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

Posts from the ‘MARINE INVERTEBRATES’ category

Shelled Sea Slug! A small mystery solved.

Here’s a bit of a mystery that took me more than a year to sort out.

On April 27th, 2016, I found this egg mass while diving in Browning Pass with God’s Pocket Resort. This is to the north of where I live and is somewhere I only have the joy of diving a couple of times a year.

Mystery sea slug egg mass among horseshoe worms. (From Neil McDaniel re. worm ID – “they are Phoronids most likely Phoronopsis harmeri” – April 2016. ©Jackie Hildering.

I recognized it was likely a sea slug egg mass but did not know the species.

More than a year passed. On May 7th, 2017, I had a chance to dive the same site again and so hoped to find the species who laid the eggs. We quickly swam to where I had found the egg mass the year prior, into the shallows (~5m), and hovered over the ocean bottom strewn with bits of shell remains.

And I found these . . .

Tiny snail-like animals, plowing through the bits of shell and urchin remains. One, two, three . . . six of them!

I tried to calm myself down, to get photos, and to watch how, despite their soft bodies and the sharp bits of shell, they were able to even push under the surface.

They were Stripe Barrel Shells (Rictaxis punctocaelatus with shells only to 2 cm long)!

A “Striped Barrel Shell” beside an urchin spine, giving a sense of how small these animals area. ©2017 Jackie Hildering.

These are often mistaken as being a marine snail (prosobranch) like a whelk but they are a type of “bubble shell” sea slug. They are also not nudibranchs. They have a thin shell and do not have “naked gills”. Therefore they do not belong in the “nudibranch” sub-group of sea slugs (opisthobranchs).  For the classification super nerds, see this link or the graphic at the end of this blog for my attempt at offering clarity.

Plowing down into the shell debris! ©2017 Jackie Hildering.

Please know that I am not suggesting that this is a rare species. Rather, they are hard to find. Their size makes them hard to see; divers often do not target the sand or shell-covered bottoms where they live; AND . . . . they are often just under the surface.

I was incredibly fortunate therefore to find them out and about – maybe feeding on algae and/or trying to smell where a mate might be (and we think WE’RE challenged in finding a partner!)

And how about those eggs? Are they a match?

Yes, they are! I was able to confirm this thanks to the knowledge and brilliant documentation of Jeff Goddard on the Sea Slug Forum (see below).

Source: Sea Slug Forum; Jeff Goddard. 

 

Another little mystery solved.

Another big influx of wonder about the life in the NE Pacific Ocean! 🙂

 

Attempt at sea slug classification ©Jackie Hildering.

Giant Siphonophore (Prayja species)

Here’s another fabulously unique jelly-like drifter for you. It’s a “Giant Siphonophore” which can be up to 50 metres long. That’s right – 50 metres – albeit the sightings near the surface are usually much smaller like these two I saw north of Port Hardy (around 2 to 3 meters).

They are not usually common off the coast of British Columbia but, like the recent sightings of many pyrosomes, their presence indicates that there must be warmer waters. They are regulars off the coast of central California.

Paired swimming bells and long stem of a Giant Siphonophore (aka Bell-Headed Tailed Jelly) ©2017 Jackie Hildering.

Siphonophore jellies are so remarkable. While they appear to be a single animal, they are a colony of individuals (“zooids”) with very specialized jobs. The paired bells aid the propulsion of the colony (pneumatophores).  The units of the long stem are known as “cormidia”. Can you discern the individual units in the image below? Each of these segments has parts for reproduction (gonozooids), cacthing prey and digestion (gastrozooids), and defence (dactylozooids)by having stinging cells (nematocysts). While this species does deliver a bit of a sting, it packs no where near the punch of the most well-known siphonophore – the Portuguese Man o’ War.

Tail segment of a Giant Siphonophore with dive buddy and his video light in the background. This one did not have the swimming bells. The bright yellow colour of the “zooids” in the stem is distinct in this species of siphonophore. ©2017 Jackie Hildering.

What had me quite confused when I first saw the species, is that Giant Siphonophores often do not have the swimming bells – just the stem of individuals. These apparently have a role in reproduction (and are known as eudoxids) but cannot regenerate the whole colony. (Added bonus to this blog – more words for the next time you play Scrabble!)

Another perspective on the paired swimming bells (pneumatophores). ©2017 Jackie Hildering.

In what little information I could find on this species, there was this fabulously, dramatic descriptor: “The giant gelatinous predator moves silently through cold, dark waters, propelled by a pair of expanding and contracting swimming bells. Its rope-like body is actually a colony of almost a thousand individual subsections, each performing a specific task. Some provide propulsion, others, reproductive functions; but most specialize in capturing and devouring prey. When hunting, these sections deploy thousands of slender, stinging tentacles to capture drifting krill, copepods, small fish, and other jellies. Almost anything blundering into this deadly net of tentacles soon finds itself stuffed into the nearest waiting mouth.” (Source: The Ecology Center).

And just in case this all is not fascinating enough, the species is also bioluminescent. It produces a bright blue light when disturbed, briefly illuminating our dark, mysterious, life-sustaining sea.

Sources:

Decorator Crabs! The best-dressed in the NE Pacific Ocean.

Are you ready? I’ve been collecting these photos for a long time. Now, finally, I think I have enough to deliver this marine fashion show to you – the best dressed of the NE Pacific Ocean!

Decorator crabs are camo-crabs. They pluck bits of life from their surroundings and attach it to themselves. AND, if their surroundings change, they change their outfit.

Graceful Decorator Crab covered with hydroids including the “Raspberry Hydroid” which was only recognized as a new species in 2013 and is only known to live near Telegraph Cove (Weynton Pass) and Quadra Island (Discovery Passage). ©Jackie Hildering.

This is highly functional fashion. Not only does this covering of life allow the crabs to hide from potential predators, it also apparently changes the way the crabs feel and taste in a way that deters their predators. Sponges taste bad or are even toxic to many predators and animals like hydroids and other “cnidarians” have stinging cells. Thereby, if you cover yourself with sponges or cnidarians, predators be gone!

Graceful Decorator Crab adorned with “Strawberry Anemones” (not actually an anemone species but a “corallimorph”. ©2017 Jackie Hildering.

Indeed, even though decorator crab species look like walking gardens, often what they attach are not algae but other animals – hydroids, sponges and bryozoans.

Additional bonuses of carrying other organisms on your back may be:

  • You have potential snacks within a pincher’s reach.
  • Your camouflage allows you to get closer to your prey.
  • You are carrying weapons!

From A Snail’s Odyssey: “Apart from passive camouflage from potential predators, other functions of the behaviour may include disguise for closer approach to prey, and provision of tools for active defense, such as a branches of hydroids containing functional stinging cells or pieces of sponges or tunicates containing toxic chemicals.”

Graceful Decorator Crab with snippets of sponge attached to his/her carapace (Hooded Nudibranchs in the background). This individual realized it had been seen and switched to the defence strategy of looking big since “so many fish predators are limited by the size of their mouths” (Source: Crabs and Shrimps of the Pacific Coast); ©Jackie Hildering.

Note too that not all growth on the back of crabs is the result of decorating and remember that crabs moult, crawling out the back of their shells in order to grow. Also from A Snail’s Odyssey:  “In some cases these camouflagings result from settlement of spores and larvae . . . . Passive buildup of growths is greater with increasing age as moulting frequency decreases.  Also, in many species there is a final or terminal moult which, if the species’ exoskeleton is receptive to settlement of larvae and spores, leads to an even greater build-up of cover.”

Graceful Decorator Crab adorned with (and atop of) Glove Sponge. ©Jackie Hildering.

“Spider crab” (superfamily Majoidea) species are the ones that most often adorn themselves. From Greg Jensen‘s Crabs and Shrimps of the Pacific Coast: “Many spider crabs . . . mask themselves with algae or encrusting organisms so that they can hide in plain sight. The decorator crabs are equipped with curved setae much like the hook part of Velcro fasteners: after shredding material a bit with their mandibles, they press it into place. The largest species tend to stop actively decorating once they outgrow most of their predators.”

Crab predators include the Giant Pacific Octopus and fish species like Cabezon, some rockfish, Surfperch, Wolf Eel and the Staghorn Sculpin. Of course, at low tide, birds and mammals are also predators.

Hoping this adds to the wonder, connection and respect for our marine neighbours. Enjoy the rest of the show!

[For research on decorator crabs with great diagrams explaining how how attachment occurs see this link.]

Well that’s unique! Decorated with Sea Vases (species of tunicate). ©2017 Jackie Hildering.

Try not to smile!

Another Graceful Kelp Crab adorned with Raspberry Hydroids.

Here you can even see where the Graceful Decorator Crab has clipped off bits of sponge. AND s/he’s in the act of attaching clippings. ©Jackie Hildering.

Longhorn Decorator Crab. ©Jackie Hildering.

Heart Crab (I THINK) – not likely to have decorated itself but rather this is the result of the settlement and accumulation of organisms = a walking ecosystem. ©Jackie Hildering.

Graceful Kelp Crab with adornment of Sea Lettuce. ©Jackie Hildering

Graceful Decorator Crab in front of a Painted Sea Star. S/he had just moved from being camouflaged among kelp to moving in front of the sea star. ©Jackie Hildering.

This Graceful Decorator Crab has adorned him/herself with bits of Barnacle Nudibranch egg masses for camouflage. You can see the egg masses behind the crab.

Decorator crab species in the NE Pacific include:

  • Graceful Decorator Crab – Oregonia gracilis
  • Graceful Kelp Crab – Pugettia gracilis 
  • Longhorn Decorator Crab – Chorilia longipes
  • Other species too will sometimes put a bit of camouflage on their rostrum e.g. Northern Kelp Crab – Pugettia producta

Pyrosomes! Say What?

Pyrosomes – literally “fire bodies” in Greek – are weird and wonderful marine organisms that have been sighted in large numbers from Oregon to British Columbia’s central coast to Yakutat Alaska! The inspiration for their name is that, when alive, they can generate “brilliant, sustained bioluminescence” (Bowlby et al).

A beach full of Pyrosomes ©Marie Fournier.

January 24, 2017: A beach scattered with Pyrosoma atlanticum. Stunning photo by ©Marie Fournier. Location: West Beach on Calvert Island; 51°39’13”N; 128°08’27″W. 

Specifically, it is Pyrosoma atlanticum that is being seen in large numbers and about which I have been getting inquiries dating back to February of last year. More about this species later. First some general information about this genus.

As gelatinous as pyrosomes appear, they are not closely related to jellyfish. They are colonial pelagic tunicates often found in dense aggregations. Tunicates are highly evolved. They even have a primitive backbone (a notochord).

February 19, 2016 (the first  inquiry I got about this species): A single Pyrosoma atlanticum colony found and photographed by ©Tiare Boyes while diving at ~70′. It was being snacked on by hermit crabs and marine snails. Location: Just outside God’s Pocket; 50°50’15”N, 127°33’40”W.

Colonial? Yes, each pyrosome is made up of thousands of individual “zooids” that are connected by tissue (a tunic) to form a rigid, bumpy, hollow tube that is open at one end. This design allows the individuals to filter feed. Cilia draw water into each zooid where plankton are removed with mucous filters; the filtered water passes into the tube; and then out the back end of the colony. This current not only allows feeding but also propulsion of the colony.

But wait, it gets even more remarkable. The individuals making up the colony are clones. Thereby, the colony can regenerate injured and broken parts. “Unless all individual clones are killed at the same time, a colony can theoretically live forever, shrinking and growing based on available food and physical disturbance.  Individual clones are hermaphroditic; they make both eggs and sperm (Oceana).” It is hypothesized that when colonies meet, they may also reproduce sexually.

One Star Trek inspired biologist has referenced pyrosomes as the “the Borgs of the sea”. I just have to share that description with you:

 “One long pyrosome is actually a collection of thousands of clones, with each individual capable of copying itself and adding to the colony. And like members of the Borg, which are  mentally connected, pyrosome members are physically connected– actually sharing tissues. And while the Borg live in a big scary ship, pyrosomes are the big scary ship. The whole colony is shaped like a giant thimble with a point on one end and an opening on the other . . . . Each little “wire basket” is the stomach of one member of the colony. They take water in through a mouth on the outside of their space-ship body, pass it through the little basket to filter out the nom bits, and squirt water out the other end, into the big hollow space in the middle” (R.R. Helm; Deep Sea News).

“Big scary ship”? The “Giant Pyrosome” (Pyrosoma spinosum) can indeed be up to 18 long with an opening reported to be up to 2 m wide. But that is a species found in tropical waters.

The pyrosome species being sighted along the west coast is much smaller. Pyrosoma atlanticum (class Thaliacea) can reach lengths of 60 cm but as you can see from some of the images here, those being reported nearer to shore are much smaller, ranging from about 5 to 8 cm long. This species may be colourless, pink, grey, or bluish-green.

It is the most widespread pyrosome species. It is found in all oceans with the generally accepted range being between temperate latitudes of 50°S to 50°N.

October 1, 2016: Pyrosoma atlanticum were also being seen but much further offshore. Photo: ©Christie McMIllan. Location: About 145 km off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Thereby, up to around mid Vancouver Island, British Columbia is part of their range but they are usually much further offshore. It is only when wind and tides wash them onto beaches that more of us get to see them. The species already generated a lot of interest much further to the south when they were getting blown ashore in Oregon from October to December 2016. They were also being sighted far off BC’s coast in October.

It was already unusual to see them off BC’s coast beyond 52°N in March. Now, in May 2017, they are being reported off Yakutat, Alaska, beyond 59°N. This is extremely unusual and is indicative that there must be a warm water mass carrying them further north.

December 2016 photo from ©Stan Hutchings and Karen Hansen. Location: Quigley Creek in Laredo Channel; 52°39’15”N, 128°44’05”W

For those lucky enough to see them at night, pyrosomes bioluminesce with an intense, bright, blue-green light that can apparently last more than 10 seconds. Their bright lights inspired biologist T.H. Huxley to write in his1849 journal: “I have just watched the moon set in all her glory, and looked at those lesser moons, the beautiful Pyrosoma, shining like white hot cylinders in the water.”

Pyrosoma are unique not only in how brilliant and sustained this bioluminescence is, but also because they are among the few marine organisms where light is made in response to light, not only in response to touch. Thereby, a wave of light passes from one individual in the colony to the next AND from colony to colony (Bowlby et al)! The light is believed to actually be made by bacteria living within the zooids.

Oh to see that!

Thank you to those who relayed all the queries and sightings. This is a solid case of how the observations, interest and knowledge of many allow a bigger picture to come together. This picture may have relevance to science and certainly has value in generating greater interest in our lesser known, wonderfully weird, light-emitting, totally tubular, marine neighbours.

A Pyrosoma atlanticum colony. ©Stan Hutchings and Karen Hansen.

 

Video by Patrick Anders Webber. 

Sources:

Particularly large Pyrosoma atlanticum, 35 nm off Neah Bay, SW Vancouver Island. In photo: Dobie Lyons. Photo by Alan Tyler.

Bring in the Clowns

In having noted the recent “Creepy Clown” absurdity in the far off periphery of my life, I thought I would share the beauty of the clowns abundant below the surface at this time of year – Clown Dorids.

Clown Dorids are a species of nudibranch (Triopha catalinae to 7 cm).

Nudibranchs are sea slugs with naked gills and those in the dorid suborder most often have their plume of gills on their posterior (around the anus in fact). See the orange frills in the Clown Dorids in these images? Those are their gills.

Clown Dorid; gills on right @Jackie Hildering.

Clown Dorid with gills are on the right. It’s “rhinophores”, by which it smells its way around, are on the left, atop its head. ©2016 Jackie Hildering 

Many dorid species fully retract their gills when disturbed. Clown Dorids can only partial retract their gills.

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That’s all!  Clown Dorids cannot fully retract their gills like most other dorid species.
@2016 Jackie Hildering.

Note too the beautiful “oral veil” with papillae that aid Clown Dorids in finding food.

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Image allowing a good look at the Clown Dorid’s oral veil. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Also unlike many dorids, Clown Dorids do not feed on sponges. They feed exclusively on bryozoan species; those crusty colonies of organisms often found on kelp.

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Clown Dorid likely feeding on Kelp-Encrusting Bryozoan (Membranipora serrilamella).
©2016 Jackie Hildering.

There were a particularly large number of Clown Dorids on my dive this past weekend with many egg masses.

Sea slugs are reciprocal hermaphrodites. This of course makes good sense as a reproductive strategy when you are a slow slug and your offspring hatch out to be plankton. Reciprocal hermaphrodites have both male and female sex organs whereby both individuals are inseminated and lay eggs = way more eggs!

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Clown Dorids that have found one another (relying on smell and touch) and maneuvering into the mating position. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Nudibranchs mate right side to right side. If you look very carefully in the photo below, you can see a bump on the individuals’ right side. This structure is the “gonopore” and is usually retracted. They lock onto one another with their gonopores and both become inseminated.

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Clown Dorids extending their mating organs and about to lock on right side to right side.
(Ochre Star beside them.) ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

The gonopore may be easier to see in this image.

Clown Dorid - note the "gonopore" on the right near the nudibranch's head. ©2017 Jackie Hildering.

Clown Dorid – note the “gonopore” on the right near the nudibranch’s head. ©2017 Jackie Hildering.

The egg masses of each species of sea slug look different. However, it is very difficult to discern the eggs masses of some closely related dorids. The ideal is to find an individual laying the eggs.

Clown Dorid egg mass. Every little dot is an egg that will hatch as plankton into the sea. ©2017 Jackie Hildering.

Clown Dorid egg mass. Every little dot is an egg that will hatch as plankton into the sea.
©2017 Jackie Hildering.

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Another perspective on Clown Dorid egg masses. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

However, in all these years, I have never managed to get a photo of a Clown Dorid laying eggs. Dive buddy Paul Sim has though. See his great image below.

paul-sim-clown_dorid_triophina_catalinae

Clown Dorid laying an egg mass. Note each little dot? That’s an individual egg! ©Paul Sim.

How’s that for bringing in the clowns?!

For you to enjoy, below are more non-scary clowns from this past weekend.

Clown Dorid near White-Spotted Anemone. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Clown Dorid near White-Spotted Anemone. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

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Clown Dorid just below the surface in less than 5 m depth. Appears to be feeding on bryozoans.
©2016 Jackie Hildering.

More information:

  • Reproductive structures of Clown Dorids from the Sea Slug Forum – click here.
  • Colour and diet in Clown Dorids from A Snail’s Odyssey – click here.

Eight-Legged Dive Buddy

Yesterday . . .  Browning Wall off NE Vancouver Island  . . . . . a few minutes in my life.

A few minutes that fuels me in a way that I can never fully express. It’s why I have to take pictures.

And by sharing, I hope the NE Pacific Ocean opens up to more people; that there is more awareness of our marine neighbours and our connection to them.

They’re living their lives just below the surface, most often hidden in the dark planktonic soup that sustains them. We humans are most often on the other side; living our lives too often in the dark about our connection to them and how we are also dependent on Mother Ocean as the life sustaining force on the planet.

It’s a world of colour, mystery, marvel and surprise.

Okay, that’s enough words. Here are the photos of a few minutes in my life where I was graced by the presence of marine royalty.

We were ascending slowly to our safety stop (scuba divers spend at least 3 minutes at 5m/15′ to offload nitrogen). On the way, at around 10m depth I stopped, striving to “capture” the beauty of the fish with the surface of the Ocean visible above them.

The view at about 8 metres . ©Jackie Hildering.

The view at about 10 metres . ©Jackie Hildering.

I was smiling at the China Rockfish and Puget Sound Rockfish using the sponge as a couch. Here’s a close-up.

A sponge couch for these fish. ©Jackie Hildering.

See the Puget Sound Rockfish’s head poking out between the sponges? ©Jackie Hildering.

I looked to the right and saw that I was being watched. There, fully out in the open was a Giant Pacific Octopus.

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Giant Pacific Octopus watching me. ©Jackie Hildering.

I stared in awe for a little bit and then had to proceed to my safety stop. I was accompanied by the octopus.

Eight-Legged Dive Buddy! ©Jackie Hildering.

Eight-Legged Dive Buddy! ©Jackie Hildering.

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Eight-Legged Dive Buddy walking to 5m depth beside me! ©Jackie Hildering.

Together, we advanced to 5m. S/he tolerating the flashing of my camera and me trying to find some balance between documenting this experience and living it.

When we reached safety stop depth, off the giant jetted into the depths. With the octopus having descended deeper into the Ocean in which its kind have lived for some 500 million years, this human needed to return to the environment of air where our ancestors strived to start walking upright only about 6 million years ago (with Homo sapiens only dating back ~200,000 years ago).

I was left at 5m depth with 3 minutes to think about the marvel of what had just happened and how I might make the experience count in some way.

This was the view.

View to the surface. ©Jackie Hildering.

View towards the surface. ©Jackie Hildering.

View towards the surface. ©Jackie Hildering.

 

Sea Angels and Sea Butterflies?!

My dry suit has been hosed down and is drying in the sun; my regulator is soaking in fresh water; the washing machine is chug chug chugging with the clothes used over the last days of diving; and my head and heart are full of so much I want to share.

I’m back from another trip organized to God’s Pocket Dive Resort just beyond Port Hardy . . . more than 11 hours spent underwater over the last days. Such an escape. Such an immersion in wonder and that sense of humility that comes with submerging in the force that sustains this planet. Such an opportunity to learn.

I saw my first Sea Angel.

My buddy and I had been drifting along for about an hour. We had schooled with rockfish; hung next to Orange Sea Pens as they bowed in the current; and marvelled at the abundance of anemones and their babies, studding the forests of kelp. We had done our safety stop with a seeming snowfall of pulsing Aggregating Jellies streaming down around us in the sun’s beams.

 

Thousands of Aggregating Jellies aka Umbrella Jellies. Eutonina indicans to 3.5 cm across. Collective noun for jellies is "smack". ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Thousands of Aggregating Jellies also known as “Umbrella Jellies”. Eutonina indicans to 3.5 cm across.
Collective noun for jellies is “smack”. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

 

Close-up on Aggregating Jelly aka Umbrella Jelly. Eutonina indicans to 3.5 cm across. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Close-up on Aggregating Jelly –  Eutonina indicans to 3.5 cm across.
©2016 Jackie Hildering.

 

We had already been further awed by Sea Butterflies “flying” by our masks. Sea Butterflies are planktonic sea slugs!  They are “pteropods” – swimming shell-less molluscs whose “wings”(ptero) are their feet (pods). This genus does have an internal gelatinous “pseudoconch” (false shell) and the brown dot you see in my image is the gut.  Sea Butterflies feed by forming a mucus web up to 2 m in diameter in which they trap smaller plankton and bits of organic matter. Oh to see that. It was apparently first documented in the 1970s by researchers while SCUBA diving.

Sea Butterfly - Corolla spectabilis. Dark spot is the gut. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Sea Butterfly – Corolla spectabilis. Dark spot is the gut. See this link for more species information and a video (with excited diver vocals) of a swimming Sea Butterfly. 

 

All those jellies and Sea Butterflies pulsing around us and then, just when I was about to break the surface back into the world where gravity has such a stronger hold on me, I saw it! So small, tiny wings pulsing . . . a Sea Angel!

 

Image #1 of the Sea Angel - Cliopsis krohni to 4 cm long. Also known as a "Sea Cherub". ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Image #1 of the Sea Angel – Cliopsis krohni to 4 cm long. Also known as a “Sea Cherub”.
©2016 Jackie Hildering.

 

Image #2 of the Sea Angel. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Image #2 of the Sea Angel. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

 

Image #3 of the Sea Angel. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Image #3 of the Sea Angel. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

 

This is another species of planktonic, “winged” sea slug (but the adults of this species are completely shell-less; they do not even have pseudoconch). Sea Angels are a rarity so far to the north and are only occasionally seen at the surface (found to depths of 1.5 km).  Their presence is likely due to warmer waters (El Nino and possible climate change) and a big northwest wind that had raged a couple of nights prior. The wonder of it, to see something so otherworldly, to know of its rarity in this area, and to get a sense of its planktonic fragility – surviving from a larval stage, escaping predation by fish, and to be carried by the currents in the vastness of the sea.

It may be hard to imagine but this species is a voracious predator! Cliopsis feeds on other planktonic snails by grabbing them with a long proboscis (which can be up to two times its body length), a sharp radula and hooks made of chiton!

 

Screen grab from the "Plankton Chronicles" showing a Sea Angel feeding! See amazing 1.5 min clip here http://planktonchronicles.org/en/episode/pteropods-swimming-mollusks/.

Screen grab from the “Plankton Chronicles” showing a Sea Angel feeding!
See amazing 1.5 min clip at this link.

 

And yes, their diet includes Sea Butterflies. Sea Angels can eat organisms up to three times their size!

When a Sea Angel comes into contact with a Sea Butterfly’s feeding web, it reels it in, dragging the Sea Butterfly with it. When close enough, the Sea Angel then uses its probosis to “cut” the Sea Butterfly from its psuedoconch and eats it.

The marvel of it all, the delicate balance of this planktonic world about which so few of us have knowledge but which can be so impacted by our activities. There is concern about the impact of ocean acidification (caused by our carbon use) on the development of these organisms.

As always, don’t be despondent. See the beauty, know your connection, and recognize the common solutions and great gains of caring more  . . ..  and consuming less.

Remarkable Giant Pacific Octopus + Wolf Eel Encounter

Trust me, you are going to love the video below!

Giant Pacific Octopus passing over a mature male Wolf Eel in his den. See video below. ©Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus passing over a mature male Wolf Eel in his den. See video below. ©Jackie Hildering

It is one of the most remarkable encounters I have witnessed in all my dives.

It’s a fortunate enough thing to be able to watch a large Giant Pacific Octopus when it is hunting. In this encounter, the octopus passes directly over a mature male Wolf Eel’s in his den. THEN, a Decorated Warbonnet emerges as well.

It was an exciting day in this wonderful marine neighbourhood.

I hope this 3-minute clip allows you to share in the awe and excitement.

For me, this was the NE Pacific Ocean equivalent of seeing a giraffe, elephant and rhino in close proximity.

Video and photos contributed by dive buddies Katie Morgan and Diane Reid while on our trip with God’s Pocket Dive Resort.

  • For more information on Wolf Eels (including that they are not an eel at all), see my previous blog here.
  • For more information on Giant Pacific Octopuses, click here for previous blogs and here for a blog specifically on hunting in Giant Pacific Octopus.

Gentle Giants. What to do when you find your dive buddy with a Giant Pacific Octopus on her head.

The Kraken?! Devilfish?!

Scary?! Dangerous?! Alien?

Suggest such things about a Giant Pacific Octopus to any scuba diver respectful of marine life who has had an encounter with one of these gentle giants, and there is going to be a very strong response shattering such mythology.

As it always goes, fear and mythology thrive where there is absence of knowledge.

Any negative encounters between divers and Giant Pacific Octopuses that I am aware of, result from divers manhandling them “insisting” on an encounter or involve individuals that are habituated to being fed by humans.

©2015 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus, Copper Rockfish and dive buddy Natasha Dickinson.
Read about this remarkable encounter below. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

We, as divers, are so fortunate to come across Giant Pacific Octopuses in their world where they are invertebrate royalty. We are able to meet them on their turf, and thereby know how inquisitive and intelligent they are. We know they are mighty, highly adaptable predators.

And, we know too, when we look into their eyes, that observation and assessment is being reciprocated.

That preamble was necessary before sharing what happened today.

This did . . . .

©2015 Jackie Hildering

1. Dive buddy Natasha Dickinson during the remarkable Giant Pacific Octopus encounter.
See the Copper Rockfish too? ©2015 Jackie Hildering

I had been taking photographs of Lingcod males guarding their egg masses and noted that my dive buddy Natasha Dickinson was signalling me with her light, indicating that she had found something of particular interest.

I took a few more shots and then swam towards her and found . . .  my dive buddy with a Giant Pacific Octopus completely covering her face. Sorry that I missed that shot. I was so in awe of what I saw.

Natasha is an incredibly skilled and experienced diver with a deep respect for marine life. She was clearly not afraid, nor was the octopus.

Natasha had taken the precaution of putting her hand over the regulator in her mouth in case the octopus took an interest in that but otherwise, allowed her to explore.

©2015 Jackie Hildering

2. Natasha is also a master of facial expressions that relay 1000 words. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

I would learn later that, while waiting for me she had been watching the Copper Rockfish that you will see in all but one of the photos in this blog. This rockfish stuck very near the octopus. A buddy?  That I don’t know but escorting a Giant Pacific Octopus on the hunt is a really good strategy. As the octopus flushes out animals from under rocks with his/her arms, the rockfish can grab the prey that do not end up under the octopus’ mantle.

While observing the rockfish, the Giant Pacific Octopus had slowly advanced toward Natasha and she remained where she was, intrigued at what would happened and having a contingency plan

©2015 Jackie Hildering

3. Octopus flashing white as it pulls on the clasp ©2015 Jackie Hildering

When I started to take photos the Giant Pacific Octopus gradually backed away but had taken a particular interest in a clasp at the end of a bungee cord on Natasha’s gear.

You can see how her arm was entwined around the cord and how there was some flashing of white in the skin. You can also see the Copper Rockfish!

©2015 Jackie Hildering

4. Pulling a little harder! ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

5. One of the photos that suggests this was a female.  ©2015 Jackie Hildering

I believe this octopus was a female, thanks to feedback I received from self-admitted Cephalopod Geek supreme, Keely Langford of the Vancouver Aquarium. Octopus males have a “hectocotylus arm”. In Giant Pacific Octopuses, it is the third arm on their right. The hectocotylus stores the spermatophores – packets of sex cells, two of which are handed over to a receptive female who stores them until ready to fertilize her eggs.

Having the good fortune to get photos of the right side of this octopus, particularly #5 and #7, allowed me to see that the top of third arm on the right is not differentiated and that therefore, this was a female.

©2015 Jackie Hildering

6. Just after letting go. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

Back to recounting our adventure . . . .

After about a minute or two of gently tugging on the bungee cord, Ms. Giant Pacific Octopus let go.

Natasha swam a bit further off, allowing me a few minutes to marvel and photograph this beauty – the Giant Pacific Octopus AND the Copper Rockfish.

©2015 Jackie Hildering

7. Another photo that allowed me a good look at the 3rd arm on the right. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

8. Ms. Octopus with the Copper Rockfish particularly near. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

9. At one point, she also slowly advanced towards me but when I retreated a bit, so did she. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

10. Walking towards me.  ©2015 Jackie Hildering

When Natasha circled back, the octopus flashed a bit of white as you can see in the image below. Recognition?

We both found ourselves waving goodbye when we, regretfully, had to return to our terrestrial world.

©2015 Jackie Hildering

11. Giant Pacific Octopus, Copper Rockfish, Kelp Greenling and dive buddy. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

So what to do when you find a Giant Pacific Octopus on your dive buddy’s head? Observe, marvel, take some photos, share and maybe it can help dispel some of the mythology and vilification about these fabulous marine neighbours.

Eye-to-eye with a gentle giant. My peering into a Giant Pacific Octopus' den earlier this month (using a macro lens). ©Jackie Hildering

12.. Eye-to-eye with a gentle giant. My peering into a Giant Pacific Octopus’ den earlier this month (using a macro lens). ©Jackie Hildering

Please note, I have shared our experience to reduce the misunderstanding and demonification of octopus NOT to stimulate diver attempts at interactions. It was an unsolicited gift experienced by those with a very high level of dive experience; knowledge of octopus (and dive buddy) behaviour; and solid safety protocols.

Giant Pacific Octopus Facts:

  • Enteroctopus dofleini is the world’s largest octopod species with the maximum records for size being 9.8 m from arm tip to arm tip and 198.2 kg.
  • Average life expectancy is only 3 to 4 years.
  • Like other octopuses:
    • They have a beak with venom, nine brains, three hearts, blue blood, and their skin is capable of detecting chemicals (as our nose does).
    • Their ink is no just a distraction for predators but contains the chemical tyrosinase which causes eye irritation and messes up the predators senses of smell and taste.
    • They are jet propelled and are capable of incredible camouflage where they can not only change the colour of their skin but also its texture to blend in with their surroundings.
    • They mate only once. From the Vic High Marine website regarding Giant Pacific Octopuses: “Females die directly after they have finished laying and guarding to their egg however males live a slightly longer time. Octopus reproduction starts when a male uses a specialized tentacle [sic, octopuses have arms not tentacles] to pass two spermatophores (sperm packages) to the female. Once given the sperm the female stores the package until she is ready to fertilize the eggs.  Before a female is ready to fertilize the eggs she has to find a suitable den. This search can take the future mother up to one month! Once the perfect place is found the female shuts herself in using rocks. From there she fertilizes each egg and gathers them in bundle of approximately 200. She hangs each group of eggs from the ceiling of the cave. This is a long process because on average a female octopus can lay up to 50,000 eggs.  The incubation time for octopus eggs are six and a half months.  During this time the female stays in the cave, not even leaving to eat, attending to the eggs by constantly blowing oxygenated water on to them. When the baby octopuses hatch they are referred to as paralave. These tiny juveniles swim up to the surface joining other zoo plankton and spending weeks feeding on tiny phytoplankton. Once they have developed enough mass they descend to the benthic zone.  As for the mother, she waits until all the eggs have hatched then emerges from the cave and dies shortly afterwards due to the starvation she endured during the months she spent devoted to tending her eggs.
  • Excellent on-line resources on octopuses.
  • Best book on Giant Pacific Octopuses –  The Giant Pacific Octopus and Other Cephalopods of the Pacific Coast by James A. Cosgrove and Neil McDaniel.
  • And the plural really is “octopuses” not “octopi”! See #3 at this link if you are doubtful.

Great thanks to Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Marine Services for making this dive possible.

Media coverage so thankfully resulting from this blog includes:

 

Otherworldly Drifter. Mind Blown.

Today was the first time ever that, while diving, I made a gesture to my dive buddy indicating that my brain had exploded.

We weren’t deep; the remarkable find that had me awestruck was at 3 to 5 metre depth. It’s a known species and is found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans but  . . . . it’s certainly extremely rare here around NE Vancouver Island and it is SO otherworldly.

Let me take you on a short journey of discovery.

I was already pretty excited when I found the organism in the photo below. I knew it to be a salp “aggregate” and was delighted that there was an amphipod hitchhiker. See it?

Cyclosalpa bakeri with amphipod hitchhiker ©Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

Cyclosalpa bakeri with amphipod hitchhiker.
©Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Salps are such unique gelatinous animals! They belong to the group of highly evolved invertebrates known as tunicates. Most tunicate species live attached to the bottom when they are adults but salps remain Ocean drifters for their whole lives. Because of their gelatinous “tunic” they have even been referred to as Ocean Gummy Bears.

Their reproduction is totally otherworldly! They alternate between two forms. The image above is of the “aggregate” form or “salp chain” that, dependent on species, can be made up of millions of individuals. The aggregate form reproduces sexually to form a barrel-shaped solitary form. The solitary form buds off (asexually) to produce the individuals that make up the aggregate form and so on! Salps apparently grow faster than any other multicellular organism! (Source: JelliesZone).

Back to the dive  . . . so I was already pretty thrilled to have seen the salp chain of this unique species and was taking the photo below of an Alabaster Nudibranch (because you can NEVER have enough photos of Alabaster Nudibranchs)  . . . .

Alabaster nudibranch. Dirona albolineata to 18 cm aka “white-lined dirona” or “frosted nudibranch”. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

Alabaster nudibranch. Dirona albolineata to 18 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

. . . . and then I saw something hovering above me, zeppelin like.

Brain exploded. WHAT was this?!

Pelagic tunicate. Salp species - Thetys, solitary phase. To 33 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

It was about 25 cm long.

It had openings on both ends.

It clearly had internal organs.

And it had unique projections on what I assumed was its back end.

The look on my dive buddy Natasha Dickinson’s face in the image below says it all!

Dive buddy with Thetys. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

Dive buddy Natasha Dickinson with Thetys salp. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

I was pretty sure that it was the solitary form of some species of salp but  . . . so big?

Pelagic tunicate. Salp species - Thetys, solitary phase. To 33 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

Good view of gut. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

As soon as I got home I grabbed my copy of Wrobel and Mills’ “Pelagic Coast Pelagic Invertebrates” and emailed a few photos of this unique find to Andy Lamb, co-author of Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest.

Ahh – it’s wonderful to have friends in deep places. Andy came back very quickly with the ID. It was a salp indeed, in fact, the world’s biggest. Thetys* in the solitary form can grow to 33 cm!

From Dave Wrobel’s The JelliesZone webpage: “Thetys is truly an impressive member of the zooplankton.  It is the largest species of salp along the West Coast and is relatively easy to distinguish from all others.  Unlike most gelatinous animals, the body is relatively firm due to the thick spiny test (the test, or tunic, is the hard outer covering typical of many tunicates, hence the name for the group).  It retains its shape even when removed from the water.  Solitary individuals have 20 partial muscle bands . . . that are used for constricting the body while pumping water for feeding and locomotion.  A pair of pigmented posterior projections are very distinctive, as is the darkly colored, compact gut . . . Like other salps, Thetys continuous pumps water through a mucous net to extract phytoplankton and other small particles.   Although relatively uncommon in Monterey Bay [and therefore very uncommon so much further north where I sighted this individual], this widespread species can be found in temperate and tropical waters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, to depths of about 150 meters.”

Pelagic tunicate. Salp species - Thetys, solitary phase. To 33 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

I was intrigued how an animal that lives in the open Ocean and depends on plankton could be so big?

How could it filter enough plankton out of the water?

Pelagic tunicate. Salp species - Thetys, solitary phase. To 33 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

I came upon research from MIT (2010) that revealed how salps could get enough nutrients to be so big and fast growing.  Their mucus nets are astounding in how they are able to trap incredibly small-sized plankton. With this find, the researchers referenced salps as “the vacuum cleaners of the ocean” and confirmed how important they are because of what they do to huge volumes of climate-changing carbon.

In the Oceanus Magazine article Salps Catch the Ocean’s Tiniest Organisms, the researchers explain “As they eat, they [the salps] consume a very broad range of carbon-containing particles and efficiently pack the carbon into large, dense fecal pellets that sink rapidly to the ocean depths, Madin said. “This removes carbon from the surface waters,” Sutherland said, “and brings it to a depth where you won’t see it again for years to centuries.” And more carbon sinking to the bottom reduces the amount and concentration of carbon in the upper ocean, letting more carbon dioxide enter the ocean from the atmosphere, explained Stocker” [thereby reducing the amount in the atmosphere where it impacts climate.]

I of course also hoped to find a good photo or video of the salp chain of this species (the aggregate form) and came upon this 1-minute clip by Patrick Anders Webster (taken off the coast of central California).

Wow!!! Mind-blown again.

 

And below, an additional video from Patrick from May 2016, also off the coast of California.

 

[*You may have noticed that the full scientific name for this tunicate species is Thetys vagina as assigned by the German naturalist Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius von Tilenau in 1802. Likely at that time, “vagina” did not yet have its anatomical meaning and the species name was chosen for the Latin origin of the word meaning “wrapper” / “sheath”.]

 

Further information:

Scripps zooplankton guide – https://scripps.ucsd.edu/zooplanktonguide/species/thetys-vagina

Jelly Zone – http://jellieszone.com/pelagic-tunicates/thetys/