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

Posts tagged ‘plankton’

Every Breath You Take . . . .


Er – sorry about that. Thanks to the blog title, you likely now have The Police’s stalker-ish lyrics playing annoyingly in your head.

Let me take the Sting out of that for you.

The only lines of the song that apply to this blog item are: “Every breath you take” and “Every move you make” because  . . . this blog is about marine algae.

giant kelp DSC06372

Fronds of kelp ©Jackie Hildering

Yes, that’s right – marine algae; the plant-like material of our oceans that ranges in size from the phytoplankton that give the NE Pacific Ocean its emerald colour and soupy richness, to the giant kelp species that provide habitat as ocean forests.

Breathe in.  A conservative 50% of the life-sustaining oxygen in that breath came from marine algae.

These organisms are also attempting to scrub away the devastating impacts of our fossil fuel addiction, photosynthesizing carbon dioxide into oxygen and serving as carbon sinks.

Bull Kelp Forest

One of the images that started it all. ©Jackie Hildering

Life on earth simply could not survive without marine algae and this conclusion is valid even without considering their role as the basis of ocean food webs (and recognize that an estimated 50% of all species on earth are marine).

Why then, while we seem to have some understanding of how dependent we are on the terrestrial plants living up here with us, do so many of us appear to be ignorant of the vital importance of the marine algae that inhabit 71% of the earth’s surface?

Bull kelp forest in current © Jackie Hildering

Bull kelp forest in current ©Jackie Hildering

Why are we seemingly not as driven to save marine algae from the impacts of pollution as we are to stop deforestation? Is it that damn illusion that land is separate from sea?

Or, somewhere deep within or briny beings, do we feel a connection?

I have experience that suggests this might be the case.

It’s an accidental discovery . . . I never really planned to become an underwater photographer. Having the great privilege of living in this beautiful place, initially I focused largely (quite literally) on photographing big marine mammals. I was using charismatic megafauna to try to inspire conservation.

 © Jackie Hildering

But then  . . . I was gifted an underwater camera and quite early on, I started photographing kelp.

For me, kelp is the entry point into the marine world into which I love to disappear and its beauty has long intoxicated me. In fact, I have a kelp forest tattooed on my lower left leg!

But never, ever could I have anticipated the way the images would be received by non-divers. They have proven to be vital tools in “taking” people underwater with me and I believe no whale image I have taken has done as much to engage, create wonder, appreciation and, hopefully, respect and positive action for what lies below the surface.

© 2012 Jackie Hildering-5121314

Sun streaming through bull kelp forest ©Jackie Hildering

Why are these images received as they are?  Many answers are possible from a pure aesthetic appreciation of kelp’s form and colour to the fact that kelp forests are literally at the surface, recognizable but submerged in mystery.

But, maybe, just maybe there’s a deep connection born out of knowing that we are dependent on marine algae for every breath we take.

And that – gives me hope.

For more kelp images, please click here for my gallery.

Note: Seaweeds, kelp and phytoplankton photosynthesize but are (most often) not classified as plants. They are algae. For an explanation of the classification, distinction and scientific debate, see:  “The Seaweed Site – “What are algae?” 

Plankton Got Sole!

No, I have not mixed up my spelling of “soul” verses “sole”.

This last weekend, while watching herring feed on krill in a tide line, I suddenly noticed a very small transparent fish.

Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was a larval form of some species of flatfish.

I was able to dip the little guy / gal into my dive mask for a few pictures and, due to the size of the lettering in the mask, I know that the fish was only 2.7 cm.

Planktonic Sand Sole.  Only 2.7 cm. 
Photo: Jackie Hildering

I was in awe of how transparent s/he was; that I could see the bones and heart; and that this small, fragile planktonic stage could ever survive to grow into an adult.

These sorts of “finds” are as awe-inspiring to me as any sighting of a whale. The thick planktonic soup of our rich cold oceans is full of the larvae of so many species. Anemones, nudibranchs, sea stars, crabs, etc. – they all start off as zooplankton and the incidence of what sort of plankton are present often gives scientists an indication of what may be happening with the marine food web.

It is like a world of hidden secrets to me and of course I wanted to find out all I could.

What species of flatfish was this – halibut, sole, flounder?

Photo: Hildering

I do not have the expertise to know but, oh so thankfully, there are those out there willing to share their great knowledge.

Marie-Josée Gagnon of the Salmon Coast Research Station quickly steered me in the right direction, believing it was most likely a species of sole.

She connected me with zooplankton taxonomist  Moira Galbraith of the Institute of Ocean Sciences who confirmed that this was the larval form of a Pacific Sand Sole (Psettichthys melanostictus), a species that can grow to 63 cm. She also shared that the transparency of the larval fish serves as camouflage, reducing the chances of it being eaten before reaching the life stage where it settles to the ocean bottom and hides on and in the sand.

But wait, what are those two little zooplankton guys attached to the larval sole? They are copepods, but what kind of copepod?  What does their presence mean ?  Are they parasitic? And there I go down the marine id rabbit hole. 

One thing I know for sure though – and forgive me for the following pun because the emotion behind it is very sincere – how I hope this little planktonic fish will be a  . . . sole survivor.


Update September 30, 2012:

  • This great item by Puget Sound Sea Life has been brought to my attention and includes the following: ” . . . within several days to weeks, depending on the species, the larva undergoes a radical metamorphosis. The right or left eye migrates from it’s normal position across the top of the head to the other side of the body changing some skull bones in the process . . . . After metamorphosis, the fish settles to the bottom on it’s left side, develops skin color on the right side and continues growth as a juvenile.  Adapting a bottom-dwelling life style allows flatfish to exploit a common habitat – flat sandy bottoms which are very common in the subtidal zone. Many fish avoid this habitat because of the lack of rocks or other features that would provide a hiding place. Flatfish can hide from predators by burrowing, leaving only their eyes above the surface. In addition the habitat is home to an abundance of prey such as worms and shrimp. With both eyes on the upper side they can use 3D vision to hunt and detect predators. There has been considerable controversy over the origin of flatfish, but recent discoveries of several fossil intermediate forms show that eye migration evolved gradually some fifty million years ago.”
  • With regard to the ectoparasites on the sand sole larva, Marie-Josée Gagnon and Moira Galbraith have again been very generous with their knowledge. It is impossible to know the species from my photo but, due to the size, it is likely a recent infection and could be (1) first stage Chalimus; (2) Lepeophtheirus bifidus – which, unlike most parasites of benthic marine species is host specific – only being found on the rock sole or possibly, (3) the isopod Gnathia.   I valued having affirmed too that adults and young live in different environments to eliminate competition for the same resources but also to provide a buffer or separation to prevent transfer of disease or parasites.

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 😉 ).

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.

The Case of the Killer Plankton

This week’s case is the result of Stacey Hrushowy bringing a unique jelly-like marine creature to my attention.

Forgive the sensationalist blog title but truly, this animal is like the stuff of science fiction.

It’s a 15 cm pulsing, translucent, rainbow-flashing blob that has a fascinating diet!

Mystery creature (15 cm). Photo by Stacey Hrushowy.

I’ve narrated a slideshow with video to share this with you. Please see below.

I would not have been able to identify this species without Dave Wrobel and his site .