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 MEGAFAUNA’ category

Giving It to You Straight – Toothshell Hermit Crabs and Wampum Tuskshells

Giving it to you straight!
This was my most exciting “find” for April.

This is a Toothshell Hermit Crab in the shell of a Wampum Tuskshell. The shells were used as currency by First Nations. Read on!

THIS species of hermit crab does not have curled body to hook and hold a snail shell home (like most hermit crabs).

THIS hermit crab species’ body is straight which means that it can’t live in a shell made by a marine snail. Its niche is to fit into the straight shells of Tuskshells or, if need be, the tube of calcareous tubeworm species* which is also straight.

Toothshell Hermit Crabs are only up to 0.8 cm long (Orthopagurus minimus).

Wampum Tuskshells are to only 5 cm long (Antalis pretiosa). They are molluscs belonging to the Tuskshell class (Scaphopoda).

My excitement is about this hermit crab species’ adaptations and that it is so rare to see a Tuskshell because they are usually burrowed deep in the sandy or shell bottom. The best chance of seeing one is as the home of a Toothshell Hermit. But then, there’s ALSO the great cultural significance of Tuskshells!

Wampum Tuskshells burrow themselves into the ocean bottom with their foot and use their sticky tentacles to trap microscopic food particles and move them to their mouths. Specifically, they are reported to feed on single-celled amoeboid protists called forminifera.
Crappy sketch is by yours truly.

Tuskshell species (also known as Dentalia and Toothshells) are of great importance to First Nations. They were used as currency and are still used in regalia in some areas.

The shells of these snails were used for over 2,500 years from what is now known as the Arctic to Baja California and across to the Great Lakes. The most important species of tuskshell is reported to have been the one I chanced upon recently, the Wampum Tuskshell.

One of the most important areas for harvesting these animals for their shells (know as hiqua / haiqua) was Quatsino Sound off northwest Vancouver Island.

The snail’s previous scientific name even translates into “valuable tooth” = Dentalium pretiosum. In part what made tuskshells so valuable was that they were difficult to get. But, not only were they scarce, they were also great as currency because of their beauty, being easy to transport, and because they could not be counterfeited.

The snail is often found in deeper water (between 9 to 75 m), burrowed in the sand. The Quatsino People engineered a way of catching them with an apparatus that looks like the head of a broom. To get this down to the shells, stick extensions were added a length at a time to get as deep as 21 m. All this while working from a canoe!

I hope this little hermit crab, in this little shell, adds to a BIG world of connection for you.

Photo from the Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
Accompanying text: “Tooth or tusk shells commonly referred to as #dentalium is a scaphopod mollusk. Dentalium was harvested off the coast of Vancouver Island, Canada by tribes. Today, most commercial dentalium is harvested and sold from Asia. In the Plains, dentalium was a highly sought after trade product from the Plateau Tribes. Beautiful hues of smooth pink and white were prized and revered by Lakota, Dakota, and Nakoda women. Artists created dress capes, earrings, hair ornaments, and chokers to wear during times of ceremony and celebration.

Dress detail, #Lakota Northern Plains, ca. 1885. Selvage wool, dentalium shells, glass beads, silk ribbon, cotton thread. NA.202.40.”
From Money from the Sea: A Cross-cultural Indigenous Science Problem-solving Activity by Gloria Snively. Left: “The Dentalium “broom” was lowered to the shell beds by adding extensions to the handle. Illustration by Laura Corsiglia (2007).” Right: [In 1991, Phil Nuytten reconstructed the broom and submerged in his “Newt Suit” to observe how the broom worked.] “Phil Nuytten’s dentalia-harvesting broom outfitted with a weighted board. Loosening the ropes lowers the weighted board, an action that partially closes the broom head for grasping the shells. Illustration by Laura Corsiglia (2007).
From Money from the Sea: A Cross-cultural Indigenous Science Problem-solving Activity by Gloria Snively. “Extent of dentalium trade. Illustration by Karen Gillmore.”
Another perspective on the same Toothshell Hermit Crab I chanced upon on April 8, 2023 while diving north of Port Hardy in the Territory of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw (the Kwak̕wala-speaking Peoples) with God’s Pocket Resort. Depth was around 13 meters. Dive buddy Natasha Dickinson.

See below for additional information from the wonderful lesson plan from the book edited by Gloria Snively and Wanosts’a7 Lorna Williams – Knowing Home: Braiding Indigenous Science with Western Science.

Dentalium Shell Money Story

“For 2,500 years, until the early 20th century, North American Indigenous peoples used the dazzling white cone-shaped shell of a marine mollusk as currency. Dentalium pretiosum [note that the species was reclassified to Antalis pretiosa] is a . . . mollusk of the class Scaphopoda, a group also known as tusk shells because of their slightly curved, conical shape . . . Dentalia inhabit coarse, clean sand on the surface of the seabed in areas of deep water, and are often found in association with sand dollars and the purple olive snail (Olivella biplicata).

As predators, they use their streamlined shape and muscular foot to move surprisingly quickly in pursuit of tiny single-celled prey called forminifera. Aboriginal peoples used many substances as trade goods, but dentalia were the only shells to become currency. Harvested from deep waters off the coast of Vancouver Island, they were beautiful, scarce, portable, and not easily counterfeited.

In 1778, Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy visited the village of Yuquot (Friendly Cove) on Nootka Island off the west coast of Vancouver Island, BC. The island’s fur trading potential led the British East India Company to set up a trading post at Yuquot, which became a focal point for English, Spanish, and American traders and explorers.

Trade between Euro-Americans and Aboriginal peoples was initially conducted under the watchful eye of a powerful chief named Maquinna who acted as middleman, purchasing sea otter pelts using dentalia as currency and then reselling the pelts to white traders in exchange for other goods.

Once the white traders realized that shells were used as money, they began trading directly with dentalia harvesters among the Nuu-cha-nulth and Kwakwaka‘wakw people. The center of the fur trade subsequently moved to Nahwitti, a Kwakwaka‘wakw village on the northern tip of Vancouver Island (Nuytten, 2008b, p. 23), and dentalium shell money became a currency of cross-cultural trade, called Hy‘kwa in Chinook Jargon—a trade language spoken as a lingua franca in the Pacific Northwest during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The currency was used throughout Alaska, down the Pacific coast as far as Baja California, and across the prairies of the United States and southern Canada to the Great Lakes.

In addition to their use as currency, the pearly white dentalium shells also served as decorative wealth. They were fashioned into necklaces, bracelets, hair adornments, and dolls. The shells also decorated the clothing of both men and women.

It is generally agreed that the best dentalium shells were those harvested by the Ehattesaht and Quatsino people from shell beds off the west coast of Vancouver Island. These beds lay deep underwater—too deep for divers to hold their breath, too dark for them to see, and too cold to sustain a diving operation—so the Quatsino people designed specialized gear to harvest the money shells. Historical records indicate that a device with a very long handle and a bottom end resembling a “great, stiff broom” was used to pluck live dentalia from the seabed . . . Three of these implements still exist in museums in Victoria, British Columbia and Seattle, Washington.”

4-minute video from December 2022: “Hunter Old Elk, Assistant Curator of the Center of the West’s Plains Indian Museum, shows us a Dakota dress cape adorned with 1,500 – 2,000 dentalium shells

Please note that dentalia / tuskshells do not move from one shell to the other. Their shell grows.

From the Oregon Historical Society:

Tuskshells / Dentalia ” . . . were of great value prized mark of wealth and status, typically displayed as ornaments in clothing and headdresses, used as jewelry, and even used in some places as a type of currency.

Most dentalium entering the indigenous trade network of the Pacific Northwest originated off the coast of Vancouver Island. Chicklisaht, Kyuquot, and Ehattesaht communities of the Northern Nuu-chah-nulth, inhabitants of the west coast of the island, were the primary source of the shells. However, the Kwakwaka’wakw of Quatsino Sound and Cape Scott, on the eastern coast, were also large producers. Harvesters would work from their ocean-going canoes, extending specially-constructed long poles to the dentalium beds on the ocean floor. At the end of the long poles were large brushes that were pushed into the mollusk beds, ensnaring dentalium in the process.”


Gloria Snively and Wanosts’a7 Lorna Williams (2016) – Knowing Home: Braiding Indigenous Science with Western Science, Chapter 11 – Money from the Sea: A Cross-cultural Indigenous Science Problem-solving Activity

Quartux Journal – Dentalia Shell Money: Hi-qua, Alika-chik

Oregon Historical Society (2003) – Dentalia Shell & Bead Necklace

Coast View (2022) – Quatsino, Quatsino Sound

Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (2022) – The currency of dentalium shells 

National Geographic Magazine (1993) via Dentalia Harvesting

The Midden (1990) – A Curious Currency Part 1: Haiqua shells on the Northwest Coast in the 19th century

*Note that there is another straight-bodied species of hermit crab in the northeast Pacific Ocean whose home is almost always the tubes of calcareous Tubeworms; the Tubeworm Hermit (Discorsopagurus schmitti).

From National Geographic Magazine (1993) via Dentalia Harvesting

 Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus

One of the services I like to provide here on The Marine Detective, is to share words you can try to randomly drop into conversations and annoy your friends. You’re welcome. It’s a task I take very seriously.

Yes, there really is an animal with the scientific name Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus and to me, they look like they have been designed by Dr. Seuss himself. Their common name is the Raspberry Hydroid and they have beautiful predators too.

Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus to 5 cm tall ©Jackie Hildering, The Marine Detective.

The common name for Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus is the Raspberry Hydroid. They were only described as a new species in 2013 by northern Vancouver Island’s own Anita Brinckmann-Voss who lived in Sointula. The research paper is at this link.

Their specific nudibranch prey are Pomegranate Aeolids. To my knowledge, the only documentations for both species, to date, are near Telegraph Cove (Weynton Pass) and Quadra Island (Discovery Passage). I can certainly attest to how fortunate we are to see them so predictably near Telegraph Cove.

What you see here, in addition to Raspberry Hydroids and a Pomegranate Aeolid nudibranch, are Mushroom Compound Tunicates, and a feeding Giant Acorn Barnacle.

See below for more information about both species. Oh, and if you ever are able to use the word “Zyzzyzus” in a word game because of this post, I expect a thank you! 😉

Descriptor for the above photo:


(1) Nudibranch species the Pomegranate Aeolid (Cuthonella punicea to 2.5 cm).

(2)Their only known prey, the stinging celled animals Raspberry Hydroids (Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus to 5 cm tall).

(3) The nudibranchs’ egg masses / strings. As is the way with sea slugs, they most often lay their eggs on their prey. Talk about adding insult to injury. I eat you and I lay my eggs on you so there will be more of my kind to prey on your kind. 😉

More Pomegranate Aeolids feeding on Raspberry Hydroids. This is a female colony. The round structures are female gonophores which may contain embryos.

More about hydroids:

Almost all hydroid species are colonial. They are carnivores. Hydroids are related to jellies, anemones, and corals (phylum Cnidarian).

The reproduction of hydroids is remarkable. Colonies are male or female. They start by reproducing asexually by budding off hydromedusa – tiny free-swimming, jellyfish-like versions of themselves. These produce either eggs or sperm. Fertilization of the eggs leads to larvae that may settle on the ocean bottom and form colonies.

Hydroids catch drifting prey with their polyps aided by their nematocysts (stinging cells). None of the hydroid species off our coast deliver a sting that we humans can feel (no matter how sensitive you are 😉).

The food gets distributed throughout their single-sex colony.

And who loves to eat species of hydroids? Nudibranchs! Specifically, the aeolid kinds of nudibranchs – they have those bushy structures on their backs (cerata). Many of these nudibranch species not only rely on the hydroids for nutrition but also make use of their prey’s stinging cells! The nematocysts get incorporated into the ends of the cerata.

Brinckmann-Voss, A., & Calder, D. R. 2013. Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus (Cnidaria, Hydrozoa, Tubulariidae), a new species of anthoathecate hydroid from the coast of British Columbia, Canada. Zootaxa 3666: 389-397

A Mystery from Poppy

Hello Dear Community,

I’ve saved my favourite 2022 marine mystery for you until now.

It’s from Poppy who was in British Columbia visiting from England with her father, sister Maya, grandpa and grandma.

Poppy found these on a beach on Malcolm Island and they were photographed on the back of a cell phone.

It actually hurt my head to try to figure this out. I knew that I SHOULD know what they were but just not make the ID take shape. In wanting to get the answer to Poppy as soon as possible, I reached out to expertise greater than my own. I suspected I would have a big face-palming moment of “but of course” when the shells were identified.

And indeed that happened.

Take a moment to try to determine the ID yourself? Then scroll down for the answer.

Are you sure you want to see the answer?

Here goes!

Of course! 🤦‍♀️ They are the parts of the shell of a barnacle that open and close!

The answer that came from naturalist supreme Bill Merilees was: “What you have here is a barnacle valve – one of the ‘flaps’ that opens to allow the feeding tentacles to strain food from the water column. Great photo of this unusual shell exoskeleton!

This led me to try to figure out what barnacle species these might come from and what the names of the structures were.

I believe the most specific ID is that these are the opercular plates of a Thatched Acorn Barnacle. The two parts are the tergum and scutum.

Below are some of my photos of another barnacle species, the Giant Acorn Barnacle (Balanus nubilus) which might help in recognizing the shells. Isn’t it wondrous? All barnacle species start off a plankton and then form their own intricate shells so that their foot can extend out to rake in food.

Happy New Year to you. May the next year be filled with happy mysteries, wonder, and empowerment for positive change.

Sources of illustrations:

Coletti, Giovanni & Bosio, Giulia & Collareta, Alberto & Buckeridge, John & Consani, Sirio & El Kateb, Akram. (2018). Palaeoenvironmental analysis of the Miocene barnacle facies: Case studies from Europe and South America. Geologica Carpathica. 69. 573-592. 10.1515/geoca-2018-0034. 

Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, Semibalanus cariosus – A thatched barnacle

Find The Fish – Volume Three!

There are now THREE Find the Fish books.

Here’s the cover of my latest book, now available at this link.

I loved that the online “The Marine Detective” community overwhelmingly chose this image for the cover showing a juvenile Yellowtail Rockfish hiding in the shell of a Red Urchin. The urchin may have lived to be more than 100 years old.

As many of you know from my weekly “Find the Fish Friday” posts, these are eye-spy challenges.

The books are the “Where’s Waldo” of the marine world. In addition to being fun, they are aimed and increasing knowledge about how diverse and colourful the life is in these cold, dark waters. The text provides information about the species in the images and invites children (and the adults who love them) to look for other species as well as the featured fish.

All photos and text are by yours truly with fish illustrations generously provided by Andy Lamb of Coastal Fishes of the Pacific Northwest. 

The trifecta! The books are soft-cover and answer pages are included showing the locations of the fish.  
The books are self-published as Marine Matters Publishing. 

It gives me much joy that this third book in particular allows the facets of my life to come together – diving, photography, whale research and teaching. I dare say Find the Fish – Volume Three is the only children’s book that gives insight into the diversity of life off our coast while ALSO providing empowering scientific content about Sea Star Wasting Syndrome and our Marine Education & Research Society research into a new Humpback Whale feeding strategy.

And hey, the featured wildlife includes a Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker, Wolf-Eels, Scalyhead Sculpins (of course) and three of my beloved dive buddies!

Please see the sample pages below. There are 12 challenges with answer pages, an introductory page and a final page about “The Marine Detective”.

To order or see more information about the books, please click here.  

Take a Stand for Giants – 15 minutes or less of your time

[To jump directly to providing your input into the public consultation survey, click here.
Below I provide background and my answers to the survey in case that is helpful to you.]

The first Fin Whale I ever saw was killed by a large vessel.
Please don’t stop reading.

There’s urgency about what will happen with the protection of Fin Whales in British Columbian waters. And, there is something Canadians can do to take a stand that takes very little time.

Right now, it is being put forward that the protection of Fin Whales be REDUCED under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.  This is being considered when so little is known about them and their threats are increasing.

– We whaled them up to 55 years ago and it is not known how many there are now or if there is more than one population.

It is known that their threats are increasing. Fin Whales are particularly vulnerable to being hit by boats. They feed where there will be increased large vessel traffic, including LNG tankers. This will also increase disturbance from noise. Further, the changing climate will impact their prey. There has also already been an “Unusual Mortality Event” where is it is believed that warmer water led to more toxins being in the whales’ prey (domoic acid from Red Tide Algae).

The process determining if the protection of Fin Whales will be reduced in Canada or not involves an opportunity for public comment. This is not a petition. It is using YOUR voice to be part of the federal process that will determine the fate of Fin Whales. The deadline for comment is December 2nd, 2022. It is a short survey.

I share the above graphic showing the fate of that first Fin Whale I saw because I think it helps make clear how the second biggest animal in the world can be so vulnerable. Nature versus human technology, efficiency, ingenuity and, disconnect.

The reality of that first Fin Whale I ever saw is known because he got hooked up on the bulbous bow of the cruise ship after being hit. Apparently, no one on the vessel felt the impact. The fate of the whale was only known when the cruise ship came into the harbour in Vancouver.

It must have been the same Fin Whale we saw that day near Telegraph Cove because Fin Whales are such a rarity on the inside of Vancouver Island. We first saw the Fin Whale, and then we saw the cruise ship. And yes, this is the Fin Whale whose skeleton with shattered vertebrae now hangs in the Whale Interpretive Centre in Telegraph Cove.

Standing under the skeleton of the first Fin Whale I ever saw. Photo by Phil Stone Photography.

It’s so important to understand that the evolution (or creation) of toothed whales like Orca, required them to have biosonar / echolocation to detect their prey, etc. Baleen whales like Fin Whales and Humpback Whales do not have this biosonar. So often these giants are oblivious of boats, and many boaters are oblivious to how different these whales are. 

You may never have seen a Fin Whale. In fact, the only one known to be in the Salish Sea this year was killed by a boat. I’ll spare you the photos of him but you can see more detail at this link.

Fin Whales are more often off the Central and North Coast, Haida Gwaii, or in BC’s vast offshore waters. In having the privilege of doing surveys in these areas, I’ve seen them, and the overlap with large vessel traffic.

If the protection of Fin Whales is reduced, one of the most dire consequences is that there will be no determination nor protection of their habitat needs. There will also be far less priority for research into how many there are and how to reduce threats.

So about that short survey to provide your input.

The questions in the survey are simple.
Below, I provide the three main questions and answers that may be of use to you.

For more detail, see this link for the media release we did as the Marine Education and Research Society and the North Coast Cetacean Society.

The survey for public consultation is at this link.

My answers are below.

You will note that the survey only allows for brief answers which is why I have pointed to our media release which provides detail about the concerns.

1. Do you think the reclassification of Fin Whale (Pacific Population) from Threatened to Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act would have economic, environmental, cultural and/or social BENEFITS for you or your group/organization?

No. There would be no benefits to reducing protection for a species for whom threats are increasing and for which too little is known to justify reducing protection.

2. Do you think the reclassification of Fin Whale (Pacific Population) from Threatened to Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act would have economic, environmental, cultural and/or social COSTS for you or your group/organization?

Yes. There are significant societal costs to choosing to reduce protection for a species for which not enough is known about their population while threats are known to be increasing. This includes that it is acknowledged how vulnerable Fin Whales are to being hit by boats; that it is not known how many there are; and that it is certain that there will be increased vessel traffic and that increasing temperatures can impact their prey.

3. Should the Government of Canada reclassify the Fin Whale (Pacific Population) from Threatened to Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act?

It is the antithesis of precaution to reduce the protection of Fin Whales when there is so much that is not known about their population and when threats are increasing due to climate change, noise, and risk of collision.

As above, the limits on the length of answers in this survey (at only 500 characters for this question), did not allow for the appropriate opportunity to provide feedback. Therefore, reference this link for my concerns

4. Please provide any other comments about this reclassification consultation that you would like us to consider.

As above, it is not sufficient that the limits on the number of characters/words in this survey (at only ~500 characters / 80 words), did not allow for the appropriate opportunity to provide feedback on concerns. Thereby see the following link for my concerns

It’s not a show . . .

I wrote the following in my role with the Marine Education and Research Society to accompany the graphic below. Our efforts include workshops on Marine Mammal Regulations and the ethics of imagery and language used by mainstream and social media.

It is so jarring and unfortunate when wildlife encounters are described with language like “the whales put on a show for us”. No, they didn’t.

How I hope my words resound with you.

“It’s not a show.

Wildlife does not perform for humans.
Whales do not “put on a show” for us.

Words matter.
Words reflect, and perpetuate, our values and actions.

Thankfully, society has come a long way in understanding our connection to the natural world.

May our words reflect that we know the privilege of observing wild animals, living wild lives.

Not “for us”.
Not “up close and personal”.

Rather, may we value most that what we observe in the wild happens . . . as if we weren’t there.”

The graphic is available as a sticker or card at our MERS Ocean Store. The card includes the above text.
All sales support our research and education efforts.

Illustration made by friend Dawn Dudek based on a photo I took of Humpback Whale Inukshuk (BCZ0339) while conducting research for the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) under Marine Mammal License MML-57.

Related posts:
Whale Watching – Not “Up-Close-and-Personal!” How to make a good choice?

To Think Before We Click

Found! Cryptic Nudibranch

I finally observed some of the most cryptic nudibranchs on our coast! 💙

The Cryptic Nudibranchs you see here are only about 1 cm long and look at how astoundingly evolved they are! They are virtually invisible on the Kelp-encrusting Bryozoan which is growing on Bull Kelp at this time of year. This species of nudibranch is also known as Steinberg’s corambe (Corambe stinbergae to 1.7 cm).

You can see in the photos here that we found some of the nudibranchs mating and there were many of their egg ribbons (each of those coils has a lot of eggs that result from both parents becoming inseminated and laying eggs).

You can also see where they have been feeding on the bryozoans (colonies of animals).

I have looked for them for years knowing their range is from Alaska to Baja California, Mexico.

Mating: Right-side-to-right-side attached via the gonophores. Both hermaphrodite parents lay eggs.

What made the difference in now being able to find them:

(1) Getting the clue from Robin Agarwal to look at the kelp fronds that were REALLY tattered with the Kelp-encrusting Bryozoan colonies .

(2) Having a skilled dive buddy willing to join me in burying our heads in old, tattered kelp in the surge for 30 minutes instead of looking at all the big, colourful life at this dive site. Thank you Janice Crook!

(3) Once we knew what the egg ribbons looked like (those s-shaped little masses), we had a really good clue and knew better where to look even more closely for the nudibranchs.

Now on to finding the SECOND really cryptic nudibranch species that feeds on Kelp Encrusting Bryozoans – Corambe pacifica to 1.5 cm long and whose egg masses are tiny, flat coils.

For more photos and my previous blog on what Kelp-encrusting Bryozoans look like, please see my other blog “Kelp Lace? Bryozoans”.

Photos: September 19, 2022, Browning Pass ©Jackie Hildering, The Marine Detective.

Happy dive buddies
– Janice Crook and yours truly.

Scuba Sisters

Here’s to the salty sisterhood of cold-water divers (and the men with whom we submerge). I am a week late with posting this for “Women’s Dive Day”. Yes, it’s been busy.

But, it’s still really important to me to put these photos into the world and reflect on how much this sisterhood means to me, and why. I have tears in my eyes as I type this, so apparently, the feelings run deep.

Scuba sister Jacqui Engel with Egg Yolk Jelly.

Why? Because you may have noticed that, by some, there is an increasing downward pressure on womxn in an attempt to limit the spaces in which we expand and the choices we WILL make. Because some want to hold on to the assumption of inherent privilege based on the absurd “criteria” of skin pigmentation; whether one’s chromosomes have one X or two; or gender identification. Because some fight equality to claim superiority.

I now have some pretty good expletives in my head which I will not type here.

Scuba sister Natasha Dickinson and Sunflower Star. We documented the same one over a span of 71 days. It’s the sea star species that was / is impacted the most by Sea Star Wasting. This individual is on an anchor block covered with encrusting coralline algae.

Of many examples of times it has become very clear to me that being a womxn* in science and scuba is important, let me share the following:

On a really hot day, I was “show and tell” for two children in our community. I dressed up in all my dive gear (the full weight and heat of it) and walked down the hallway and into the classroom with Cayden’s little hand in mine on one side, and Sophia’s little hand in mine on the other.

I walked in as a surprise to the other students. I then was gifted the time to talk about the science of the dive gear and the life that lived in the cold Ocean; our neighbours who were just below the surface of where we lived.

I took the equipment off piece by piece after explaining what it did. The children chose to try to lift the weights and cylinder and we discussed pressure and buoyancy (always good metaphors 🙂 ).

In the course of this, among so many moments the filled my heart, a little boy looked up at me. He had such an open expression on his face and he said . . . “You’re my first scuba diver”.

I was his first scuba diver – me an older woman, speaking for science and the sea, engaging not in an elevated way but in a way that invited them all to follow where their loves took them, and yes, I was wearing a bright green tutu.

Scuba sister Janice Crook.

How does this help shape the future? We will never know will we? We are all projecting our energies and images into places where we might increase what is good in the world, or suppress it.

From the depths, love to you my scuba sisters, and to the men we swim beside. Respect and gratitude to all who shine their light so that others may follow; who do NOT push others down in an attempt to feel elevated. That’s such a tragic and transparent indicator of being a hollow human.

Below: A slideshow to honour some scuba sisters.

For those that may not have seen the use of “womxn” before. The spelling of womxn is a feminist choice in two ways. It removes the “m-a-n” from “woman” and “m-e-n” from “women”. It’s also an acknowledgement that I am including trans and non-binary humans when I use the word.

Worms That Bite Anemones?!

Okay, this is a true mystery.

I have relayed my observations to marine worm researchers but want to share with you too. It’s just too fascinating not to do so. These finds emphasize yet again how little we know even about marine species that are just below the surface. I also hope that by sharing my observations here, it may lead to other divers being on the lookout for these interactions and potentially adding to the knowledge about interactions between necklace-worms and anemones.

Necklace-worm species #1 and Proliferating Anemone – January 1st, 2008.
Necklace-worm species #2 and Short Plumose Anemones – March 6, 2022.

My observations involve what I believe are two species of necklace-worm. Each is interacting with a different species of anemone. In both cases, the species of necklace-worm is unconfirmed. The polychaete* researchers I have been in contact with have asked for samples of the worms to allow for microscopic examination and potential DNA analysis.

*Polychaetes are the “many-bristled” worms. They are worms that have a pair of paddle-like appendages / bristles on each segment. Most species of worm in this class are found in the ocean or in brackish water and there are about 15,000 known species globally. Polychaetes “are ubiquitous in the ocean, burrowing and hunting in the sand, crawling on algal covered rocks, living in self-made tubes, or swimming in the water” (Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, 2013).

Note that observations and photos here are from the Pearse Islands and Plumper Islands on northeast Vancouver Island in the territory of the Kwakwaka’wakw in depths less than 17 metres / 50 feet.

Necklace-Worm Species #1 and Proliferating Anemones:
I have written about this previously but include the observations here again so that the information about these necklace-worm / anemone interactions is bundled in one place. It involves a species of necklace worm appearing to bite into Proliferating Anemones (Epiactis prolifera to 8 cm wide).

My first observation of this interaction goes back all the way to 2008 when I documented the following thanks to the keen eye of my dive buddy Natasha Dickinson.

Both photos: Necklace-worm species #1 appears to be biting into a Proliferating Anemone – January 1st, 2008.

I do not know if the necklace-worm dislodged the anemone of if the anemone let go in an attempt to get away. We came upon this scene when the anemone was already upside down.

I have only noted this interaction twice since then. See photos below.

Necklace-worm species #1 and Proliferating Anemone – February 15, 2015. Note the “casings” the worms are in on the left.
Necklace-worm species #1 on the right and Proliferating Anemones – February 22, 2020. [Yes, on the left, those are babies of multiple ages hanging onto their mother. More about that at this link.]

For those who have Lamb and Hanby’s Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest, you may note that this species of necklace-worm looks like AN22 which is referenced as a “mystery necklace-worm”. But again, collection of a sample would be needed to confirm species ID.

Necklace-Worm Species #2 and Short Plumose Anemones:

On February 12, 2022 I saw THIS.

Necklace-worm species #2, Short Plumose Anemones AND the spaces where these anemones used to be. Many of these anemones are retracted. Photo February 12, 2022.

There are necklace-worms in those slime tubes! Where you see the circles is where other Short Plumose Anemones once were (Metridium senile to 10 cm tall and 4 cm across).

Close-up showing the necklace-worms. Photo February 12, 2022.

Were they always at this site? I have done a quick review of past photos and see a few of them in photos back to 2013. Variables in why I may not have noticed them before are that: (1) they were much more apparent as a result of the dislodged anemones; (2) there may be more of them now; and (3) we usually don’t focus on the spot where the concentration of these worms were (we usually dive deeper).

Here’s another photo from that dive to give a better sense of the size of the worms. That Blood Star is about 15 cm long. Photo February 12, 2022.

So TODAY’S mission was to return to this dive site and focus on the interaction between this species of necklace-worm and Short Plumose Anemones. How abundant are they? Are they biting the anemones?Are the worms anywhere other than around Short Plumose Anemones? Are the anemones using their acontia as a defense against the worms? Acontia are defensive strands filled with stinging cells (nematocysts) that are ejected when an anemone is irritated / threatened / stressed. The acontia can extend far beyond the anemone, providing longer distance defense than the stinging cells in an anemone’s tentacles.

Dive buddy Natasha Dickinson today. This is the exact same spot as what you see in the images from February 12th above. I contrast the two photos at the very end of this blog so you can see how things have changed after 22 days. Of course I do not know how much the anemones would move around in the absence of the worms.

To answer those questions:
– I found the slime tubes almost everywhere there were Short Plumose Anemones at this site. I did not find them anywhere else i.e. this species of necklace-worm’s slime tubes were only around Short Plumose Anemones.
– I only found a few Short Plumose Anemones using their acontia but it seems more likely that they were being used against other anemones. I cannot know if the anemones dislodge themselves as a defense. There were only a few places where there were the circles of slime tubes where an anemone had once been. There were far more places where the slime tubes were in amongst Short Plumose Anemones.
– YES I do believe this species of necklace-worm is biting into the Short Plumose Anemones. See below for abundant photos from today.

Some Short Plumose Anemones using their acontia. See those little white strands?

I will of course provide updates as I learn more via the researchers and other divers / underwater photographers. As always, I hope it is a source of wonder for you to learn more about these species, their adaptations and interactions, AND how much we humans still have to learn about the natural world around us. 🙂

All photos below are from March 6, 2022.

Taking a bite? Also looks like this anemone is about to undergo “pedal laceration” to reproduce asexually.
Here too it looks like some of the anemones are in the process of pedal laceration = form of asexual reproduction.

Below, you can contrast the same spot after 22 days. There has been a lot of change but again, I do not know how much the anemones would move around and/or dislodge in the absence of the worms. Oh no, is this now going to be my life? In addition to trying to document individual Humpback Wales and Tiger Rockfish, now I am going to try to document individual Short Plumose Anemones?! Probably.

My additional photos below are from March 19 2023, providing further documentation of Necklace Worm species #2 targeting the Short Plumose Anemones and possibly stimulating pedal laceration and acontial defense.

It’s a Really Good Time to Be . . .

Yesterday, we found two Sunflower Stars!

See the juvenile here to the right of my buddy Natasha? There, right beside the mating Yellow-Rimmed Nudibranchs. This Sunflower Star was in just 5 metres of water.

Today’s two Sunflower Stars are the first I have seen in twelve hours underwater over the last three months and believe me, I have been looking. I only saw one before that. They are such a rarity now. Will these two survive? I have seen waves of juveniles before and then they disappear. Their plight appears to be linked to climate change.

Hope? With action . . . yes, there is shining hope.

Without action . . . no.

Please hang in there. Please read on.

I have been struggling too, looking for escape / reprieve from global realities as another “atmospheric river” is forecast to fall on parts of our province. It is so tempting to want to hide especially if we see the problems we are facing as disparate. They are not.

I have had to remind myself of the common solutions so that I see a way forward that is not guided by the faintness of blind hope; paralyzed by fear and overwhelm; and / or obfuscated by the din of values and voices that serve the few for a brief time.

Common solutions include: to know, live and share the GAINS that come from using LESS (fossil fuels, dangerous chemicals, disposables, less consumerism generally); to speak for truth and science and to have compassion for those who cannot; to exercise our power as voters and consumers to serve future generations; and to care and act on the knowledge of connection to others – across time, cultures, distance, and species.

In short, it’s a really good time to be a good human. 💙

I had to dig for these words for myself. As always, may they serve you too.

Photos: November 21 in Kwakwaka’wakw Territory near Port Hardy at a site where I have been monitoring sea star since 2013, ©Jackie Hildering.

The same juvenile Sunflower Star a few minutes earlier. Notice the fish? There’s a Painted Greenling on the left and a Blackeye Goby on the right.

For those who are not yet aware, I include the reality of Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) below. A link to a summary of the research and where to report sightings is in my blog at this link.

The other Sunflower Star we saw yesterday.

Since 2013, more than 20 species of sea star have been impacted by SSWD from Mexico to Alaska. There is local variation in intensity of the disease and which species are impacted. It is one of the largest wildlife die-off events in recorded history. Sea stars contort, have lesions, shed arms, and become piles of decay.

Currently, some species of sea star appear to have recovered while others remain very heavily impacted. Sunflower Stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) have been devastated and were added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list as Critically Endangered. There are current efforts to have Sunflower Stars assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) with hopes that they receive protection under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

There is NOT scientific consensus about the cause. Current hypotheses focus on (i) a virus and (ii) low oxygen at the surface of the sea star’s skin maintained due to bacteria. What is consistent in is that changing environmental conditions appear to allow the pathogen (be it bacteria or viruses) to have a greater impact.

The best current source for a summary of the research is Hamilton et al (August, 2021). From that source: ” . . . outbreak severity may stem from an interaction between disease severity and warmer waters” and “Though we lack a mechanistic understanding of whether temperature or climate change triggered the SSWD outbreak, this study adds to existing evidence that the speed and severity of SSWD are greater in warmer waters”.

What I believe to be the reality off the coast of British Columbia is that there are refuges of Sunflower Stars at depth where it is colder. They spawn with some young then settling in the shallows where they may succumb to the pathogen if stressed by warmer water.

Close up on the second Sunflower Star. This one was at about 20 metres depth.