despite the stress of what we had just experienced, it made me laugh out in glee. Really, that happened. I can’t make this stuff up. As if my brain wasn’t dizzy enough already.

There is so much I can’t explain here, about synchronicity, chance, “what ifs”, and the feelings for which I cannot even find words.

But what I can clearly express is what I learned today, which is that the easiest way to save a life is – to save your own.

I strongly abide by the guidelines for safety and survival on the water. But, in learning from this experience, the importance of the following is so very clear:

  • Also when in the woods it is best to wear (or having something with you that has) bright, shout-out, non-camouflage colours;
  • Always carry a whistle;
  • Carry a light, mirror and/or small flares, and matches;
  • Always have a waterproof layer of clothing with you;
  • Take a compass or have access to GPS;
  • If needing to cry out – use more than one syllable; and
  • Like the woman from today who is now warm and dry, no matter how distant or how small the chance of rescue, never give up.

A World Without Salmon . . . .?!

 Spawning Sockeye salmon © 2006 Bruce Paterson

Spawning Sockeye salmon © 2006 Bruce Paterson

Dear readers, the following is a rework of a little rhyme I wrote in 2009.

Many of you will recall that 2009 was such a bad year for wild salmon in British Columbia that it led to the $26 million Cohen Inquiry into the Decline of the Fraser River Sockeye.

 Spawning Sockeye salmon © 2006 Bruce Paterson

Spawning Sockeye salmon © 2006 Bruce Paterson

More than a year has passed since Justice Cohen delivered his 75 solid recommendations resulting from that Inquiry and government has yet to take any sort of dedicated or meaningful action for the wild salmon – and all that depends on them.

The attempted messaging in my little poem may be all the more relevant now with the threat of tanker traffic coming to our fragile Coast.

The good news, I believe, is that with such threats more and more of us are united in understanding that, while resource use is a necessity, it has to be sustainable. It is impossible to have infinite economic growth on a finite planet.

With sincere apologies to Dr. Seuss:

A world without salmon would be oh so sad,
This is very important, so listen here Dad!

Without salmon, we will have broken the link,
That Nature intended to keep us in the Pink.
(And Sockeye, and Chum, and Chinook and Coho!)

Salmon bring the wealth of the ocean back to the Coast,
Right back to their birthplace so without them – we’re toast!

Their bodies are gifts to the future – that’s really key,
Delivering food for their babies and even the trees.

They feed fish-eating orca, sea lion and eagle,
Wolf, seal, deer, shark and . . . an occasional beagle!

They help bring the tourists. They fill fishers’ nets.
There ought to be enough so that all needs are met.

So little investment, so great the return.
Safe passage, and food – this, salmon surely earn?

But, instead of precaution, loud voices at desks,
Say, “Why it’s Nature that’s made this big mess.”

“It’s salinity, cycles . . . the phase of the moon!
Or some other reason we’ll think up real soon.”

What possible gain would justify such a gamble?
The cost of losing wild salmon would be so substantial.

Without salmon, grizzles stare into empty rivers,
No fat salmon to save them from winter shivers.

The orca diminish without their Chinook,
Peanut-shaped foreheads reveal this tragic truth.

And Bobby and Susie and even Aunt Myrtle,
Are left holding fishing poles, till they turn purple.

Shhhh can you hear that? No, I don’t hear a thing,
For without salmon, birds around rivers don’t sing.

The People of the Salmon were able to thrive.
Dance, song, carvings  . . . the wisdom to know what keeps us alive.

Salmon are the glue in a vastly connected web,
Why without them big trees would even be dead.

Then, there goes habitat, oxygen production and buffering of greenhouse gas.
Why to flirt with the health of salmon you would really have to be an  . . . . (you know).

The survival of salmon shows how we humans are doing.
Do we know our place on the planet? No. Nature is booing!

The solution is simple. It really isn’t hard.
It’s not tree hugger verses resource user. Let down your guard!

Logger, storekeeper, teacher, and you under that streetlight!
We keepers of paradise need to unite in what’s right.

Make a stand for the salmon, the whales, wolves and Coast.
We all know clean water and food is what matters most.

Choose for sustainability, not short-term economic gain.
Otherwise explaining things to our children could really be a pain.

Use vote, vision and voice, to help wild things grow.
And when it comes to gambling with salmon – just say “No!”

Then, because a whole lot of us care a whole awful lot,
It will be clear that BC’s natural splendour can’t be bought.

© 2006 Bruce Paterson

Fisherman on the Adams River © 2006 Bruce Paterson

Since writing this blog, I have been asked “Salmon feed trees?”. Indeed, when they spawn in their natal rivers which can be more than a 1,000 km from the sea, salmon bring the richness of the ocean not only to animals but to plants.  The nutrients from their bodies feed the trees and plants including  . . . salmon berry! Animals like bears further the reach of salmon nutrients by taking spawned-out salmon from the rivers deeper into the forest where they can feed undisturbed. They eat their favourite bits and leave about 50% of the carcass in the forest which benefits the plants, song birds, and even animals like pine martens. Of course, bears also poop in the woods, which leaves more salmon nutrients in the forest. So the bears are like gardeners, bringing fertilizer much deeper into the forest!

It was initially Tom Reimchen’s research of the early 1990s that brought the knowledge of “Salmon Forests” to the world. He quantified how much salmon was in the trees by measuring the amount of “marine derived nitrogen”.  That research has expanded to where nitrogen and carbon isotopes are measured to quantify the uptake of salmon-derived nutrients by mosses, herbs, shrubs, trees, insects, songbirds, and wolves. So while salmon don’t grow on trees  . . . trees most definitely grow on salmon.

This knowledge solved the mystery of how you can have giant trees in a rain forest when nutrients get washed away by the rain. It’s the salmon who replenish the nutrients by delivering the richness of the sea through their spawning behaviour – just the way Nature intended. And of course, without those giant trees – imagine the reduced habitat and production of oxygen and buffering of carbon dioxide.

This makes clear how far reaching the role of salmon is; how interconnected the web of life is, and just how much depends on the health of wild salmon.  No better man to fully explain this “exquisite interconnectedness” than Dr. David Suzuki. See the 5 minute clip below. There is also a David Suzuki children’s book called “Salmon Forest.”

I have also been asked, “Deer eat salmon?!” They do. They feed directly on the spawned out carcasses of salmon and also benefit indirectly by feeding on the vegetation that has been fed by salmon.

Sunflower star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Sunflower star with sea star wasting syndrome. Tissue wastes away. Legs often break off and crawl away briefly before rotting away. Photo – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Latest update of this blog: February 6, 2014

There has already been much reporting on the gruesome epidemic spreading like wildfire through several species of sea star in the NE Pacific Ocean.

“Sea star wasting syndrome” is incredibly virulent and is causing the mass mortality of some sea star species in British Columbia and beyond. “Sea stars go from “appearing normal” to becoming a pile of white bacteria and scattered skeletal bits is only a matter of a couple of weeks, possibly less than that” (Source #1).

Rotting pile of sunflower stars. Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Rotting pile of sunflower stars. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

What I have strived to do below is bundle the state of knowledge so far, relying heavily on the expertise of two extraordinary divers and marine naturalists: (1) Neil McDaniel, marine zoologist and underwater photographer / videographer who maintains a website on local sea stars and has put together A Field Guide to Sea Stars of the Pacific Northwestand (2) Andy Lamb, whose books include Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest.

I am hoping that kayakers, beach-walkers and fellow divers will help monitor and report on the spread of the disease via this link on the Vancouver Aquarium webpage but I am also hoping that all of us may learn from this tragedy that has impacted “one of the most iconic animals on the coast of British Columbia . . . more abundant and diverse in our waters than anywhere else in the world” (Source #3).

Sea star wasting syndrome reminds us of the fragility of ocean ecosystems; how very quickly disease could spread in the ocean; and how we are all empowered to reduce stressors that increase the likelihood of pathogens manifesting as disease or even that pathogens enter the environment (e.g. sewage).

Update January 18, 2014 - Video by Neil McDaniel showing the extent of the mortality in some parts of southern British Columbia.  Click here. 

Species impacted? (Update November 30th - Source #14)

High mortalities (note that the first 4 are members of the same family – the Asteriidae):

  1. Sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoideshardest hit in southern British Columbia. From communication with Neil McDaniel ” . . .so far I estimate it has killed tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Pycnopodia in British Columbia waters.”
  2. Mottled star (Evasterias troschelii
  3. Giant pink star (Pisaster brevispinus)
  4. Ochre star aka purple star (Pisaster ochraceus)
  5. Morning sun star (Solaster dawsoni)

More limited mortalities:

  1. Vermillion star (Mediaster aequalis); video of an afflicted star here.
  2. Rainbow star (Orthasterias koehleri)
  3. Leather star (Dermasterias imbricata)
  4. Striped sun star (Solaster stimpsoni)
  5. Six-rayed stars (Leptasterias sp.)

Update January 21st, 2014: Possibly: Rose star (Crossaster papposus) - I have noted symptoms in this species on NE Vancouver Island as has Neil McDaniel in S. British Columbia).

Update November 20th: The Vancouver Aquarium reports on which sea stars are and are not affected in S. British Columbia: “The majority of those species affected by the sunflower star epidemic are members of the same sea star family” and that the closely related morning sun star and giant pink star appear to get infected after feeding these “meals”.  (Source #10, includes video).

Symptoms and progression of the syndrome:

Neil McDaniel shared the following 7 images for the progression of the disease in sunflower stars [Source #2 and #14]. See the end of this blog item for images showing symptoms in other sea star species as well as a 1 minute time-lapse clip showing the progression of the syndrome in a sunflower star over 7 hours. [Note that the progression of the Syndrome on NE Vancouver Island appears that it may be different from what has been observed further to the south.]

1. In this image most of the sunflower stars appear healthy “other than one just right of center frame is exhibiting the syndrome, looking “thinned-out” and emaciated.”

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

2. This images “shows this thinning in close-up. Note how distinct the edges of the rays look and how flat the star is.”

Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

3. This image “shows how the body wall begins to rupture, allowing the gonads and pyloric caeca to spill out.” 

As the animals become more stressed, they often drop several rays (which wander off on their own for a while). At this point the body wall becomes compromised and the pyloric caeca and/or gonads may protrude through lesions. As things progress, the animals lose the ability to crawl and may even tumble down steep slopes and end up in pile at the bottom. Soon after they die and begin to rot

Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

4. This image “shows the gonads breaking through holes in the body wall. At this point rays often break off and crawl away briefly.”

Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

5. As things progress, the animals lose the ability to crawl [and hold grip surfaces] and may even tumble down steep slopes and end up in pile at the bottom. Soon after they die and begin to rot.

Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

6. The bacteria Beggiatoa then takes over and consumes all of the organic matter, leaving a scattering of skeletal plates on the bottom. The syndrome develops quickly and in only one to two weeks animals can go from appearing healthy to a white mat of bacteria and skeletal plates

Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

7. This image “shows an individual star that is being consumed by mat bacteria.”

Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

The 1-minute time-lapse video below shows the progression of the Syndrome in a sunflower star over 7 hours.

Cause(s)?
To date (January 2014), the cause (s) have not yet been identified. Scientific opinion appears to be that most likely the cause is one or more viruses or bacteria that have not yet been identified (more advanced investigations like DNA sequencing and metagenomics are now underway at Cornell University – Source #18 and #19) but toxins and environmental factors have not been ruled out as the primary cause or confounding causes (Source #18). As with any pathogen (like the flu virus), the expression of a pathogen as disease is influenced by number and proximity of individuals and could be exacerbated by environmental stressors. It is NOT radiation [Source #18, #19 and others].

Using cutting-edge DNA sequencing and metagenomics, Hewson is analyzing the samples for viruses as well as bacteria and other protozoa in order to pinpoint the infectious agent among countless possibilities.

“It’s like the matrix,” Hewson said. “We have to be very careful that we’re not identifying something that’s associated with the disease but not the cause.”

    • ”In previous outbreaks the “proximal cause” was found to a vibrio bacterium but “a recent wasting event on the east coast of the United States has been attributed to a virus  . . . such events are often associated with warmer than typical water temperatures . . . Please note that we do not know what is causing Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, and the cause may be different in different regions  . . .  the period prior to Wasting was characterized by warm water temperatures” (University of California Santa Cruz, Source #4).
    • Bates et al reported on an outbreak of wasting syndrome in ochre stars in Barkley sound in 2008. This included conducting lab experiments finding that the “prevalence and infection intensity were always higher in warm temperature treatments” and that “small increases in temperature could drive mass mortalities of Pisaster [ochre stars] due to wasting disease.” [Source #13 and #14]
    • “Do not believe this is related to a warming trend” (Source #18).
    • “Overpopulation” of sunflower stars appears to be a factor with outbreaks occurring where there is a high abundance of sea stars. “Often when you have a population explosion of any species you end up with a disease outbreak” (Source #5). “This could be perfectly normal as a way to control overpopulation” (Source #18).
    • “Some initial samples sent to DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and UBC [University of British Columbia] have not isolated a specific causative agent for this sea star die off. More samples are being collected and additional tests will be conducted” (Source #2 and #7). Viruses are notoriously difficult to detect. Cornell University (New York) has begun viral and bacterial culturing (Source #8). Updates will be provided here as they become available. See Source #14 for the results of pathology reports from October 4, November 12 and November 13.
    • Quote from Drew Harvell, a Cornell University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who studies marine diseases: “these kinds of events are sentinels of change. When you get an event like this, I think everybody will say it’s an extreme event and it’s pretty important to figure out what’s going on . . . Not knowing is scary . . . If a similar thing were happening to humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would commit an army of doctors and scientists to unraveling the mystery.” (Source #12)
    • Fukushima is a contributing factor?! There is no data to date to support this and, while of course radiation benefits nothing, I worry that pointing the finger away from ourselves takes away from the opportunity to recognize and act on how we all contribute to ocean stressors such as increasing temperature. From Source #19 – “scientists see Fukushima as an unlikely culprit because the die-offs are patchy, popping up in certain places like Seattle and Santa Barbara and not in others, such as coastal Oregon, where wasting has only been reported at one location.”
    • Ballast water? “From Source #19- “Others have wondered if a pathogen from the other side of the world may have hitched a ride in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. Scientists say this fits with the fact that many of the hot spots have appeared along major shipping routes. However, the starfish in quiet Monterey Bay, Calif. have been hit hard, whereas San Francisco’s starfish are holding strong.”

Range and timeline?

  • [Update December 21, 2013 - The Syndrome has been documented in sites from Alaska to the Mexican Border - with gaps in knowledge especially off central and northern BC. See data acquired through the University of California, Santa Cruz on this map (Source #4) and the data acquired through the Vancouver Aquarium on this map (Source #3).]
  • June 2013 – First noted in the intertidal zone in ochre stars along the Washington Coast. “As of  December, signs of wasting had been observed at 45 of 84 MARINe sites [USA - Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network] sampled since summer 2013, spanning the entire coast from Alaska to San Diego but varying in intensity from low levels of infection to mass mortality” [and with large gaps in data especially in northern British Columbia]. (Source #17). See map (Source #4) documenting the Syndrome in ochre stars in some locations from Alaska to the Mexican Border.
  • Late August 2013 – first reported in the sub-tidal in Howe Sound (Whytecliff and Kelvin Grove) by recreational diver Jonathan Martin (his photos here; video here). Sunflower stars were the main species impacted.
  • Mass mortality noted in Indian Arm in early October. “By late October the syndrome had been reported from the Gulf Islands, around Nanaimo and into Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. It appears to be spreading throughout the entire Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound.” [Source #14].
  • First detected in the sub-tidal in sunflower stars in Washington State as of late October (Source #11 and #17). See a video here of a site in West Seattle before and after the outbreak. Update December 22nd: First reported off Whidbey Island, Washington.
  • Update December 21st: I am very sad to report that I have now found afflicted animals on NE Vancouver Island (Bear Cove, Port Hardy). Please see my blog at this link for photos, details and updates on the progression of the Syndrome on NE Vancouver Island].
  • Update January 19th, 2014: Morning sunstar with symptoms found in Campbell River [Reported by Dylan Smith].
  • No outbreaks on the west coast of Vancouver Island [Source #14].
  • “A smaller and isolated Atlantic outbreak, at points off Rhode Island and Maine, has also been noted.” (Source #12).
  • With regard to finding sunflower stars with the syndrome in Sechelt Inlet “This sighting is both disturbing and perplexing for a couple of reasons. First, Sechelt Inlet is hydrographically quite isolated from the rest of the Strait of Georgia, being a nearly land-locked fjord with minimal water exchange through Sechelt Rapids. Secondly [in Sechelt Inlet] Pycnopodia is a common sea star, but by no means abundant and certainly not found in anything near the incredible densities (up to 11/square metre) that we have encountered at the Defence Islands in Howe Sound” (Source #1). Jeff Marliave (VP of Marine Sciences at the Vancouver Aquarium) relates that the epicentre of the outbreak in Sechelt Inlet appears to be Egmont and that this correlates with a high abundance of sunflower stars there (Source #8).
  • Baby sea stars now seem to be coming back to areas where adult sunflower stars have been wiped out (Source #18).
  • You can aid understanding of the range and spread by inputting your data at this link on the Vancouver Aquarium webpage.

Has this happened before?
Never to this large a scale. “Although similar sea star wasting events have occurred previously, a mortality event of this magnitude, with such broad geographic reach has never before been documented.” (Source #17).

  • “Southern California in 1983-1984 and again (on a lesser scale) in 1997-98″ (Source #4 and #13)
  • Florida (Source #5).
  • Update November 30: Sunflower die offs [on much smaller scale] have been noted in the past in Barkley Sound. In 2008 ochre star die offs were documented in Barkley Sound. In 2009 Bates et. al. reported on this and observed that the prevalence of disease “was highly temperature sensitive and that populations in sheltered bays appeared to sustain chronic, low levels of infection.” (Source #14 and #15).
  • “Similar events have occurred elsewhere over the last 30 years. Sea stars have perished in alarming numbers in Mexico, California and other localities” (Source #2).
  • “In July, researchers at the University of Rhode Island reported that sea stars were dying in a similar way from New Jersey to Maine .  . a graduate student collected starfish for a research project and then watched as they “appeared to melt” in her tank” (Source #5).

Ecosystem impact?

The impacted sea star species are carnivores, feeding high up in the food chain. This massive die off may lead to shifts / changes in marine ecosystems since there will be less predation by the affected sea star species (Source #9 and #12). Their prey includes: bivalves like mussels, marine snails, urchins and sea cucumbers.

    • “Once that disease is in the environment, it can be difficult to get the population [of the affected sea stars] back” (Source #5).
    • Ecologists consider sunflower and ochre stars to be keystone speices because they have a disproportionately large influence on the distribution and abundance of many other species. Scientists anticipate that such a large mortality event in keystone species could change the intertidal and sub tidal seascapes . . . Previous examples of large-scale, mass mortality of individual marine species have resulted in dramatic ecosystem-wide changes” (Source #17).
    • “Sea stars are voracious predators, like lions on the seafloor. They gobble up mussels, clams, sea cucumbers, crab and even other starfish. That’s why they’re called a keystone species, meaning they have a disproportionate impact on an ecosystem, shaping the biodiversity of the seascape. “These are ecologically important species,”  . . . “To remove them changes the entire dynamics of the marine ecosystem. When you lose this many sea stars it will certainly change the seascape underneath our waters.” (Source #19)
    • Seeing baby sunflower stars back where adults have been wiped out in Howe Sound. Getting species like agarum kelp back (good habitat that was suppressed due to previous abundance of sea stars) but also seeing green urchins come back (will graze on kelp like sea stars do). (Source #18).

Video (7 min) on the state of knowledge on the Syndrome (January 2014) and showing the progression of the Syndrome in sunflower stars around Washington / Southern BC.

Sources:

  1. Email communication with Neil McDaniel.
  2. Email communication with Andy Lamb.
  3. http://www.vanaqua.org/act/research/sea-stars
  4. http://www.eeb.ucsc.edu/pacificrockyintertidal/data-products/sea-star-wasting/
  5. http://commonsensecanadian.ca/alarming-sea-star-die-off-west-coast/
  6. http://www.businessinsider.com/disease-ravaging-west-coast-starfish-2013-11
  7. Shellfish Health Report from the Pacific Biological Station (DFO) conducted on 1 morning sun star and 7 sunflower stars collected on October 9, 2013 at Croker Island, Indian Arm; case number 8361.
  8. Email communication with Jeff Marliave.
  9. http://www.reef2rainforest.com/2013/11/09/disaster-deja-vu-all-over-again/
  10. http://www.aquablog.ca/2013/11/family-relations-in-starfish-wasting-syndrome/
  11. http://www.komonews.com/news/eco/Whats-causing-our-sea-stars-to-waste-away–231982671.html
  12. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/sea-stars-are-wasting-away-in-larger-numbers-on-a-wider-scale-in-two-oceans/2013/11/22/05652194-4be1-11e3-be6b-d3d28122e6d4_story.html
  13. https://science.nature.nps.gov/im/units/medn/symposia/5th%20California%20Islands%20Symposium%20(1999)/Marine%20Ecology/Eckert_Sea_Star_Disease_Population_Decline.pdf
  14. Sea star wasting syndrome, Nov 30-13http://jackiehildering.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/sea-star-wasting-syndrome-nov-30-13.pdf 
  15. Bates AE, Hilton BJ, Harley, CDG 2009. Effects of temperature, season and locality on wasting disease in the keystone predatory sea star Pisaster ochraceus. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms Vol. 86:245-251 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20066959
  16. Video showing impacts in Elliott Bay, Seattle http://earthfix.info/flora-and-fauna/article/sea-stars-dying-off-west-seattle/
  17. University of California, Santa Cruz Press Release; December 22, 2013; Unprecedented Sea Star Mass Mortality Along the West Coast of North America due to Wasting Syndrome
  18. Vancouver Aquarium; January 21, 2014; Presentation – Mass Dying of Seastars in Howe Sound and Vancouver Harbour (Dr. Jeff Marliave and Dr. Marty Haulina).
  19. Earth Fix; January 30, 2014; Northwests starfish experiment gives scientists clues to mysterious mass die-offs 

Images showing symptoms in other sea star species:

Ochre star (aka purple star) with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Ochre star (aka purple star) with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Morning sun star with lesions indicating the onset of sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Morning sun star with lesions indicating the onset of sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Giant pink star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Giant pink star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

What was once a giant pink star. Photo and descriptor -  Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

What was once a giant pink star. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Octopused! A story in grainy pictures.

I am typing with salt still encrusted to my face and hair. I really should warm up from my dive and wash off the NE Pacific before sharing this with you but this is the kind of story you want to shout from the seamount tops. However, be warned, there is a bit of a dark side to the story too.

Today, while doing a shore dive in Port Hardy with the intention of surveying the health of sea stars*, I had the most wondrous experience I have ever had with not one, but two giant Pacific octopuses.

While photographing a sea star I must have disturbed the first octopus because when I looked down, wondering what had caused a massive disruption of hooded nudibranchs from the kelp, there she/he was in full glory – posturing to show me his/her impressive size, hooded nudibranchs undulating all around.

I even ended up with a hooded nudibranch stuck to my mask, which I gently shook off as I am a poor surrogate for kelp!

After I recovered from the shock of this all and  mumbled an apology in the guilt of triggering the chaos, I looked at the octopus for a bit  . . . and she/he looked at me. We both settled down, apparent in the case of the octopus in that he/she was no longer posturing and reverted to camouflage colours rather than alarm vibrance.

After some minutes, the assessment appeared to be made by this sentient being that I was not a risk; and that there was no need to hide (nor ink!). As a result, for half an hour I was able to (respectfully) follow along as the octopus hunted.

I was allowed to learn about hunting strategy and see how the colour and texture changed as it moved and how the mantle would flash white as it pounced upon prey.

The only thing that stopped this deeply awe-inspiring experience was that dive buddy, Alex Spicer, found a second octopus in the open!

This much smaller octopus was using giant kelp like a hammock.

The divers among you know what a rare gift it is to find one, let alone two, (unhabituated) octopuses out of their dens, certainly during daytime.  The underwater photographers and videographers among you would be twitching all the more, knowing what an incredible opportunity this offers to capture the beauty of these giant wonders.

Here’s the dark side. Thankfully it is a literal dark side. My strobes (flashes) didn’t work properly and it was my own doing. It’s been a crazy week of work and, in the flurry resulting from wanting to fit in a dive, I forgot the cables that hook the strobes to the camera.

Yes, I was given what may be the opportunity of a lifetime but failed to fully capture the beauty of it, leaving you with only the grainy images below. However, I got to fully live the experience and had anything changed in the course of events that led to today’s dive, likely I wouldn’t have been octopused at all.

I hope the images are still enough to illuminate the joy and wonder I felt.

[Be sure you scroll down for the photo of the little guy in the kelp hammock!]

Giant Pacific Octopus #1 shortly after we'd both collected ourselves. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus #1 shortly after we’d both collected ourselves. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Getting checked out by Giant Pacific Octopus #1. Hooded nudibranchs in the foreground. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Getting checked out by Giant Pacific Octopus #1. Hooded nudibranchs in the foreground. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus #1 with quillback rockfish to left. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus #1 with mantle flashing white which it seemed to do when it pounced on prey (a crab in this case - I think) © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus #1 with mantle flashing white which it seemed to do when it pounced on prey (a crab in this case – I think) © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus #1 with hooded nudibranchs © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus #1 with hooded nudibranchs © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus #1 feeling around for prey. Rose anemone in the foreground (aka fish-eating anemone) © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus #1 feeling around for prey. Rose anemone in the foreground (aka fish-eating anemone) © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus #1 with hooded nudibranchs in the background © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus #1 with hooded nudibranchs in the background © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus #2 - much smaller and using the giant kelp as a hammock. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus #2 – much smaller and using the giant kelp as a hammock. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

[*On this dive there was no evidence of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome but I have now documented its presence. See these blog items.]

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