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

Posts tagged ‘biodiversity’

Submerge With Me . . .

Come into the dark and colour with me.

This 1.5 minute video is my attempt to bring the astounding biodiversity of the cold, rich waters of the NE Pacific Ocean to the surface.

If there is one thing I hope to achieve, it is to shatter the perception that — because you can’t see to the bottom — there must not be much life in these waters.

The opposite it true.
The reason you can’t see to the bottom is because there is SO much life.

Enjoy. Share! And please join me for Ocean Day on June 8th. Details below.

With GREAT thanks to Dawn Dudek for her support in reworking this slide show and to Hunter Molnar Stanton for her help with the first version.

Rose Star – No Two Alike

One species. So many colours.

That’s beauty. That’s biology.

Rose Stars have such diversity in colour and pattern, that the species is also known as the “Snowflake Star”; a name suggesting that no two are alike.

Am I trying to make some sort of point as it applies much more broadly? Why, whatever would make you think that? 😉

Surely we humans rejoice in the beauty of diversity?

Notice that above this Rose Star, there is another local, marine ambassador for diversity of colour within a species.See the Blue-Line Chiton (Tonicella undocaerulea)?

Please see additional photos (and slideshow) below to get a further sense of the diversity, the beauty, and the perfection.

Species information:

  • Crossaster papposus to 34 cm but in British Columbia the maximum size is believed to be 17 cm.
  • They can live to at least age 20. Species is slow growing. Maximum size is reached around age 10.
  • Even the number of arms varies. Most Rose Stars have 11 arms but number ranges from 8 to 16. From personal communication with zoologist Neil McDaniel: ” I did counts of 63 images I had on file [all from British  Columbia’ and nearly 90% (87%) had 11 arms, about 10% had 10 and 3% had 12.”
  • They are SPEEDY! Zoologist Neil McDaniel clocked them at 50 cm/min. Larger individuals were documented to travel over 5 meters in 12 hours. They are serious predators but may also be speedy because they are known to be prey for Sunflower Stars and Morning Sun Stars.
  • Diet is known to include sea pens, nudibranchs, bryozoans, bivalves (e.g. clams), juvenile urchins and tunicates. Their diet is likely broader than this as they are not picky eaters. I often see them in rocky habitats covered by coralline algae species (see photo below) and believe that is, at least in part, because the prey there include Orange Social Tunicates. They are one of the few species of sea star known to feed on nudibranchs. They also are known to have attacked other sea star species – Mottled Stars and Six-rayed Stars
  • How they feed: When they feel their prey, and are hungry, they retract their sensory tube feet (tube feet at the tips of their arms), and then stretch up on their tippy toes (extending their terminal tube feet) to be higher and able to “pounce” on their prey when on the ocean bottom. Smaller prey are swallowed whole. Larger prey are held with the tube feet and, as is the case with other sea star species too, they evert their stomach OUT OF THEIR BODIES and into or over their prey.
  • Research supports that Rose Stars can sense potential prey and other sea stars by smell (distance chemoreception).
  • In the photos below you will also see the intricacy of the surface of sea stars. You will see:
    • Spines
    • Pedicellaria = amazing little structures that can nip off the tube feet of other species of sea star e.g. the predatory Morning Sun Star (Solaster dawsoni).
    • The tufts are “papulae”. They are the gills / respiratory organs of the sea star. They can retract into the surface of the sea star’s body.
  • Range: Bering Sea to Puget Sound; Arctic Ocean, North Atlantic Ocean, North Sea, western Baltic Sea.
  • Depth: Found from the shallows of the intertidal to ~1,200 m. Believed to more often be in low current areas.
  • I saw little impact on this species from Sea Star Wasting Disease around NE Vancouver Island BUT Rose Stars were hit very badly in 2014 in other areas e.g. Sechelt Inlet, British Columbia (McDaniel, pers. comm.). See photo at the end of the blog. The species seems to be rebounding, unlikely Sunflower Stars which remain devastated across their range.
Rose Star and retracted Orange Zoanthids. Some are likely being snacked upon.
Very typical habitat for where I find Rose Stars. I believe their prey on these coralline algae covered rocks include the small orange animals you see = Orange Social Tunicates. Notice too that there is another Blue-Line Chiton. 

The next 3 images are of the same individual.



One of many Rose Star ravaged by Sea Star Wasting Disease near Sechelt, British Columbia.
Photo ©Neil McDaniel.
See Neil’s information about SSWD at this link.

Abseiling Sea Snail

Go ahead, say that 5 times “abseiling sea snail, abseiling sea snail, abseiling sea snail . . .”

Now that you’ve warmed up and possibly developed a lisp, here are some details about a marine snail species that can climb, has an incredible sense of smell, and can deter much bigger predators.

Meet the Wrinkled Amphissia. No, I do not make up these names.

Amphissa columbiana can be up to 3 cm long, and is also known as the “Wrinkled Dove Snail”. 



In this species, a gland near the foot secretes thick mucus that allows them to climb up and down and suspend themselves in the sea.

See the two photos below. I know it is so difficult to see the mucus strand.


Where are they abseiling to?

These marine snails are big time scavengers and are very active, using their long siphon to smell out the dead (photo below shows the siphon well).

It appears they can detect the chemicals of decay incredibly well in the water. Often a pile of them are scavenging together.

Wrinkled Amphissa amid Fringed Filament-Worms. If you look really closely you can even see some of the snail’s eggs attached the shell of the snail in the foreground. ©Jackie Hildering.


From Braidwaithe et al 2017 regarding feeding. “They appear to locate food resources primarily through chemosensory cues, often following conspecific mucus trails and sometimes congregating around actively feeding sea stars. The chemical cues that draw A. columbiana to food act as feeding stimulants; the addition of scent from a damaged animal induced the snails to feed on healthy prey. The ability to sense chemical cues from damaged animals, including those being consumed by feeding sea stars, creates scavenging opportunities other gastropods may be unable to exploit.”


Wrinkled Amphissa aggregation scavenging on a dead Rat Fish. The much larger snails feeding here are Oregon Tritons (Fusitron oregonensis to 13 cm long).The Tritons might follow the scent trails of the Amphissas to the food!


Photo above and below. Wrinkled Amphissas and Oregon Tritons snacking on a dead Lingcod. Nothing is wasted in the wild. ©Jackie Hildering.


They also have a wicked defense against sea stars where they insert their mouth parts (proboscis) into one of the grooves on the underside of the arms of predatory sea stars, biting a nerve.

From Braidwaithe et al  2010″The injury, which generally repelled the attacking sea star, immobilized the affected arm, rendering it useless for several days. The biting defense appears to be effective against several sea star species and may reduce predation on A. columbiana.” Some crab species do feed on them. 

Such remarkable adaptations in a sea of remarkable organisms which means I will be writing blogs and allotting abundant alliteration for a long, long time to come.

Adapting over thousands of years

I am sharing the photo below to give a sense of the diversity in the mollusc phylum to which snails belong.

“Mollis” means soft in Latin and the molluscs are our soft-bodied terrestrial and marine invertebrate neighbours. Their phylum is the second largest (the insects take first place). Note that all the organisms in this photo start off as larvae in the planktonic soup of the Ocean.

You can imagine how excited I was to chance upon  5 highly diverse marine mollusc species in one small area.


Details about the species in the photo:

– To the left of the Wrinkled Amphissa is a Keyhole Limpet who makes its own hat-like shell and grazes on rocks (preferred diet is bryozoans). Limpet species need to suction down hard on a flat surface because they do not have a shell to cover its underside. The individual here is in a risky position as a predator could easily flip and consume limpet. Too cool not to share with you is that engineers have found that the “teeth”  of limpets (the radula) are made of the strongest biological material ever tested (and the teeth are less than a millimetre long)! Note that marine snails like the Wrinkled Amphissa are protected not only by a shell, but they have an operculum which serves like a door to close the entrance to the shell when the snails withdrawn into its shell.

– Below the Wrinkled Amphissa, a Blue-Lined Chiton. Chitons make 8 plates to protect themselves. They are grazers like limpets. They too need to be able to suction down to protect themselves but do not need to be on a flat surface since the plates allow them to “contour” onto the surface.

– To the right of the Wrinkled Amphissa is a species of sea slug known as the Pomegranate Aeolid. It has “naked gills” and is therefore in the group of sea slugs known as “nudibranchs”. Sea slugs are marine mollusc without ANY shell or plates for protection. They are protected by feeding on animals with stinging cells (nematocysts) which become incorporated into those structures on its back (they are called cerata and also function as the naked gills for respiration). Specifically, Pomegranate Aeolids feed on Raspberry Hydroids which were only acknowledged as a new species in 2013. Scientific name is “Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus” and again, I do NOT make up these names. 🙂 See photo below.

– Below the chiton, if you look very carefully, is a very tiny sea slug species. I believe this is a Sea Cherub – a type of sea slug that swims and does not have naked gills (and therefore is not a nudibranch).

Not in the photo but to be considered too in the incredible diversity among marine molluscs is – octopuses!

Pomegranate Aeolid feeding on Raspberry Hydroids. ©Jackie Hildering.


Anita Brinckmann-Voss & Dale R. Calder (2013). Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus (Cnidaria, Hydrozoa, Tubulariidae), a new species of anthoathecate hydroid from the coast of British Columbia, Canada” (PDF). Zootaxa. 3666 (3): 389–397.

Lee F. Braithwaite, Anthony Rodríguez-Vargas, Miles Borgen, Brian L. Bingham  (2017).”Feeding Behavior of the Wrinkled Dove Snail Amphissa columbiana,” Northwest Science, 91(4), 356-366.

Lee F. Braithwaite, Bruce Stone, Brian L. Bingham (2010). “Defensive Behaviors of the Gastropod Amphissa columbiana,” Journal of Shellfish Research, 29(1), 217-222.

At a loss for words . . .

If a photo is worth a 1,000 words, will these 14 photos be worth 14,000?

Will they do more than “capture” a moment in the life of our marine neighbours?

Will they communicate the emotion felt when I pushed the shutter button: the overwhelming awe; the relief of humility, feeling smaller and more insignificant when witnessing the wild; and the gratitude and motivation at having second chances with these ambassadors of our life-sustaining seas?

I add them to the 100s of other photos shared in the hopes that, somehow, they relay what I cannot find the words to adequately express.

Into the world they go – to you.

These 14 photos were taken in less than 24 hours in one small area of the cold current-fed waters around NE Vancouver Island while I was aboard with Maple Leaf Adventures.

First three photos: Humpback Whale “Inukshuk” (BCZ0339) exploding out of the misty water. He was acrobatic for over 15 minutes. Threatened population.

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10453

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10456

Female mature Bald Eagle near nest in lichen-draped Cedars.

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10496

“Sonora” (A42) chasing salmon with her 4 offspring. “Northern Resident” Killer Whales are a Threatened population.

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10537

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10567

Pacific White-Sided Dolphins in mirror-calm seas this morning, socializing in a group of around 300 individuals.

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10637

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10675

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10688

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10692

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10698

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10725

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10648

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10759

Submerge . . .

Come away with me . . . spend 3 minutes submerged in the shallows of the eastern North Pacific, photographing jelly species.

There is no place I’d rather be than here, learning about the richness and wonder of life in these cold waters.

With huge gratitude to Roger McDonell – underwater videographer and dive buddy supreme – for having taken this video.




Video taken during our weekly dive as the Top Island Econauts Dive Club.

Vote for the 2014 WILD Calendar!

Hello dear The Marine Detective community, 

I would value your input into the 2014 WILD Northern Vancouver Island Calendar. 

I have been putting together this calendar of my images for years now, in order to hopefully raise awareness about the incredible beauty, diversity and fragility of our marine environment (and our connection to it).

You can help determine what images end up in the calendar by “voting” before the end of Oceans Day – June 8th, 2013. You can do so by one of three methods:

  1. If you have a FaceBook account, you can click “like” for your favourites in the album at this link.
  2. Otherwise, you can click this link on my photo page and by hovering over the larger image, a thumbs up or thumbs down symbol appears. 
  3. You can click one of the images below to start a slide show and then leave your comments under the images; a simple “vote” or “yes” would do. I suspect that this may be the most onerous method however! 

In determining what 12 images end up in the calendar, I will also have to reflect on the diversity of the images so that there is appropriate representation of the eastern N. Pacific marine ecosystem i.e. not just all whales or all fish. 

As always – all feedback welcome! 

You can see the last two years’ WILD calendar at this link. 


The Reason You Can’t See to the Bottom . . . .

The 1.5 minute video below is my attempt to bring the astounding biodiversity of the cold, rich waters of the NE Pacific Ocean to the surface.

If there is one thing I hope to achieve with my photography, it is to shatter the perception that — because you can’t see to the bottom — there must not be much life in these waters.

The opposite it true.

The reason you can’t see to the bottom is because there is SO much life.

Please feel free to share the video widely. Hopefully it will enhance people feeling a connection to the ocean, wanting to undertake further conservation, and understanding what is at stake with high risk projects that worship short term-economic gain at the cost of long-term environmental devastation — like increasing tanker traffic along British Columbia’s precious coast.



Infinite thanks to Hunter Molnar Stanton for her expertise in refining this video (and yes, there is a big typo 😉 ).

Two Dive Day

August 7, 2011

It seemed appropriate that, to relay the remarkable diversity of the two dives, I should let images speak louder than words. 

The most exceptional find was a baby grunt sculpin – no bigger than my finger tip.

Come underwater with me, just for 3 minutes to share in the awe.

Bottomless Biodiversity

It is understandable that the human psyche has trouble being mindful of what cannot easily be seen.  However, when it comes to marine conservation, this “out of sight, out of mind” perception carries a particularly high cost. 

The waters of the northeast Pacific are dark, making it very difficult to see into the depths.  This means many people are inclined to believe that more life is found in tropical waters, where you can peer right down to the ocean bottom and see colourful fish swimming about.

However, the exact opposite is true.

White-and-orange-tipped Nudibranch. Photo: Hildering.


Puget Sound King Crab. Photo: Hildering.


It is plankton – the fuel of the food chain – that creates the dark, emerald waters of the northeast Pacific. The plant-like plankton, known as “phytoplankton”, need light, oxygen and nutrients to grow.

While our area does not have more light than the tropics, cold water dissolves more oxygen and nutrients are better circulated due to the current caused by large tidal exchanges.

Basket Star. Photo: Hildering.


In fact, here, we’re so fortunate to have the potential of maintaining the formula for the greatest abundance and diversity of marine life: cold, clean, high-current waters that are dark with a thick, rich soup of plankton.

What motivates me to descend into these cold waters with my camera, is to collect the photographic evidence of just how rich and colourful our marine neighbours are . . . bringing the life into sight and, very hopefully, creating mindfulness of the great need for marine conservation. 

Hooded Nudibranch. Photo: Hildering.


Juvenile decorated warbonnet inside a boot sponge. Photo: Hildering.


Humpback whales BCX0022 (aka Houdini) and BCZ0004 (aka Stripe). Photo: Hildering.


To learn more about zooplankton, see the fantastic BioMEDIA site. Shows images of zooplankton and the adult organism it will turn into.

Diving After the Storm – My 600th Dive

Today, despite a powerful storm, I completed my 600th dive (thank you dear buddy, Jacqui Engel).

Vermillion rockfish.

Six hundred dives is not such a big deal if you are a warm water diver. However, the vast majority of my dives were in the cold waters of Northern Vancouver Island and, it does feel like a big deal.

I only started diving when I was 36. Now, at age 47, I have been diving less than 11 years and have thereby averaged a dive per week over this time. It’s the equivalent of about 19 days underwater.

I am not usually boastful (I think) but it seems really significant to acknowledge this milestone and to try to share why diving is so important to me.

In an attempt not to be too earnest though, I try to express “Why Dive?” by way of some bad poetry.

Why Dive?

Opalescent nudibranch.

Constricted by my dry suit,
Thirty pounds bound to my waist,
Hunchbacked by my cylinder,
A mask suctioned to my face,

I leave the world we’ve cultivated,
To attempt to meet our every whim,
To where Nature’s voice can still be heard,
Far above civilization’s din.

No governments, no borders,
Nor economies present.
When down here, I’m reminded,
Of life’s depth and true intent.

I’m an awkward and brief visitor,
In this world of colour and perfection.
I fill with humility, wonder,
Passion and quiet introspection.

Red rock crab near a sand-rose anemone.

For Mother Ocean is home to life,
Older than mammals can comprehend.
I’m grateful that I may learn from her,
Leaving solid ground when I descend.

Diving brought me greater purpose,
Love, vision and camaraderie.
I think that what some find in a church,
I find  . . .  deep . . . within the sea.

On to the next 600 dives.

Postscript: There was additional “poetry” to today’s dive because it took place after a very powerful storm. Flooding caused the ocean to turn chocolate brown.

This “after the storm” dive further made me reflect on how diving is like a metaphor for life’s greatest challenges. At the risk of the repercussions of exposing you to bad poetry AND “Hallmark-esque” reflections,  I will only share the following:

  • Even in darkness, there is great beauty (as evident by these blog images from today’s dark dive).
  • When you don’t know where you’re going, trust in your compass.
  • And, when in the depths of it  . . . just breathe.

With great thanks to those who have made me the diver I am.