Thursday, December 29, 2016

MLK Jr. Day of Service

Please join the AmeriCorps for a community service event in honor of MLK Jr. Day! 
Make it a day on, not a day off! 

We will be pulling invasive species of Himalayan blackberry and English ivy. 
Refreshments will be provided!

RSVP to Sarah at

Share that you're going with your friends using the Facebook event HERE!

BROOKE ASKEY is the Citizen Science Educator and an AmeriCorps Member at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center

Monday, December 26, 2016

Port Townsend Marine Science Center to Host New Year’s Eve Cruise

Port Townsend, WA, December 31, 2016—The Port Townsend Marine Science Center is inviting participants to cruise with them to Protection Island aboard one of Puget Sound Express’ heated, fully enclosed whale-watching boats with 360-degree windows, wrap-around observation decks, and a cozy interior. The sail will take place on Saturday, December 31st from 1-4 pm, leaving from the dock at the end of Water Street in Port Townsend and setting off on a 3-hour adventure.
Port Townsend Marine Science Center Naturalist, Roger Risley, will be onboard to assist in wildlife spotting and interpretation, accompanied by informative Port Townsend Marine Science Center hosts.
A staple of the science center’s seasonal offerings, the New Year’s Eve cruise is wildly popular among tourists and locals alike. Participants enjoy a leisurely tour of the wildlife sanctuary and the enlightening comments from the onboard naturalist. In addition to experiencing and learning about the local marine life, participants have also gotten to witness a variety of birds while taking the cruise including loon, grebe, cormorant, merganser, duck, scoter, phalarope, tern, and puffin, just to name a few.

PTMSC Executive Director Janine Boire is confident this year will be no different. “We have been partnering with Puget Sound Express for this special holiday birding adventure around Protection Island for years,” Boire said. “It’s such a unique, special way to connect people with the Salish Sea and celebrate the holiday seasons. The New Year’s Eve cruise, in the midst of the busy holiday season, makes it particularly popular for those with family or friends visiting looking for a festive and warm way to get out on the water.”
The New Year’s Eve cruise departs at 1 pm on December 31 from the dock opposite the Puget Sound Express offices at the east end of Water Street in Port Townsend and returns to the dock at 4 pm. Tickets for the Protection Island New Year’s Cruise are $80 per person or $60 for members of PTMSC, Audubon, Burke Museum, or Washington Ornithological Society.

For more information on the New Year’s Eve Cruise, or to reserve your spot here or call (360) 385-5288.

The Port Townsend Marine Science Center is inspiring conservation of the Salish Sea. A new initiative—Gone Green? Go Blue! Support Your Local Ocean—encourages collective action and civic engagement. Located on the beach at Fort Worden, the PTMSC offers two public exhibits: the Marine Exhibit and the Natural History Exhibit. The Natural History & Orca exhibit is open Friday through Sunday, 12 to 5 pm. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for youth, and free to PTMSC members. The PTMSC also offers a wide variety of educational programs and special events. For more information, call 360.385.5582, e-mail or visit

Friday, December 16, 2016

Sea Star Wasting is Not a Party

When I arrived at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center (PTMSC) from Texas, I was prepared to show off my knowledge of marine mammals while learning more about other organisms such as birds and invertebrates. Little did I know that I frequently made a common slip – “starfish? Don’t you mean sea star?” After decades of confusion, scientists have pushed for a change from starfish to sea star, and nobody told me! If you’re lucky, you can catch me for an easy opportunity to poke fun at this simple transition.  
A blood star (Henricia leviuscula) with abnormal arm growth. Photo: PTMSC
I knew these invertebrate animals were named for their trademark five-armed, radial symmetry, and are not fish. More than 2,000 species of colorful sea stars sport five arms, even though some species can have 10, 20, or up to 50 arms. It is also not unusual for a five-armed sea star to have six arms due to abnormal growth.
Sea stars are echinoderms, which translates to “spiny skin.” Their living relatives include sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and sand dollars. The PTMSC Marine Exhibit hosts all of these, with short to long spines, and colors ranging from purple, pink, and orange!
I had never felt a sea star’s leathery skin before I began working at the Marine Science Center, nor was I aware of how varied the colors can be. They use colors as camouflage in a number of environments, ranging from tide pools to more than 6,000 m below sea level. The sea stars in the Marine Exhibit (ME) are a deep purple, peach, or neon orange, and are within your reach. Sea stars move and flex using a water vascular system. They pump seawater through their body, filling and emptying tiny, suction-cupped tube feet to extend, retract, or even create suction to scale any surface. One leather star (Dermasterias imbricata) even used its tube feet in an effort to help clean their tide pool tank! The tube the star is grasping a gravel tube, which staff and volunteers use to clean the gravel of the tanks, while in the meantime picking out any discarded clam shells from a sea star’s previous feast.
Giant Pink Star helping to clean. Photo: Mattie Stephens
Most sea stars also have the amazing ability to consume prey outside their bodies. Using their tube feet, they pry open clams or oysters.  Then, the upper portion of their stomach (known as the cardiac stomach) emerges from their mouth and oozes inside the shell. The clam’s muscles tire against the strong, hydraulically operated tube feet, and eventually open. The stomach then envelops the prey to digest it, eventually withdrawing back into the body.  At this point, the lower, or pyloric, stomach digests whatever is remaining.
Sea stars are famous for their ability to regrow limbs and entire bodies. This feat is possible by housing most or all of their vital organs in their arms. Rarely, the “central body disc must be intact to regenerate, but a few species can grow an entirely new sea star just from a portion of a severed limb” (National Geographic, 2016). Sea stars can willingly detach an arm to distract a predator to get away, or in a method of reproduction. There is a spreading epidemic of arms shedding and sea stars dying due to disease (National Geographic, 2016).
What factors cause these arms to shed unwillingly? Sea stars have been known to suffer from desiccation, or drying out, resulting in lost limbs. However, even healthy sea stars can suffer from sea star wasting disease. This disease causes rapid tissue degradation in sea stars, resulting in lesions on the arms and the body deflating (referred to as a loss in turgor pressure), giving the sea star a melted appearance. The process happens quickly, fully enveloping a sea star within three days, usually ending in death. The disease can spread between individuals, and has resulted in devastating losses, not only in natural habitats, but in aquariums as well. A few weeks ago, I watched as PTMSC lost its last mottled star to sea star wasting. Over the past few years, over 50% of the sea stars in the Marine Exhibit have succumbed to wasting.  
P:\Graphics\Photos & Videos\Citizen Science\Sea Star Wasting\Internal Observation\2016 Internal Observation Photos\2016.05.20_Mottled\IMG_4356.JPG
Top: An infected arm of a mottle star (Evasterias troscheli)
losing water pressure. Photo: PTMSC

Bottom: A mottled star succumbing to sea star 
wasting disease
PTMSC is taking part in monitoring this devastating process. Sea star wasting can cause large die-offs of these important animals, and although sea stars are slow moving, they are instrumental in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. The health of the ecosystem would crumble without sea stars, making them what is known as a keystone species. Sea stars help keep their tide pool and coastal ecosystems in check. PTMSC citizen science volunteers participate in a quarterly survey on Indian Island, where they monitor plots designed to observe the health of local sea star populations. This year, November survey team, led by fellow AmeriCorps Juhi LaFuente, observed numerous healthy ochre (Pisaster ochraceus), sunflower (Pycnopodia helianthoides), and mottled stars (Evasterias troscheli); these species tend to be the first affected by the virus. This is good news for our scaly friends, as it indicates there may be a shift towards reduced die-offs and a slowly recovering ecosystem.
Sun Star discovered in this year’s monitoring program. Photo: Betsy Carlton
The ecosystem recovery process will take a long time. Activists and citizen scientists are working hard on improving the overall health of the ocean, as even the slightest increase in temperature can wreak havoc on an ecosystem. The Marine Exhibit and Natural History Exhibit have taught me several ways that I can individually reduce my impact and waste output. Living in Port Townsend has illuminated healthier living practices for me, and I have been embraced by an environmentally conscious town. The more I learn about sea star wasting, the more pressing environmental stewardship becomes.

Please consider donating today.

- Mattie Stephens is the Marine Mammal Stranding Network Coordinator/Educator and AmeriCorps member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Wonders Beneath the Waves

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 1.26.21 PM.png
Eelgrass Meadows are an important habitat for many animals in the Salish Sea © PTMSC 1991

When walking on the beach near Fort Worden, I am always on the hunt for Eelgrass (Zostera Marina) to add to our display in the Marine Exhibit. I often find what I’m looking for near the high tide line, in a tangled ball that has been uprooted and washed ashore by the waves. Searching for Eelgrass is like a treasure hunt for me, where each tangled ball I find is a clue that  provides me with insight to the wonders that lie beneath the waves. Adding the Eelgrass to the display transforms it even further. The tangled mass I collected on the beach unfurls. Vertically suspended in the water column the blades of Eelgrass sway as the water circulates throughout the tank.

Eelgrass (Zostera Marina) collected

off of the beach at Fort Worden. Photo by Juhi LaFuente
The Eelgrass tank illuminated by sunlight.
 Photo by PTMSC

At first glance, this tank appears to be filled with Eelgrass and nothing more. However, upon further examination, what I think is a piece of Eelgrass turns out to be a juvenile Bay Pipefish (Syngnathus leptorhynchus) seeking refuge in the tangle of blades. I begin to notice more and more pairs of eyes peering back at me. Tiny Tadpole Sculpins (Psychrolutes paradoxus) dart back and forth, and eel-like fish, called Gunnels, peak their heads out to survey their surroundings. Along the bottom, Crabs scuttle and a Sea Cucumber slowly grazes in search of food. This underwater meadow is, in fact, teeming with life.

A Bay Pipefish (Syngnathus leptorhynchus)
disguises itself as a piece of Eelgrass.

Photo by Juhi LaFuente

The Eelgrass display in the Marine Exhibit provides visitors with a glimpse into an important nearshore habitat that often goes unseen beneath the waves. Eelgrass is a flowering marine plant that is widely dispersed throughout the Salish Sea. Found in tidelands and shallow waters, Eelgrass thrives in soft sediment habitats that receive plenty of sunlight. A network of underground stems, called rhizomes, help stabilize the surrounding sediment and anchor the Eelgrass in place. In dense meadows, blades of Eelgrass also help impede current flow and buffers the shoreline from oncoming waves.  

Many invertebrates and fish depend on and use Eelgrass beds for food and protection from predators. Eelgrass helps ensure the survival of juvenile fish such as Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasii) and Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). These fish are important sources of food for many animals. Chinook salmon are the preferred food of the Southern Resident Orcas (Orcinus orca) residing in the Puget Sound.    

Found in such close proximity to the shore, eelgrass beds do not go undisturbed by humans. Eelgrass beds in the Puget Sound are threatened by shoreline development, including dredging and the construction of over water structures that block sunlight. Boaters also risk damaging these beds by cutting the grass with their propellers and tearing it up with their anchors. In order to protect Eelgrass habitat, boaters are advised to slow down or stop when cruising over Eelgrass beds and encouraged to avoid anchoring in eelgrass altogether.
In an effort to protect Eelgrass beds, the Jefferson County Marine Resources Committee established voluntary “No Anchor Zones” along the Port Townsend Waterfront. These zones are marked by special buoys and protect over 50 acres of Eelgrass in the waters off Port Townsend. Since the installation of these buoys in 2004, the Marine Resources Committee has observed a  98% compliance within these no anchor zones.

As the AmeriCorps Marine Exhibit Educator, I enjoy engaging visitors in conversations about our local marine life and important nearshore ecosystems like Eelgrass. Your donations to support the Marine Exhibit help ensure that visitors of all ages will be able to continue to explore, observe and learn about the wonders beneath the waves. The Marine Exhibit plays an integral role in helping us fulfill our mission “Inspiring Conservation of the Salish Sea”, Thank you for making this possible through your continued support.

Please consider donating today.

Juhi LaFuente is the Marine Exhibit Educator and an AmeriCorps member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

Monday, December 5, 2016

"Why are the Crabs Dirty?"

Please consider making a gift today to support our tanks, and our decorator crabs from the Salish Sea. Donate HERE!

“Why are the crabs dirty?” I heard behind me in the Marine Exhibit one day. Thrown off by the visitor’s question, I turned around and my eyes focused on the crab they were pointing to in the wall tank. It all made sense when I saw the graceful decorator crab scuttling along among the abalone, away from the sides of the tank, almost as if it knew it had been found. I jumped into educator mode right away, and answered, “That’s a great question.”

Graceful Decorator Crab (wall tank).jpg

A (dirty?) graceful decorator crab (Oregonia Gracilis) hanging out
on the inflow of the small wall tank. Photo by Juhi LaFuente
The most wonderful aspect our Marine Exhibit is the chance to gain new knowledge about Salish Sea fish and invertebrates. When I first started at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, I knew very little about specific species of crabs. Aside from what I had learned in my college invertebrate zoology class, I hadn’t thought about them much. However, once I started feeding individual crabs, and interacting with them in tanks every day, they became one of my favorite animals in our Marine Exhibit. As a person who is recovering from a phobia of spiders and spider-adjacent creatures, it means a lot when I say that I think the way these arthropods walk around the tanks and move their little maxillipeds (mouth parts) is quite cute. I love inspiring others to see them the way I do now. So, when I explain how decorator crabs got their name, and see others’ eyes light up with fascination, it is a truly fulfilling experience. I hope I can light your eyes up, too.

Decorator crabs consist of many different species, all belonging to part of the superfamily Majoidea, known as spider crabs. We have many spider crabs in our exhibit, but not all are decorators. The decorator crab in question was the graceful decorator, Oregonia gracilis, a naturally abundant Puget Sound species. If you can spot them, graceful decorator crabs can be found in the small wall tank, against the back wall of the Marine Exhibit. In our huge piling tank, we have another type of decorator crab, called the longhorn, Chorilia longipes, which is usually hanging out against the tank walls, looking at the passers-by. These crabs’ natural ecosystem includes kelp forests and the intertidal zone, ranging from Alaska all the way down to Mexico, but they’re particularly abundant in the Pacific Northwest. In nature and in our tanks, the decorators are covered in foreign material (hence their dirty appearance) and found behind rocks and kelp, hiding from predators like fish, sea otters, and octopus.

Longhorn Decorator Crab by Wendy F.JPG
Longhorn decorator crab (Chorilia longipes) hanging on the pilings. Photo by Wendy Feltham (Checkout our Instagram to see a video of this crab with a filter-feeding hitchhiker on its arm!)

The decorator crab namesake refers to the way they adorn their bodies with all kinds of ornaments. The decorations include almost any materials found in their environment. The crab’s hard outer shell, or exoskeleton, has tiny hooks all over called hooked setae. Hooked setae act as a sort of Velcro on which the crab can stick materials it picks up from its environment. Their adornments act as a camouflage, but also as a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. The “materials” picked up by the crab can include some bryozoans, hydroids, algae, sponges, and small anemones. Invertebrates gain access to parts of the water column and food they wouldn’t usually have access to by hitching a ride on the back of the crab. In turn, the crab gets an easy disguise, and when resources are limited, also an easy source of food. If a crab finds an accessory like chemically-defended plants or stinging anemones, the crab is even less likely to be predated upon. Larger crabs need fewer decorations because they can defend themselves, but they’ll often still wind up with some hitchhikers on their backs.

The decorating doesn’t really stop after covering the exoskeleton canvas; a crab is always working. Crabs’ exoskeletons do not grow with them. As they outgrow their armor, they grow a new shell underneath the old, effectively forcing the old exoskeleton off. After disrobing, the crab will hide until its new exoskeleton hardens, and then the decorating process starts all over again. They often recycle old bits and pieces of material from their discarded shell (a great example of environmental stewardship!).  In captivity, decorator crabs have been known to disrobe and grow a new shell when moved to a different tank and new environment, effectively creating a blank slate for its new camouflage masterpiece.

Graceful Decorator by Wendy F.JPG
A graceful decorator crab (Oregonia gracilis) waving at you through the acrylic. This crab is decorated in red algae. Photo by Wendy Feltham

Our decorator crabs at PTMSC interact with guests and staff all the time. In nature, humans and decorator crabs have very little direct interaction, although there are some negative human impacts on their ecosystems. Surface runoff of oil, pesticides, sewage, and other chemicals can contribute to pollution of ocean ecosystems, truly making the crabs’ environment “dirty.” (Runoff pollution contributes to larger issues like ocean acidification.) As environmental stewards, we can all make eco-friendlier choices to reduce negative impact on the Salish Sea. The crabs might thank you for that.

Next time you visit our Marine Exhibit, I hope you take the time to search the tanks for our decorator crabs. I hope you experience the revelation that the rock you were staring at underneath the kelp, barnacles, and sponges is actually a crab, as it slowly crawls away to munch on some food or find some new artistic materials. I also hope you become so enamored that you sound just as silly as I do when I have one-sided conversations with them through the acrylic. While cleaning or feeding, I compliment them on their attention to detail in design. I like to think they appreciate the compliments on their labor, because much like an environmental steward, a crab’s work is never done.

Find out how you can "Go Blue" to protect the crabs and become an environmental steward on our site!

Follow us on other platforms to see more cool crabs! Instagram (@ ptmarinescictr) Facebook (Port Townsend Marine Science Center) Newsletter (Octopress Online)
BROOKE ASKEY is the Citizen Science Educator and AmeriCorps member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center

Citizen Science, Searching for Heroes and Hope

Sunday | December 11 | 3 pm

Citizen Science, Searching for Heroes and Hope

The Fort Worden ChapelAdmission: $10 ($5 for PTMSC members)

This lecture is presented by author Mary Ellen Hannibal who is a Bay Area writer and editor focusing on science and culture. She is a regular contributor to LIVESTRONG magazine; her writing has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Esquire, Elle and Yoga Journal magazines among many other publications.

Ms. Hannibal's new book, Citizen Science, Heroes and Hope in a Time of Extinction was released in September 2016. Book sale and signing to follow lecture. Books will be $20 for PTMSC members, $28 for non members.