Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Living Gems #1 – Candy-Stripe Shimp

I went diving yesterday in an area where I knew there were Crimson Anemones. My hope was that if I took my magnifying glass and my macro lens MAYBE I would find a few Candy-Stripe Shrimp.


LOOK! One little Crimson Anemone had ~40 Candy-Stripe Shrimp!

This species of shrimp is almost always found in association with this species of anemone and must be immune to its stinging cells (nematocysts). The shrimp get the benefit of snacks and the anemone MAY get protection. From Greg Jensen’s Crabs and Shrimps of the Pacific Coast”: “The shrimp are believed to feed primarily on egested material [think poop] and the sloughing tissues of their host anemone”.

Greg observed in his aquarium (anecdotally) that Candy-Stripe Shrimp would share space on an anemone with other shrimp species (Kincaid’s Shrimp) but immediately attacked another shrimp species believed to harm the anemone – Snyder’s Blade Shrimp. Maybe this is what the anemones get out of the deal. 

Candy-Stripe Shrimp can be up to 4.5 cm but these were all around 1 cm or less. What else was extraordinary in this “encounter” is that these shrimp usually dart away as soon as an annoying photographer shows up. That did not happen. So for you, LOTS of photos of these colourful marvels and their possible symbiosis / coevolution.

Shrimp = Lebbeus grandimanus
Crimson Anemone = Cribrinopsis fernaldi to 30 cm tall. Candy-Stripe Shrimp have also found in association with a few other anemone species but most often with Crimson Anemones.

Tomorrow I will post about another “living gem” I documented on this dive. That is, another species that shatters the notion that these cold, dark waters do not explode with colour and biodiversity. 🙂



Tunicates – Your Distant Cousins?

Here’s one of your highly evolved and wonderfully unique marine neighbours.

It’s one of many species of tunicate in the NE Pacific Ocean. The tunicates, as simple-looking as they may appear to you, are our closest invertebrate relative*.

That’s how complex their anatomy is.

Five colonies of Mushroom Tunicate. I believe this is Distaplia occidentalis.

So here are some fascinating facts that may help influence how we perceive organisms that look very different from us.

Tunicates have a unique exoskeleton called a tunic.

Some tunicate species are solitary, living as distinct individuals. Please see further down in this blog for my photos of other species of local tunicates. These will reveal the great diversity in this phylum. 

Photo showing how a colonies of compound tunicate species share a stalk. Gee I wonder why some are called Mushroom Tunicates? Insert cheeky grin here.
I am uncertain of which species of compound tunicate this is. 

But this is a species of COMPOUND tunicate where individuals live together in the colony, within one tunic. The individuals in the colony are called zooids. The zooids have specialized functions that can serve the collective colony. In this species each individual has its own incurrent siphon and pharynx (think throat) to bring in water to filter feed. But individuals share digestive, reproductive and circulatory organs and excurrent siphons (to carry water out). Oh, by the way, tunicates are the only animals known to have a heart that can pump in two directions; they can reverse the direction of circulation.

They are hermaphrodites where reproduction occurs both by cross-fertilization and self-fertilization. The fertilized eggs are brooded inside the colony in a brood pouch and the timing of when parents hatch out the relatively large tadpole-like larvae has been found to be influenced by light (morning appears to be preferred). The larval stage of these animals is tadpole like, including having a primitive backbone (as is the case in all tunicate larvae). Reportedly development from fertilized egg to larval release is around 4 weeks (at 12 degree C) for the species.

Photo showing the diversity of colour in Mushroom Tunicates.

Some species of tunicate have been found to have bacteria associated with them providing chemicals that ward off predators and disease-causing microorganisms. You can imagine there is strong interest in how these chemicals might be of use to humans re. antibacterial properties.
And in case this all isn’t wild enough colonial species of tunicate are known to regenerate their complete body from a group of cells named “blood cells.” This too makes them of particular interest to we human distant relatives who evolved to NOT be able to regenerate body parts.

*Tunicates are classified as chordates because, the tadpole-like larvae stage has the following structures: notochord, dorsal nerve tube, and muscle tissue behind the digestive tract (postanal tail).

As a personal note to you who  are interested and caring enough to read this far: I have just lost myself for several hours striving to synthesize this information. I have deadlines to meet for other tasks and yet, and yet . . . this compulsion to understand, educate, and connect. Thank you very much for making it feel worthwhile.

After the following photos, there is excellent, detailed information on tunicates from Dr. Laura Cole.

Photos of other species of tunicate living in the NE Pacific Ocean.
Note that there are many more species that what I show here.


Solitary tunicate species: Pacific Sea Peach, Halocynthia aurantium, to 15 cm tall. Species like this have led to tunicates sometimes being referenced as “Sea Squirts” due to to larger, solitary species of tunicate having the “tendency to squirt seawater periodically from the main branchial siphon to back-flush sediments, other indigestible matter, and small animals from the filtering basket (about 10 times per hour in some species). Source: Snail’s Odyssey. 


Another Pacific Sea Peach.


Solitary tunicate species: Glassy Tunicate, Ascidia paratropa to 15 cm tall. 


Solitary tunicate species: Sea Vase – multiple individuals “reaching” out of a crack in a wooden piling. Ciona savignyi to 15 cm tall.


Solitary tunicate species: These Transparent Tunicate have a problem. This species gets invaded by a wicked parasite (as opposed to all those gentle and meek parasites out there) . . . the Spotted Flatworm! This species of flatworm curls up, sneaks in through the tunicate’s branchial siphon, unrolls, eats the tunicate’s internal organs over 3 to 7 days and then moves on, leaving behind the empty tunic. They are species specific parasites, apparently specializing in invading Transparent Tunicates. The dark coil you see here is the waste inside their rectums. Transparent Tunicate = Corella willmeriana to 7.5 cm tall.
Spotted Flatworm = Eurylepta leoparda to 2.5 m.


Social tunicate species: Light-Bulb Tunicate. Clavelina huntsmani to 5 cm tall.


Compound tunicate – a stalked compound tunicate. Not certain of species.


Compound tunicate species: Red Ascidian. Aplidium solidum to 20 cm across.


Compound tunicate species: Lobed Compound Tunicate. Cystodytes lobatus, irregular size and shape, can be more than 50 cm wide.


Compound tunicate species: Lobed Compound Tunicate. Cystodytes lobatus with a feeding Orange Sea Cucumber.


Compound tunicate species: Lobed Tunicate and Mushroom Tunicates (and a whole lot more) 🙂



Compound tunicate species: May be Pale Mushroom Compound Tunicate. Aplidiopsis pannosum to 5 cm wide. 


Pygmy Rock Crab in the shell of a dead Giant Acorn Barnacles, surrounded by multiple species of compound tunicate


Further information on tunicates from Dr. Laura Cole, from her much-valued resource – a Smithsonian blog “Tunicates — Not So Spineless Invertebrates” from June 2018. 

About 3,000 tunicate species are found in salt water habitats throughout the world. Although tunicates are invertebrates (animals without backbones) found in the subphylum Tunicata (sometimes called Urochordata), they are part of the Phylum Chordata, which also includes animals with backbones, like us. That makes us distant cousins.

The most common tunicates are sometimes called sea squirts because when touched or alarmed by a sudden movement, their muscles contract and the water in the animal shoots out. They are sessile after their larval stage, meaning that they remain attached to a hard substrate, such as dead coral, boat docks, rocks or mollusk shells, all of their adult lives. The name “tunicate” comes from their outer covering, called the tunic, that protects the animal from predators, like sea stars, snails and fish. Unlike the sessile sea squirts, other kinds of tunicates float in the water their entire lives. The salps and pyrosomes are mostly transparent tunicates that look a bit like jellyfish floating freely—some pyrosomes have be known to reach 60 feet (18 m) in length. Much smaller but still visible to the naked eye are the larvaceans—tiny tadpole like creatures that live inside a small house that they build and regularly replace.

[Note there are two related The Marine Detective blogs: (1) “Pyrosomes! Say What?” at this link and (2) “Otherworldly Drifter. Mind Blown” at this link.]

What unites these diverse groups and makes them our relatives? All animals in the Phylum Chordata have a notochord, a flexible backbone like structure, at some point in their lives.

Sea squirts have a notochord only in the larval stage which they use to swim and find an ideal place to attach—one that is bathed in particle-rich waters, since like all tunicates they are filter feeders and rely on water currents for food and nutrients. Once a good location is found, the larva attaches with a suction-like structure and metamorphosis begins. The notochord shrinks and gets absorbed into the body as the animal changes into an adult, and the tunic forms as the transformation occurs. The animal will then spend its days feeding on tiny particles from the water, primarily bacteria. 

There are two types of sea squirts: solitary and colonial. The solitary animals live separately all of their lives inside of their tunics. Each has two siphons—the oral siphon that receives the nutrient rich current and the atrial siphon that excretes the waste. Colonial species share a common tunic and sometimes also share the atrial siphon. Colonies of sea squirts are formed as a result of budding—when the larva settles and changes into the adult form, it then splits (or buds) to produce new individuals, called zooids. Colonies can be a few centimeters to several yards wide depending on food availability and predation.  

Sea squirts don’t look much like us as adults on the outside, but they have a digestive system similar to ours—with an esophagus, stomach, intestines and a rectum. But there are plenty of other differences. Unique to the benthic tunicates is a heart that reverses its beat periodically. It’s still a mystery to researchers why the tunicate heart will circulate blood through the heart in one direction and then switch to the opposite direction, or if the ability gives them some sort of advantage. 

On land, we don’t encounter sea squirts that often, although they are increasingly eaten by some Mediterranean, Asian and South American countries. Not only is the soft body inside of the tunic eaten, but the tunic itself can be pickled and enjoyed later. Compounds from several tunicate species could be useful in medical treatments for diseases ranging from cancer to asthma. Tunicates act as ocean purifiers, since they consume bacteria, and they can send a message that heavy metals are present in ecosystems where they are found, since they absorb metals like zinc and vanadium. Because they like to attach to hard surfaces, sea squirts are often found on the underside of boats, or inside motors, where they can wreak havoc on equipment, and some have become invasive species after being transported from their native ranges. Their relatives the pyrosomes, also called sea pickles, sometimes wash up in large numbers on the shore and are known for their bioluminescence

Like with many a large family, most of us don’t know about these distant relatives found in the ocean, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth keeping an eye on.”

Further sources include:

Invasive Tunicates

This is an example of an invasive tunicate found off the coast of British Columbia (and many other places). It’s the Lined Compound Ascidian, Botrylloides violaceus.

Super Mom! Up to 300 young under her care.

This is a Brooding Anemone (Epiactis lisbethae to 8 cm across).

She may not have a backbone but she’s a Super Mom!

As many as 300 young can be clustered around her in up to 5 rows, benefitting from the protective canopy of her tentacles which contain stinging cells (nematocysts). The offspring remain here until big enough to stand a good chance of surviving on their own. They then crawl toward independence, claiming their own piece of the ocean bottom.

Brooding anemone 1

Note: This blog was initially published in 2013. Reposting for Mothers Day 2020.

I am awestruck by this species’ beauty and reproductive strategy. It is also a reminder of how little we know about marine species that the Brooding Anemone was not recognized as a distinct species until fairly recently (1986), and it still so often gets confused with the Proliferating Anemone (Epiactis prolifera).

I share my marine “detectiving” about this species with you to provide a further example of how extraordinary our marine neighbours are and maybe, thereby, help inspire greater conservation efforts.

But yes, the timing of the blog is no accident. It may be that reflection upon an anemone Super Mom stimulates thought about our human mothers – just in time for Mother’s Day.

So here goes . . . bear with me as I build to clarifying the reproduction of our featured species.

© 2013 Jackie Hildering one time use only-4240156

Anemones have many reproductive strategies.

For many species, reproduction can be asexual as well as sexual with strategies like budding off offspring; splitting into two; or pedal laceration where a torn piece of the bottom of the anemone can grow into another anemone!

Some species are hermaphrodites with highly diverse ways by which offspring develop into adults.

In species that have separate sexes, many are broadcast spawners where Mom and Dad release their eggs and sperm into the ocean around them. Fertilization and development thereby happens in the water column.

Then, for only some 20 species of the world’s more than 800 kinds of anemone, there are those in which the female captures the males’ sex cells as they drift by and draws them into her digestive cavity to fertilize her eggs. She “broods’ her young.

Some such anemone species are internal brooders.  The young develop inside Mom until they hatch and are expelled into the water column as planktonic larvae.

But then there’s Super Mom – the Brooding Anemone (Epiactis lisbethae). She’s an external brooder.

After she has fertilized the eggs inside her digestive cavity with the sperm she has captured, the young develop inside her until they hatch into planktonic larvae. THEN, they swim out of her mouth, settle on her body under the tentacles and grow into little anemones that feed themselves.

When the offspring are big enough to stand a good chance of survival without the protection of Mom’s tentacles, they shuffle away to independence, leaving space for next season’s young.

The brooding anemone’s young are all of the same generation and are therefore all about the same size.

However, there is a second externally brooding anemone species in the eastern North Pacific where you most often see young of different sizes huddled under Mom’s tentacles. This species – the Proliferating Anemone (Epiactis prolifera) is the one that very, very frequently gets confused with the Brooding Anemone.

Proliferating anemone.

Proliferating Anemone with young (Epiactis prolifera). Often confused with the Brooding Anemone (Epiactis lisbethae). 

I have strived to clarify the many differences between these two externally brooding anemone species in the table below but to summarize: the Proliferating Anemone is smaller and does not have striping all the way down the column; adults are hermaphrodites; breeding happens year round; there are far fewer young clustered under mom’s tentacles; and they start off there as fertilized eggs, not as free-swimming larva.

The main similarity between these two species is and yes, I am going to use a tongue twister here since I believe it is inevitable when discussing anemones: with anemone mothers like these, baby anemones are protected from their anemone enemies!

Now off you go, share some ocean love with a Super Mom!

There are so many human females out there worthy of awe.
Where, were we to consider how many young they have shielded and helped to independence, the number might well be 300 or more. 

brooding vs. proliferating table

Click to enlarge. Table summarizing the differences between Brooding and Proliferating Anemones.


Brooding anemone with young (Epiactis lisbethae) - all the same age. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Brooding Anemone with young (Epiactis lisbethae) – all the same age. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.



Hermit Crabs with Sponge Homes

Please see photo below.

You are looking at two animals, not one. 

Alaskan Hermit Crab = Pagurus ochotensis to 5.3 cm long. The yellow eyes and “sheen” on the legs help in IDing this species. See how uniquely reflective the legs are? This species often lives in a shell made by a Northern Moon Snail (until a suberites sponge dissolves it away 😉 ).


This is an Alaskan Hermit Crab (who resides in front of Port McNeill, not Alaska).

Living on his/her back is a “Hermit Crab Sponge”.

This sponge species (Suberites latus) settles on the shell home of some hermit crab species and can completely dissolve the shell away.

Having a sponge home has its advantages. It is light. Also, the sponge will grow whereby the hermit crab need not find a new home as would be the case if it outgrew a shell home.

But, it can be awkward to tote around when it gets really big. See an example below.

Bering Hermit with a huge suberite home relative to its size. (Pagurus beringanus to 2.6 cm).



Yes, the hermit crab could leave the sponge and get another home if one were available. But, there is risk when outside your home, be it ever so brief.

Another disadvantage is when you have unwelcome house guests.

See below to get a sense of the inconvenience when a sponge predator crawls on your back.


Close-up on the inconvenienced Mud Hermit Crab.

From top to bottom: the big yellow animal is a Monterey Dorid (nudibranch species – gills are on left). This nudibranch is feeding on the Hermit Crab Sponge (tan colour) and then, see the tiny face? That’s a Mud Hermit Crab who isn’t going anywhere for a little while (Pagurus capillatus to 4 cm).!

Here’s another Mud Hermit Crab. See the bite out of the sponge? I initially found this individual upside down. The resulting photo of the underside of the sponge gives you a sense of how the sponge is shaped to the hermit crab’s body.


Note too how all the hermit crabs included in this blog have one claw bigger than the other?  This is the case for many hermit crab species and it allows them, when they retreat into their home, to seal off the opening to the shell or sponge with the bigger claw. They close the door to their home.

In the photo below, see how the larger claw seals off the hole for the hermit crab on the right? I suspect this interaction captured in this photo more about mate selection that it is about home envy.



I hope this “who is sponging off who” interaction provides some wonder for you at a time when safety in homes is such a reality for our species too (re COVID-19). 

Be safe whatever, and wherever, your chosen home.  💙 

The Hermit Crab Sponge is Suberites latus to 20 cm long, 6 cm wide and 4 cm high.
Source for these dimensions is “Beneath Pacific Tides” by Greg Jensen.


Bluespine Hermit with sponge home  (Pagurus kennerlyi to 3.5 cm long)


Juvenile Alaska Hermit who will benefit from the sponge growing bigger.


Bering Hermit Crab interaction. This too is more likely about dragging around a potential mate.

April 22nd – 50th Earth Day and It’s My Birthday

April 22, 2020

Fifty years ago today, was the first Earth Day. It was aimed at awakening action against the impacts of industrial development on the environment, and therefore, on human health.

With coincidence, fifty-seven years ago today, I was born. I predate Earth Day so that was not the motivation behind my mother’s experimentation with castor oil but – thanks Mom and Dad! ☺️

So today is B-earthday.

Of course every day is an Earth day and I am pretty joyous to be alive every day too. But this April 22nd, maybe there’s more reason for introspection for all of us?

I have never felt more grateful for the Nature around me and understood my place within it, small as I am.

I have taken such comfort in watching Nature continue on around me, never better knowing the connection between Nature and human well-being  . . . physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

I see how, with the necessity of our retreating, Nature has expanded.

I understand all the more what I value, what I miss, and what I hope for a world changed.

What I wish for you and me for today:

  • Immersing in Nature no matter where you are. Gently hug a houseplant if that’s what circumstance allows. Even that has scientifically proven health benefits.
  • Reflecting on our place IN the environment and the positive practices to carry forward into a post COVID-19 reality.
  • Supporting those who, in particular, work for the well-being of society through action for the environment. This need not be a donation albeit that not-for-profits are of course also struggling now. Oh, and have your heard of the work of the Marine Education and Research Society?! ☺️ Please know the great value of sharing the messaging of those whose work you believe in. For example, more “likes” and “follows” is not about world domination for those like myself (it sure is not). Your promotion helps expand reach. Thank you.

Happy Earth Day to you and happy B-earthday to me. 💙

Surprise, I’m going diving.



What’s With the Flat Face?

Seadate April 11th, 2020, Port McNeill.

Suddenly I realized the bottom of the Ocean was staring at me.

It has happened before and . . . oh how I stared back!

These flatfish or flounders are a particular marvel.

In this case, the species of flounder was a big Rock Sole (Lepidopsetta bilineata up to 58 cm long).

Be sure to read below about the “ba-boing” of their eyes! Yes, I am a scientist but that may not be a fully appreciated scientific descriptor. 🙂


Rock Sole are a “righteye flounder” species. All flounder species start off, when larvae, with eyes on either side of their heads. They are anything but “floundering”. They are astounding adapted for life on the sand. (I include photos of additional NE Pacific flatfish species at the end of this blog).

As the larvae develop, the right or left eye (depending on species) migrates across the top of the head to the other side of the body changing some skull bones in the process. This adaptation “allows flatfish to exploit a common habitat – flat sandy bottoms . . . Many fish avoid this habitat because of the lack of rocks or other features that would provide a hiding place. Flatfish can hide from predators by burrowing [and/or camouflaging], leaving only their eyes above the surface . . . the habitat is home to an abundance of prey such as worms and shrimp. With both eyes on the upper side they can use 3D vision to hunt and detect predators. There has been considerable controversy over the origin of flatfish, but recent discoveries of several fossil intermediate forms show that eye migration evolved gradually some fifty million years ago.” Source: Puget Sound Sea Life.

The series of photos show this metamorphosis (images by Dr. Alexander M. Schreiber):

Also, flatfish change colour to match their surroundings. But how is this possible when their eyes are positioned where they are?

The answer via National Geographic: “All flatfish have eyes on the end of stalks, so they pop out of the head “kind of like the eyes we saw in cartoons—ba-boing!” says George Burgess of the Florida Museum of Natural History. Thanks to those pop-up peepers, “they can’t see the bottom directly underneath them, but they can see the bottom around them,” notes Jackie Cooper of the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Once flatfish eyes get the lay of the land, they message the brain, which in turn sends signals back to the skin. This organ contains color-changing cells such as melanophores, which either expand or contract according to the background the fish is trying to match . ..”

At this time where so many are striving to educate children at home, I want for my blogs like this to be of all the more use.  For example, I am hoping the photos allow for children to reflect “if the fish looks like this, what advantages does that provide” , leading to greater deductive reasoning, connection to life in dark seas, and ultimately the appreciation that organisms are the way they are for a reason i.e. the understanding of adaptations.

More fabulous flatfish faces below.

(Note that  this NOT a comprehensive showing of ALL the flatfish / flounders of the NE Pacific Ocean. Rather, it’s just some of the species I have had the opportunity to photograph.

Some Lefteye Flounder Species
Now more commonly called the “Sand Flounders”
Family Paralichthyidae:

October 16, 2013: A Pacific Sanddab (Citharichthys sordidus to 41 cm).


November 12, 2019: Speckled Sanddab (Citharichthys stigmaeus to 17 cm). This one is only about 5 cm long. At first I thought it was an Alder leaf.

Other Righteye Flounder Species
Family Pleuronectidae:

September 15, 2012. Sand Sole (Psettichthys melanostictus to 63 cm). This little one was only ~2.7 cm. I found this little guy/ gal in a tideline and photographed it in my dive mask. See the blog I wrote about this “find” in my “Plankton Got Sole” item at this link



August 8, 2015: C-O Sole (Pleuronichthys coenosus to 36 cm). This one has more pink colouration than usual as it is living around pink coralline algae. Named the “C-O” Sole for the reverse “C” and an “O” shape on the tail. 

April 22, 2020: Another C-O Sole to give a sense of the variation in colour. A big dot in the middle of the body is typical in this species. For this individual, you will note it is purple. 

And more Rock Sole photos because you can never have enough:

Rock Sole – September 23, 2012.

Rock Sole October 11, 2015.

Rock Sole July 1, 2019. Note that the tube worm species here is believed to be an invasive – Chaetopteridae or Spionidae (as shared by expert Leslie Harris).

Rock Sole September 4, 2016.

Rock Sole October 25, 2015.

Same individual October 25, 2015. 


Big Skate Egg Case / Mermaid’s Purse

In a complex time, it made me smile today to receive two ID requests from the same area of the same thing.

This  . . . .


And this . . .


I’ve got your attention don’t I? (Insert cheeky smile here).

These are the egg cases of the Big Skate (Beringraja binoculata) and there are babies growing inside. Such egg cases are known as “mermaids’ purses”. But, as cleverly commented by a friend, these “purses” are so big for this species they should be called “mermaids’ carry-on bags” (Thanks for that Erin Johns Gless).

My compilation below shows the various mermaids’ purses you can find on our coast.


The Big Skate is unique in that it can have more than one embryo growing inside each egg case. Up to a maximum of 7 embryos have been reported but more often it is 3 or 4 per egg case. Jared reported that he could feel movement in the case before he put it back in the ocean. Each embryo has its own yolk sac providing the nutrition for growth. See above for what the embryo of a Longnose Skate (different species) attached to a yolk sac.

Two Big Skate embryos developing inside an egg case. A “window” has been cut into the egg case to allow development to be observed. Photo Kelcie Chiquillo.

You can imagine that it should not be common to find fresh egg cases floating or washed up on the beach. That would not offer the best chance of survival for the babies. The various egg cases of rays, skates and sharks are “designed” to hopefully hook onto substrate / remain on the ocean bottom.

What is also so interesting about the reproduction of the Big Skate specifically is that research (Jang, 2019) supports that the embryos in one case can have different fathers (multiple paternity). Say what? Yep, research conducted on Big Skates in captivity have found that the females can store sperm for up to 3 months and then fertilize the eggs prior to laying the egg cases (they are oviparous).

And how long will the babies grow inside the egg case? For this species, it is around 9 months. At that time, they will “hatch” by releasing an enzyme that breaks down the binding of the case. They swim away and that’s when we more often find the egg cases, when they have done their job and are dried up on the beach.

The babies in the cases that Jared and Tina found today could survive to become up to 2.44 metres long (more commonly around 180 cm long). It’s big alright – the biggest skate species in North American waters.

Below are photos of adult Big Skates.

Source and photo: Joseph J. Bizzarro; Friday Harbour Laboratories; How Can There Be So Many Skate Species … and Why Should We Care?


Next two photos source: NOAA – Alaska Fisheries Science Center. 



Related blog: “Sharks Among Us – The Brown Cat Shark” providing detail on how the Brown Cat Shark embryos can take up to TWO YEARS to hatch from the egg case.



Slugs that Fly? The Great Winged Sea Slug.

Here’s a species that deserves the descriptor “Great” without doubt – the GREAT Winged Sea Slug.

I will never forget the first time I saw one of these tiny sea slugs “flying” underwater.  My brain came close to exploding. I did not know of their existence prior to one flapping past my mask.

Dive buddy Natasha Dickinson pointing at a Great Winged Sea Slug.


Gastropteron pacificum is usually no bigger than your thumbnail. Maximum length is ~2 cm long and with “wingspan” to 4 cm. The species is also referenced as the Pacific Wingfoot Snail and the Pacific Batwing Sea Slug. But, as mentioned, I prefer the reference to their greatness.

Just marvel at how they can propel themselves, as captured in this video.


I will ALSO never forget the first time I saw them spawning, so many of them on the sandy ocean floor, their egg masses expanding to be bigger than they are.

I try to document this every year, looking in areas with sand in from late March into May. I have found them, and their eggs, as shallow as 2m depth.

And sure enough, on March 31st, there they were again. They are gathering to mate!

March 31, 2020 – “Beach Camp” near Port McNeill at only about 3m depth.


The photos below show you what the peak of the spawn looks like. Photos are from May 26th, 2019. Just look at the number of them! How do they find one another? How many eggs in an egg mass? So many questions!


I bet you also want to know how it can be that their masses of fertilized eggs are bigger than the sea slugs themselves. I presume the masses must expand with seawater but  .  . .  I do not know.

As is the case for most terrestrial and sea slugs, Great Winged Sea Slugs are simultaneous hermaphrodites whereby both parents become inseminated and lay eggs. It’s a great strategy to maximize chances of reproductive success when finding a mate is particularly challenging and your babies hatch into the planktonic soup of the ocean.


Among my many wonderings about this species is: Why have I never seen Great Winged Sea Slugs swimming during the time they are aggregating to mate?  I learned from research by Claudia Mills in Friday Harbour (published in 1994), that only sexually mature animals swim AND that they were only observed doing so between September and February i.e. not while mating.

Why swim? In may work well to escape annoying divers and/or bottom feeding fish like Ratfish. The timing suggests that it allows for population dispersal – spreading out for food and/or mates. You would think that the fact that hatch as plankton would spread them out enough. Also, HOW do they then assemble in numbers like this? Is it possible that these sea slugs smell one another’s scent trails even in the ocean?

You can see faint trails here.


Please know that this species IS a sea slug but it is NOT a nudibranch. Great Winged Sea Slugs don’t have naked gills and adults do have an internal shell when adults. Great Winged Sea Slugs belong to the group of sea slugs known as “bubble shells” of the order “Cephalaspidea”. You can even see the bubble shell in some of these images.  Ronald Shimek creatively described these sea slugs as having “an internal shell that looks quite like a soap bubble and is about as durable.”

The wing-like structures are called parapodia. When the sea slug is not swimming, these “wings” wrap around the body forming a water-filled cavity. See what looks like a siphon? Part of the “head-shied” folds into a siphon directing water into the cavity. There’s also an exhalant siphon.

The photo above is from the first time I ever noted this species. I was able to follow one as it drifted to the bottom and then saw the siphon appear. This added to the sensation that my brain was going to explode with awe. I shared the photos with experts and learned that, at that time (2007) it was not known what any members of the family feed upon. This added to my appreciation / understanding of how little is known about marine species that are even common and in the shallows. Bill Rudman responded with “I suspect they may feed on small flatworms or other invertebrate with no hard parts – but that is just a guess.” Apparently Gastopteron are known to feed on detritus and diatoms but it a laboratory setting, To my knowledge, there has not been confirmation of the diet of the species when in the wild.

I hope, dear reader, that these words and images offer an additional chance to get lost in the natural world for a little bit. It offers me such comfort to see the steady flow of the natural world around me – from the courting of song birds, to the emergence of plants, and the mating of sea slugs.

Know that, right below the surface, there’s a world or greatness  .  .  . where slugs fly.


Note that if you see similar egg masses in the intertidal zone,I believe they are more likely to be from one of two other sea slug species that are also “bubble shell” sea slugs (order Cephalaspidea).

#1) Diomedes’ Aglaja (Melanochlamys diomedea to 1.5 cm long ): A fabulously wicked little sea slug that crawls under the sand looking for other sea slugs to snack on.

Diomedes’ Aglaja crawling through the sand in the shallows.


The black blob under the sand is a Diomedes’ Aglaja.Believe the blobs are this species egg masses.

#2) Spotted Aglaja (Aglaja ocelligera to 3 cm long): Usually also under the sand and prey to Diomedes’ Aglaja.

A rare good look at a Spotted Aglajid since they are usually burrowed in sand. Notice how one tail is longer than the other.


Two Spotted Aglajids above the sand, presumed one is following the other’s scent trail to get together to mate.


A Spotted Aglajid laying eggs! “Aglajids lay their eggs in the most interesting way. They release the egg stream around their rotating body, creating a coil or tube-like mass. They then dive into the sediment placing an anchor so the eggs, above, won’t wash away.” Source: Dave Behrens.



For an additional blog about another bubble shell sea slug in the NE Pacific Ocean see – “Shelled Sea Slug! A small mystery solved.”

Classification of Sea Slugs 

My attempt at summarizing the cassification of the group to which sea slugs belong.
Last updated 2020-04-17. Source: World Register of Marine Species.

Regarding the photo below:
The Opalescent Nudibranch is a nudibranch.  Nudibranchs DO have external gills (hence “nudi” = naked and “branch” = gills). Adults do NOT have an internal shell.
The Great Winged Sea Slug is a “bubble shell” sea slug (Cephalaspidea). They do NOT have naked gills and adults DO have an internal shell.
There! Now don’t you feel better knowing that: (1) Not all sea slugs have naked gills and hence not all sea slugs are nudibranchs; (2) However, all nudibranchs are sea slugs.

Preoccupied with Parasites

Preoccupied with parasites!

That’s not usually a good conversation starter is it?

But, read on. It’s worth it! If you are fascinated by adaptations and the interconnectedness of species . . . even when it involves parasites.

These are Transparent Tunicates (aka Transparent Sea Squirts). They are not parasites. They are highly evolved animals with a primitive backbone. They take in food particles through one siphon in their strong “tunic” and expel waste through the other siphon. See the siphons?


The dark you see here is the waste inside their rectums. Yep, they are filter feeders and clearly take in some sand too. What’s this then about parasites?

This species gets invaded by a wicked parasite (as opposed to all those gentle and meek parasites out there) . . . the Spotted Flatworm! This species of flatworm curls up, sneaks in through the tunicate’s branchial siphon, unrolls, eats the tunicate’s internal organs over 3 to 7 days and then moves on, leaving behind the empty tunic.

They are species specific parasites, apparently specializing in invading Transparent Tunicates. The following photos clearly show you the Spotted Flatworm presence there and the tunicates are now mere shells of their former selves.

All the internal organs are gone in the heavily invested individual in the photo below.


In having the privilege of learning even from individual animals by diving the same areas frequently. I recently saw the progression for individual Transparent Tunicates and the Spotted Flatworms that had invested them. The following photo is from March 1st, 2020. I’ve now added arrows to show the parasites.

The following two photos show you reality  24 days later. The originally invested Transparent Tunicates are dead and the Spotted Flatworms have moved into their neighbours.

Below is another perspective on the same individuals.


I truly hope that in these times where our own species is facing extreme challenges, that this information still creates awe, connection and respect for the lives of others. Maybe it’s more important than ever.

Wishing you health, resilience, and strength of community.

Transparent Tunicate = Corella willmeriana to 7.5 cm.
Spotted Flatworm = Eurylepta leoparda to 2.5 m.

Lessons Learned from Whales: Be a “Killer” Female

Three “disclaimers” before sharing one of the very valuable lessons I have learned from whales.
1) For the purposes of this blog, I am referencing the world’s biggest dolphin as both “Orca” and “Killer Whales”. Please know that “Orcinus orca” only camouflages our branding and past misunderstanding of the species as it roughly translates into “demon of the underworld”. Clearly the species did not name itself.

2) When referencing being a “killer” female it is as per this definition: Killer: adjective slang: highly effective; superior; cool; awesome; really badass. I do NOT want to playing into jokes about female rage, especially for those women going through menopause.

3) If you think you’ve read or heard similar content from me before, you’re right. I reference this lesson in presentations and I wrote a similar blog 10 years ago. I am reviving it for International Woman’s Day 2020. I am reviving it because this lesson is of even more value to me now that I am a decade older.

Now here goes . . .

The most valuable lessons I have learned about being female, I have learned from Killer Whales / Orca. For example, it is through my knowledge of these highly cultured whales that I know Nature’s plan for older females.

Let’s face it, human society does not generally help in this regard. As time etches lines into our interiors and exteriors – society does not tell us we are a-okay!  No, the general messaging is about loss, faded youth and endings. Firm up! Dye that hair! Want some Botox baby? We’re sweeping you aside, ‘cause you’re old!

Thank goodness I believe in Mother Nature.

One of my teachers – A12 aka “Scimitar”; born around 1941 and now passed away. She was a Northern Resident (inshore fish-eating) Orca who was the grand dame of the A12 matriline.


As I weather the physiological and psychological changes of age, I know there is purpose in all this. Humans and Killer Whales are among the very few animal species where females go through menopause; where they can live beyond their child-bearing years as “post-reproductive females”.

In the case of Killer Whale females, they can give birth between the ages of around 12 to 40 but can live to at least age 80 (life expectancy is not yet certain since Killer Whales have only been studied as individuals since 1973). Thereby, female Killer Whales may live almost twice as long as they have babies. On the face of it, this appears to violate one of Mama Nature’s great laws. That is, if you’re going to use our food, you better pass on our genes.

But Nature makes sense. Therefore, the role of post-reproductive females must be so valuable that it “justifies” their using the population’s resources.

Science in fact believes that the old female Killer Whales are the teachers and decision-makers. These grandmas, wizened by their years and the lessons of the generations before them, are believed to teach mothering skills; how and where to hunt; and they are known to share food, especially with their eldest son. These activities would benefit the population by ensuring that the offspring are better able to survive and mate . . . passing on shared genes. Since first posting this blog a decade ago, there has been further science published on this. Please see sources below.

The role of the older females has been acknowledged in science with the convention being that each family group of Killer Whales is named for the eldest female (e.g. the A12s). Also, the collective name for a group of Killer Whales is “matriline” which loosely translates into “follow your mother”.

Female Killer Whales have taught me that I am not less as I age but rather that there is teaching to be done and leadership to be embraced.

Never in the history of humankind have the females of our species had access to the resources we have now. It’s far from equality BUT imagine, imagine my sisters (and brothers) if instead of being manipulated by a paradigm that is aimed at making us feel less, we chose to be more. Think of how we could unite against inequality in its many forms.

Instead of absorbing, and perpetuating, disempowering messaging about being older, imagine a world where older woman rise into their potential. What a force that would be for the DNA of our kind – not distracted by what is not, but working for what will be.

These years are to be lived . . . as a killer female.

Another one of my teachers – A30 aka “Tsitika” with one of her sons, A39 “Pointer” in 1999.
©Jackie Hildering.



Photo by “:Sealives”.

Me. Age 56. Soon to be 57.

Where once I had rapid access to a brain full of facts, I now have intuition.

Where once I had 20/20 vision, the lenses of my eyes have become far less flexible but, I see more.

Where once I was rubbed raw by our society’s perceptions of success as a woman, I have (largely) found my way.

Where once I fought my body, I now have healed into gratitude for its strength and health; the life it lets me live and how it is the manifestation of the DNA of those before me.

Where once I was unlined, I am weathered. The lines are getting deeper and more abundant, revealing that as I age, I laugh more – openly and loudly – and hide my emotions far less.

Where once I felt I had to prove I could do it all alone, a gift of age has been to reach out to younger generations. Their skills and values helping me. My skills and values aimed at being in service to them.

#IWD2020 #EachforEqual


Research on menopause in Killer Whales