Friday, March 15, 2019

Taking Advantage of the Sunshine

As spring looms on the horizon—and with it the promise of warmer, sunshine-y days—AmeriCorps Volunteer Program Educator Mandi Johnson and I took advantage of the balmy weather last Sunday to get outside (and get some work done, too!).

Since October, Mandi, Citizen Science Coordinator Betsy Carlson, and a crew of our awesome volunteers have been hard at work coordinating the recovery, decomposition, and skeletal preservation of the northern elephant seal found washed up on Marrowstone Island last Halloween. You can learn more about the recovery process in Mandi’s blog posts here and here.

Five months later, some of the bones are ready to begin the final process of drying out and whitening (to make them more appealing for display). To do this, the bones need open air and sunshine—and a few hours of cooperative weather. Sunday afternoon looked like it was going to provide that opportunity. So, Mandi and I went out to the field in front of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center Museum, armed with a plastic tarp and a bucket full of seal bones.

Letting the bones soak up the sun is a great way to get  the moisture out of the bones after the decomposition
process. (Check out the size of the stubby rib in the center  of the picture!)

Sunning the bones ended up being a fantastic way to talk to other Fort Worden visitors who were also taking advantage of the weather. Lots of people stopped by to ask about the bones, and their curiosity led to some great discussions about the role these collections can play both in education and future scientific research.

It’s exciting to think about the learning opportunities these bones will continue to provide in the months and years to come. For now, I’ll have to be satisfied knowing more than a few people were shocked to see that a 14-foot-long animal could have stubby ribs shorter than the length of my hand (indicative of the impressively thick blubber layer these animals build up throughout their lives). At least one young visitor was surprised to see that the elephant seal’s humerus was probably shorter than her own!

The seal bones weren't the only ones enjoying the sunshine. 

Mandi and I eventually decided to wrap up Sunday’s sunning session as the light started to fade and the winds began to pick up. As we packed the bones away again—waiting for the next few sunny hours—it was pretty incredible to reflect on how far the cleaning process has progressed since Mandi, AmeriCorps Marine Exhibit Educator Marley Loomis, AmeriCorps Citizen Science Educator Michael Siddel, and I first responded to the elephant seal stranding call all those months ago.

And it turns out that—just like an elephant seal rib—sometimes a few hours in the sunshine does an AmeriCorps good, too.

Written by AmeriCorps Natural History Educator Ellie Kravets

Friday, March 8, 2019

Annual SoundToxins Gathering 2019

Earlier this week, I attended the annual SoundToxins gathering in Seattle. This event, held across two days at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Montlake, brought together people from NOAA, Washington Sea Grant, the Washington State Department of Health, and citizen science volunteers (including a handful from the Port Townsend Marine Science Center) who work collaboratively on the SoundToxins program.

For context, the SoundToxins program serves as an early warning system for harmful algal blooms. Citizen science volunteers collect water samples from sites all across Puget Sound, and look for the presence of four particular species of phytoplankton (Alexandrium, Dinophysis, Pseudo-nitzschia, and Heterosignma). These phytoplankton produce toxins which can make their way into shellfish, and eventually into humans when we consume them. If we can spot any of these phytoplankton ahead of time, then the public can be notified it is not safe to eat affected shellfish.

The first day of the gathering served as an information session for both new and returning volunteers. We went over the four harmful algal species that we monitor for, the toxins they produce, and the effects they have on people. Then, we were given the chance to sharpen our identification skills for the large number of other species of phytoplankton that we find in Puget Sound.

The SoundToxins annual meeting attendees
(Photo credit:Teri King)
We even got to look under a microscope at a recently-collected water sample and see living examples of these other phytoplankton species! This was particularly helpful for me, as I haven’t been able to see what many of these phytoplankton actually look like under a microscope.

The second day of the gathering focused more on important news, updates and interesting developments in the realm of harmful algal blooms. To begin, the Washington Department of Health gave a presentation about how they monitor for the toxins themselves in the tissues of shellfish across the state, and talked about their concerns about high levels of Alexandrium, the algal species known for producing a toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning.

Next, we learned about three other phytoplankton species (Akashiwo sanguinea, Protoceratium reticulatum, and Phaeocystis) that have been connected to shellfish mortalities. All SoundToxins volunteers were asked to keep an eye out for these species to hopefully prevent the loss of additional shellfish stocks.
Vera Trainer, a supervisory oceanographer at NOAA, gives a talk at the annual meeting
(Photo credit: Teri King) 
We also got to hear about the development of a remotely-operated aquatic glider that is able to collect water samples for monitoring.

All in all, I had a great time at the gathering. For me, getting to hear all the different stories and perspectives from the individuals involved with SoundToxins reinforced how truly important this program is.

Written by Michael Siddel, Citizen Science Educator AmeriCorps Member.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Northern Elephant Seal - Skeleton Update

Since November, the remains of our northern elephant seal have been naturally decomposing underneath our pier. Open-water maceration is one of the easiest methods for an organization like the Port Townsend Marine Science Center to manage an animal of this size. This allows the microorganisms in the ocean to “clean” the bones for us and keeps things like the smell to a minimum. However, this option can take a fair amount of time. So, I have been patiently waiting…

Curious why we have these remains? Read more on how and why we obtained them by clicking this link to a previous blog post.

We wrapped the skull in netting during the boil process
to help keep the bones from falling out of place.
Photo credit: Johanna King
The skull before we started the boiling process.
Photo credit: Johanna King

Vertebrae boiling in one of the pots. 
Finally, in late December, we decided to pull the bones up from underneath our pier and see how far the decomposition had progressed. To our surprise, we found some of the bones in an advanced state of deterioration and ready for the next stage.

There are a few steps involved in processing bones for display in our exhibits. First, we must boil the bones as a way to cleanse and begin the degreasing procedure. Marine mammals tend to have especially oily bones, so the second step continues with a technique specifically designed for degreasing the bones.

Lastly, we will soak the bones in a hydrogen peroxide solution to whiten the bones for display. The flippers have not quite finished decomposing, however, so they were sent with volunteer Howard Teas to spend some time in his compost pile. Once they are ready, they will go through the same process for cleaning and aesthetics.

Mandi Johnson showing off a vertebrae in the steam. Photo credit: Johanna King

As you can see, this is a lengthy process!

PTMSC Citizen Science Coordinator Betsy Carlson and I started our boiling procedure on a beautiful sunny day in late January and had quite the setup. Volunteers Anne Seeley and Roy Clark loaned us two propane burners and three large pots, allowing us to have several sets of bones boiling at once.

Just behind our museum - our bone boiling work station!
Because we planned to boil these bones for several hours, this was an all-day ordeal. I even moved my “office” outside so I could keep an eye on the bones, answer questions from people passing by (asking why it smelled so bad), and get work done.

In my opinion, I couldn’t imagine a better workday!

Written by AmeriCorps Volunteer Program Educator Mandi Johnson

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

(RESCHEDULED!) The Future of Oceans Series Lecture


Bob Boekelheide: Seabirds and Marine Mammals of the Protection Island Aquatic Reserve

Sunday, March 24

3 pm

The Fort Worden Chapel

Admission: $5 (students, teachers FREE)

Bob Boekelheide's lifelong interest has been in the ecology of marine vertebrates, particularly birds and mammals. Bob has an M.S. in Ecology from UC Davis and participated in several marine research projects to the Arctic, Antarctic, across the Pacific, and in California, including seven years as a biologist on the Farallon Islands. While in California, he coauthored a book and several papers about the marine ecology of nesting seabirds and marine mammals. A certificated teacher, Bob taught science and math in WA public schools for 13 years. He is the former director of the Dungeness River Audubon Center, a community nature center in Sequim, WA. As Bird Count chair for Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society, he has compiled the annual Sequim-Dungeness Christmas Bird Count and the Clallam County International Migratory Bird Count for over 20 years, along with helping to organize several other citizen-science projects on the north Olympic Peninsula. He enjoys spectacular areas of the Pacific Northwest and lives on the shores of Dungeness Bay with his wonderful wife Barbara.


This is the fifth installment of The Future of Oceans lecture series.

This event is offered with generous support from the Darrow Family.

Assisted Listening Devices available

Saturday, February 23, 2019

2019 Protection Island Wildlife Cruises

photo by Mike Reudink
You'll have many opportunities to enjoy a 3 hour cruise around the Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge, but don't delay! Our trip dates are just around the corner and will book up before you know it.

Check out our Cruises page and learn more about our ongoing trips through Protection Island Aquatic Reserve. You'll find this year's dates here--click "Book ONLINE" to reserve your spot before it's gone!


Friday, February 22, 2019

Low Tide Walk at Night

We identified 32 different species of animals and algae -- all in just a couple of hours. 

On Monday, Feb. 18, the Port Townsend Marine Science Center held a low tide walk at North Beach County Park to see what intertidal creatures get up to after dark. The event was a smashing success with the help of six wonderful volunteers.

There were 51 participants who showed up to explore the beach at night. As they arrived, attendees were split into smaller groups of around 10 people and then sent with one of the volunteers to walk along the beach.

Low tide walks and tide-pooling are especially interesting because at low tide, a special group of organisms becomes visible. The usually-rocky area that one walks along at low tide is called the intertidal zone: The area that exists between low and high tides. It is underwater at high tide, but exposed at low tide. Because of the variability in water coverage, the animals that live in this zone must have adaptations that allow them to survive both in and out of the water (or in small tidal pools left behind a high tide) without drying out.

The volunteers guiding the participants in Monday’s event found many different and interesting creatures. As a group, we identified 32 different species of animals and algae -- all in just a couple of hours. The list included small decorator crabs, clingfish, tidepool sculpins, lots of sea stars, and even a small octopus.

Northern clingfish (Gobiesox maeandricus). Photo by Katie Arbuckle.

Brittle star (Ophiuroidea sp.).Photo by Katie Arbuckle.
Blood star (Henricia leviuscula). Photo by Katie Arbuckle.

See the long, narrow, pink octopus tentacles under the rock?
(Species unknown). Photo by Katie Arbuckle.

PTMSC will schedule another low tide walk once the weather warms up a bit, and the low tides move to daylight hours.

Written by AmeriCorps Aquarium Educator Marley Loomis.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Hidden Gems of Student Surveys

What are the things a student does, or will do, to protect the Salish Sea? 

With the weather outside being what it is (hello, record-breaking snow!), the Port Townsend Marine Science Center has been a little sluggish over the past few days. What better time than now for me to pull out some hidden gems from our Free Science Class surveys? And to quiz you... (How many ways can YOU spell “recycle?”)

Like Marley Loomis mentioned in her last blog post, we set out to harness each group’s critical thinking skills when designing this year’s FSC curricula. This emphasis is especially apparent in comparing the students’ pre- and post-class surveys. The last question in both surveys asks about the student’s level of engagement in Salish Sea conservation: What are the things – if any – that the student does, or will do, to protect the Salish Sea?

That last question is one of the ways we track where we’ve made a meaningful difference with our students. Frequently, their first answer is hesitant or vague: “I recycle” or “I try not to litter” or sometimes even “nothing.” By the time they fill out their post-class surveys – after a full day of FSC programming – their answers are clear, specific, and more often than not reflect some of the concepts they’ve been wrestling with during their classes.

Hesitant pre-class answers often sound more confident after a day of PTMSC programming! 

A common pre-class survey answer is that our students protect the Salish Sea by not throwing trash directly into our waters:
  • “What I do is I never throw trash in the ocean, only in the trash.” 
  • “I don’t throw stuff in the ocean.” 
  • “I do not throw garbage in the Salish Sea.” 
One of the big focuses for our TownQuest class, then, is to show students that trash can enter our waterways from any point within our Salish Sea watershed. Reducing marine debris in the Salish Sea means changing our behavior everywhere, not just on beaches and shorelines.

And, so, in the post-class surveys, we get a slightly different spin:

  • “[I won’t] litter on roads, at beaches, and at places where it might get in the ocean.” 
  • “I will always search for trash cans.” 
  • “I will make sure that [I] pick up any garbage that [I] see.” 

One of my favorite responses. #2 ("stop spilling trash when I take it out") and #3 ("take trash out when it is not windy") show great understanding of the pathways that trash can use to get from our homes to our waterways. 

Another big point we make sure to emphasize is that recycling is not the be-all, end-all solution for preventing marine debris. The phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” is in order of importance and overall impact. So, in our pre-class surveys, we see a lot of students saying:
  • “I try and keep the ocean clean by recycling.” 
  • “I recycle trash.” 
  • “I put things in the trash or recycle when I use it so it doesn’t get wasted.” 
And afterwards, the emphasis skews strongly to the reducing/reusing side of the three Rs:
  • “[I] will reuse all of the stuff that [I] can. [I won’t] use plastic bags when [I’m at] the check-out of a store.” 
  • “I will reuse my trash and reduce.” 
  • “I will try not to use plastic as much.” 
The last big point we emphasize is that conservation actions do not happen in a vacuum. The easiest way to magnify one’s impact is take action with other people.

For the most part, this isn’t something our students are thinking about when they walk through our doors. Many of the “green” actions that get drilled into us are framed as individual actions: You should recycle. You should pick up trash, and limit your consumption of single-use plastics.

But research shows us that people are much more likely to stick to a new behavior if they have a group of people holding them accountable to it.

This concept is frequently echoed in their post-class surveys:

  • “[I will] gather a group to pick up trash.” 
  • “I will help people and let them know to not litter.” 
  • “I will try not to litter and if I see someone drop something, I’ll tell them.” 

This response is worth it just for the drawings. But also worth noting is the call to group actions: through education (signs), and talking about these issues with your friends. 

As an educator, it’s incredibly rewarding to see these points hit home with our students!

At the end of each program, the AmeriCorps staff will gather together and “grade” the day’s surveys. (I use the term “grading” loosely here: right and wrong means less to this process than demonstrated improvement.) It’s one of my favorite parts of the program: A chance to self-reflect as a teacher coupled with the opportunity to see the evolution in each student’s thinking.

With just about a month left for this program, I’m looking forward to seeing where the next round of surveys take us. And - because you have to take some joy in interpreting elementary school handwriting - I’m looking forward to seeing how many more ways our students can spell “recycle” before time runs out!

Right now, my very unscientific list is at 35... (Current favorite: Reslacool.)

Written by AmeriCorps Natural History Educator Ellie Kravets.