Thursday, February 2, 2023

A giant Pacific octopus is released to the Salish Sea

Marley Loomis has been keeping track of the giant Pacific octopus (GPO) at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center ever since she left her position as an AmeriCorps member there from 2018-2020. When PTMSC determined it was time to release the cephalopod, Marley knew she had to be there.

In 2020, Marley spotted the young octopus while sorting zooplankton from a research trap. As part of an effort by the Pacific Northwest Crab Research Group (PCRG) to support sustainable Dungeness crab fisheries, the trap collects a nightly assortment of zooplankton including many species of young fish and invertebrates. The primary goal is to identify and count the Dungeness crab megalopa which, together with the other zooplankton collected, is then returned to the water. Occasionally, small numbers of select species are reared in the aquarium to represent the diversity of marine life found here. Although still a paralarva, the tiny octopus was starting to transition from floating in the water column to clinging to surfaces. It was a rare and exciting opportunity to raise a giant Pacific octopus.

Loomis assisted PTMSC Aquarium Curator Ali Redman in raising the octopus while documenting his growth and development. Over the next two years Sylvia, named by donors in honor of marine scientist Sylvia Earle, thrived in PTMSC’s aquarium at Fort Worden. Given that there are only a handful of accounts of rearing giant Pacific octopuses, Marley and Ali are thrilled with Sylvia’s success!

Octopuses are relatively short lived, with the lifespan of a giant Pacific octopus being about 3-5 years. Giant Pacific octopus are “small egged”, meaning that they produce a large number of relatively undeveloped offspring. Unlike “large egged” octopus that look like tiny adults when hatching, GPOs start life as tiny paralarvae drifting with the currents. In both reproductive strategies, parental care focuses on the eggs and hatched young explore and learn on their own. 

Octopuses mate at the end of their life, then pass away following a period of decline known as senescence. As adults, they become more active, eat less and devote most of their resources to mating. A male GPO may live about 1 month after mating, females will survive a little longer, caring for their eggs until they too pass away. It is because of this unusual life history that captive octopus are well suited to release. 

“Determining when an octopus has reached maturity, and is therefore ready for release, is important for animal welfare,” said PTMSC Aquarium Curator Ali Redman. “We continually monitor behavioral and physiological indicators with the goal of releasing octopuses before senescence.”

An avid diver, Marley is a graduate student at Alaska Pacific University, studying marine biology, specializing in octopus behavior. She traveled to Port Townsend with her drysuit and her partner James Gomez DeMolina, who is also trained in marine biology.

“I flew down from Alaska because I felt directly tied and attached to this project of raising Sylvia at PTMSC,” Marley said. “I’ve been pretty invested in his development and have spent so many hours working with him and making sure he has appropriate resources and has everything he needs to grow and be successful, and I’ve also seen how much impact he’s made on the community.”

Emilee Carpenter and Ali Redman wait
on the pier for the divers to arrive.

Ali directed the release, assisted by Aquarium Specialist Emilee Carpenter at the surface. Mandi Johnson, PTMSC Outreach Coordinator, who has also been part of Sylvia’s care team since his arrival, conducted an initial scouting dive with volunteer Glenn Grant a week before, identifying an appropriate area for release. The Friday prior to the release,Marley and James identified and marked a den site that would provide Sylvia with shelter as he adjusts to his new surroundings. 

On the day of the release, Ali and Emilee assisted Sylvia into a mesh transfer bag. Octopuses are comfortable out of water for short periods of time and Sylvia routinely climbed into a basket to be lifted from the water and weighed. This time, rather than returning to the exhibit, he was lowered from the pier to the divers below.

Marley and James were joined by Mandi and Grant for the release dive on a day with light winds and scattered clouds. Mandi and Glenn were equipped with two GoPro cameras and an underwater light.

“It was as smooth as possible. Everything that we had planned out went as well as we could have imagined it. We knew exactly where we were going, he behaved beautifully, he was really calm the entire time in the mesh bag when we were descending and on our way to the site,” Marley recounted.

Marley Loomis takes ahold of the
transfer bag prior to the release

“I opened up the bag, opened it up right next to this big hollow piling, which we thought was a nice den spot for him. And he just casually walked right into it and took up his space. We offered him a (live Dungeness) crab and he reached out and touched it and then decided, ‘No, I really don’t want that crab right now,’ so he didn’t take the crab. But he knew it was there and it was absolutely as smooth as possible. Nothing could have gone more smoothly. And the day was gorgeous,” Marley said.

As the divers swam back to the beach, the release team walked off the pier to welcome them and were ready with towels and good wishes on a job well done. With a water temperature of 46 degrees, the dive had to have been a cold one.

We aren’t able to know exactly what becomes of Sylvia after his release. GPS enabled tags can’t transmit underwater nor can they be attached to his soft body. Since local live foods have been part of his diet at PTMSC he will be able to find food. However, he may not have much of an appetite. It’s likely he will focus on finding a mate. He may find one here, or he may move out of the area. Once male GPOs have mated, they enter senescence and will pass away in about one month. Nevertheless,one can’t help but wonder if Marley had imagined Sylvia’s life at sea, and she admitted she had.

“I mean, it's human nature to think about what's going on beyond what we can see, for sure,” she said. “Mandi and James and I all did an afternoon dive somewhere else, and when we came back, Mandi and I were like,’Man that would be really cool just to dive down and see if he’s still there.’ 

But honestly, anything that happens from now on out is a totally natural part of the food web. If he’s able to find a mate and reproduce, that’s fabulous. If he just lives out his life and rejoins the food web, then that’s great, too. I’m not too worried about him. Since he took up a nice little den space, there’s so much crabs down there, there’s so much food for him. I’m not too worried. Whatever he is doing is natural in the Salish Sea,” said Marley.

Back in Anchorage, Marley is conducting a research study on a particular octopus behavior, called a head bob. 

“Octopuses have mainly monocular vision, they don’t have the same depth perception that we do with their field of vision, with both eyeballs overlapping,” Marley explained.

“There’s evidence that the head bob behavior is mostly a ranging and depth perception behavior, but there is not any published numerical data on proving that, so I am effectively trying to quantify a head bob behavior to link it to depth perception for octopuses.”

Marley’s future seems certain to be a bright one, although she has some decisions to make in the near future: 

“I’m torn between further pursuing behavioral and ecological research or rejoining the public education and aquarium sciences field,” she said. “I am really passionate about both of those areas and honestly I alternate back and forth weekly on which of those two paths I will follow. Either path is not wrong.”

PTMSC’s experience raising octopus in captivity has certainly made an impact on our community. Over 500 visitors toured the aquarium for a special weekend opening to see Sylvia one last time. The video Ali made of Sylvia’s release has over 1,500 views at the time of this writing. (YouTube link)

Marley Loomis is greeted by her father Michael Loomis
as James Gomez DeMolina dries off after the dive.

“I just think that the release and all that Sylvia helped to accomplish speaks to the community in Port Townsend and all of PTMSC,” Marley said. “You know it’s bittersweet to release him, but it’s more sweet than bitter. It's a success story. He grew very successfully and impacted a lot of people over the course of the two and a half years he was there and now he’s back out to reproduce. I’m really proud of what we’ve done. I think that PTMSC would probably say the same about how they feel about it. It's such a testament to how impactful those animals can be for people coming in to see him and how involved the community feels in what we’re doing. It’s spectacular. I’m overjoyed with it all, honestly. I'm so happy I could be part of it all, it was lovely.”

Ali and Emilee are currently nurturing another GPO, which was also brought up incidentally in the light trap. Not yet a year old and currently about the size of a strawberry, the octopus will be inspiring visitors when the aquarium reopens this spring.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Port Townsend Marine Science Center volunteerism: vital and deeply appreciated

The Port Townsend Marine Science Center has rebounded from a pandemic low of 2,635 hours of recorded volunteer service in 2020 to an amazing 5,300 donated hours for 2022. In the uncertain days early in the pandemic, the museum and aquarium were both closed and the volunteer corps largely stayed home.

Although many volunteers remained cautious about participating in indoor activities, in 2022 the quantity of hours recorded surged, even with fewer volunteers overall. That means we are doing more with fewer people – such dedication!

Additionally, we were thrilled to welcome scores of new volunteers this year who stepped into a wide variety of roles: from exhibit volunteers, to citizen scientists, event helpers and more. 

The dedicated staff at PTMSC rely on volunteers in every area of programming. Let’s hear from these folks as they share what volunteerism at PTMSC means to them. 

John Conley shared details of his volunteer service
at the Evening with the Stars event
One of my favorite ways that volunteers impact my job as Development Director is when they speak at events about their experiences as volunteers. Like this past summer, when John Conley, Sue Long and Lisa Greenfield spoke at Evening with the Stars about why they volunteer and what it means to them. It was educational, heartwarming and inspiring. I feel so grateful to get to hear their pearls of wisdom and wise insights. - Liesl Slabaugh

Volunteers in our education programs helped with such classroom activities for K-12 students as the crab lab, the herring dissection and plankton lab with low tide walks and beach explorations. 

Education Coordinator Carolyn Woods had this to say:

Volunteer Patti Hoyecki assisted in the
Way of the Whales class

One of the strengths of our education programs are the hands-on activities we can provide that aren't available in school classrooms, and volunteer assistance is crucial in making these activities engaging and accessible for students. Just in December, volunteers helped students handle gray whale bones safely while providing clues to direct students in assembling the skeleton, as well as assistance in the aquarium finding calcifiers (organisms that grow calcium-based shells) while investigating the effects of ocean acidification in the Salish Sea. Having volunteers help with field trips allows us to reach more students and provide them a better experience - I'm so grateful to them for sharing their time and knowledge! 

Through such dedicated long-term assistance as volunteer docents and greeters, public events and fundraising helpers, our volunteers become valued friends and are key to our ability to promote conservation of the Salish Sea to our many publics.

Program Director Diane Quinn shared this sentiment:

I have had so many meaningful, inspiring, educational, funny and touching moments with volunteers at PTMSC in the past year, but the word that keeps coming to mind above all the other words is Generosity. I am no longer even surprised, but always grateful, when a volunteer agrees to help out with some random thing at what seems like, and often is, the last minute: making something for us to sell, fixing something that has been languishing in its broken state, cleaning something that has been neglected, filling countless shifts and volunteering for one-off events that need a little more support. They show up with snacks for the staff, or bring in a ladder, an air filter, a wagon, paper bags, a broom
and dustpan, and on and on. So many things that they just know we need and are too busy to get. Their generosity has shown in every way this past year, through their actions, their gifts, and their
attitude toward our visitors, students and each other. I learn so much from our volunteers each year, and that is to be expected, but the thing I try to emulate is their sincere willingness to share their time, skills, ideas and creativity because it's just what they do. 

In less public ways, the citizen science volunteers put in many solitary mornings scooping up water samples, examining sea life through microscopes and caring for stranded marine mammals.

Volunteers Diane Baxter, Linda Dacon and Nancy
Jamieson pause for a moment in the museum portico.

Citizen Science Coordinator Betsy Carlson shares her appreciation for key individuals and projects meaningful to her program area:

All the SoundToxins volunteers deserve a shout out for continuing to work through the year searching water samples for signs of potentially harmful algae -- being part of the early warning system for safe shellfish consumption. Ken Anderson, James Arnn, Pam Bauer, Brad Bebout, Lee Bebout, Dennis Cartwright, John Conley, Dan Darrow, Soozie Darrow, Doug Eggert, Joanmarie Eggert, Gary Elmer, Jo Ferrero, Jackie Gardner, Frank Handler, Keith Knol, Kathy Nyby, Mike Nyby, Melody Stewart, Rich Stewart, Rosemary Streatfeild, Kathleen Woods-Smith

  • Dennis Cartwright of course, who does so much. From sorting clams to counting phytoplankton and larval crabs too. He keeps our labacita (the  small lab behind the museum) supplied, trains SoundToxins volunteers and AmeriCorps, enters data, moves samples and cleans and cares for the microscope. Did you know he stepped in to help run the aquarium before Ali was hired? We are so lucky that Dennis is committed to marine conservation.

Darryl Hrenko and a Salish Coast Elementary school
student with a gray whale skeleton

  • Darryl Hrenko, who along with his buddy John, made the European green crab acrylic casts for display and education.

  • Patti Hoyecki whose creative spirit and boundless energy brightened our downtown exhibits and gift shop offerings.

  • Peggy Albers and Diane Baxter,our Summer BEACH program water sampling team, taking water samples for lab analysis to be sure the Fort Worden beach is safe for swimming. 

Our Executive Director Bee Redfield sums up how important our volunteers are to us to enable us to do our work:

Volunteers make everything that we do possible. They give their time, their wisdom and their heart to our mission. Through their actions, our volunteers show our visitors and our community what is most important in life, and through their passion they inspire others to want to make a difference too. 

Thank you to all who have helped promote conservation of the Salish Sea with their gifts of time!

Written by PTMSC Volunteer Program Coordinator Tracy Thompson

#volunteers, #volunteerism #conservation #marineeducation

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Dan and Soozie Darrow: Two of PTMSC’s most dedicated volunteers


A wonderful encounter with former Port Townsend Marine Science Center Executive Director Anne Murphy at the Low Tide Festival is what initially drew Dan and Soozie Darrow to the Port Townsend area from their long-time home north of Chicago. 

The Low Tide Festival was the annual PTMSC thank you to the community and celebration of our marine environment (that formerly took place in July).Their delight with this event encouraged them to move west, and after arriving in 2002, they were eager to get involved in their new community. They both became involved with PTMSC.

Soozie and Dan Darrow
Soozie and Dan began their volunteer journey as greeters in the aquarium, and since that time, they have been involved with nearly every volunteer task the organization has to offer, including  extensive work with the Citizen Science program, collecting megalops for the Skokomish tribe, helping with fish seining for school groups, and hosting Protection Island cruises and low tide walks. In past years they have also done considerable work assisting with the annual fundraising auction.

After their initial greeting days, Soozie says they “graduated from taking money” and joined the Home Crew. The Home Crew was the team of volunteers who assisted in the aquarium, cleaning tanks and taking care of the animals.

“Cleaning was fun, and the people we worked with were nice and we got to feed the animals,” recalls Soozie.

The very persuasive Gordon James encouraged Dan to join the board, which he did, providing his services as a board member for nine years, two of those as board president. Dan continues his board service today as a member of the Finance Committee.

Fate brought the two together in their college days where Soozie attended Mount Holyoke and Dan went to Amherst College. Dan had a career with distribution companies, handling inventory and supplies. Soozie enjoyed a career in the admissions office of a community college.

Dan says, “I’ve always been a sailor,” and  notes that his very first words were “hard a-lee” (sailor talk for turning the helm hard to leeward – into the wind) and he enjoyed his time racing a J30 on Lake Michigan with a dedicated crew of seven. Soozie was not as involved in sailing as a racer, but enjoyed cruising with Dan and their two daughters.

The J30 stayed in Illinois and, once at their new home in Port Ludlow, Dan began racing with the Port Ludlow Fleet, a group of eleven Etchells 30s, an open cockpit, no-amenities sailboat made for racing. 

The current fleet of Etchells is now down to two boats, so Dan now focuses on sailing his T37 - a 37-inch long, radio-controlled boat that he races on the pond in front of the Port Ludlow Yacht Club. He proudly shares his favorite part of this current racing endeavor, the post-race gathering of friends all bundled up and relaxing in portable chairs on the lawn.

Soozie’s fascination with the natural world began as a child as she accompanied her older brother in the marshes in New Jersey, where he collected animal specimens which he then taxidermied and brought to the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

“I was scared to death walking over the boardwalk into the marsh, but I loved seeing all the birds, so I just kept going,” Soozie recalls about those early expeditions with her brother.

The Darrows have been active as citizen scientists with the SoundToxins program for 10 years now, taking water samples from Mystery Bay and then examining them with a microscope for the existence of harmful phytoplanktons. 

“I like to think we’re helping other scientists figure out how we can help the earth,” Soozie says about her motivation for continuing with the monitoring.

“Plus, I like to look in the microscope and see creatures that no one else gets to see,” she continues.

Both Soozie and Dan stress the importance of the organization’s role in educating the public. They feel strongly that PTMSC is “not just for the grandkids” and that the perils of climate change and the threats to the Salish Sea are important for the public to know.

Their commitment to the important education work of the organization is made clear through their financial support of the Future of Oceans lecture series, currently underway on various Sunday afternoons this month through March. Their ongoing support has made this series possible and they both particularly enjoyed Dr. Christopher Kelley’s November lecture, “Deep Sea Mining is coming: What you need to know about this potentially huge new industry.”

Beyond their considerable involvement with PTMSC, Dan and Soozie have volunteered for years with other organizations, with Soozie serving as Secretary for the Port Ludlow Trails Crew, and Dan serving on his Home Owners Association finance committee.

Their goals for the PTMSC include seeing the organization transition into the Flagship Landing location, and to continue shining a light on the issues important to the protection of the Salish Sea.

Written by PTMSC Volunteer Program Coordinator Tracy Thompson

#volunteers #citizenscience #salishsea #soundtoxins

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Meet Ruby, a young PTMSC fan

It would be hard to imagine a more enthusiastic fan of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center than Ruby.
Ruby arrives at Fort Worden for her
visit to the aquarium. Photo: Sarah Wright
 I first noticed Ruby visiting the museum one Sunday afternoon with her grandmother, Peggy Albers (a valued PTMSC volunteer), and grandfather. I saw a very small but nimble tow-headed little girl of about age two. She walked with purpose throughout the museum, and led her grandfather to the cormorant exhibit. 

 After talking with Peggy, I learned that Ruby visits PTMSC as often as she can, usually once a weekend on Sunday after she wakes up from her nap. At home, she talks about the marine science center daily, her favorite books are tide pool field guides and octopus books, and she is disappointed that the tides are high during the day, when she can't go see anemones at North Beach. 

 We arranged to have Ruby visit the aquarium to learn more about her fascination, and more about what makes Ruby, Ruby. 

I noticed her powers of observation first. Ruby, her mother Sarah Wright and grandmother arrived for their Monday morning visit and as she was ambling along beside the stroller her mom was pushing. Ruby suddenly stopped to peer into a crack in the decking of the pier. 

“It's dark down there,” she said. She was referring to the dark water she could see below the pier. Aquarium Curator Ali Redman welcomed us at the barn doors to the aquarium. We immediately stopped to check in on Sylvia, the giant Pacific octopus, and then Ali and Ruby spent some time assembling some shrimp-filled Duplo plastic blocks into an enrichment feeding toy for Sylvia. 
Aquarium Curator Ali Redman and Ruby
discuss adding shrimp to the Duplo blocks.
Photo: Sarah Wright

After the feeding, we let Ruby lead us and I watched as her eyes lit up as she scrambled deftly on the ‘rocks’ that serve as benches and steps at the base of each tidepool tank. 

As a child born during the midst of the pandemic, Ruby is just now emerging into public life, attending story hour with her mom at the library, and “the marine science center has been a big part of that, as well,” said Sarah. 

“There is just such a sweet legacy aspect of it too, with my husband and I both having grown up here and having had our own experiences at the marine science center, it's been a really sweet thing to bring Ruby into it as well,” said Sarah. 

When I asked Sarah how PTMSC has impacted Ruby’s life, she noted that PTMSC “makes everything so accessible … the fact that it is right on the dock over the water and we can just look into these tanks and see what we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see without snorkel gear – it’s just so amazing.” Sarah, along with her husband Reed Aubin, are both “really passionate about climate justice and the environment.” Sarah is an avid paddle boarder and is an open water swimmer right here at Fort Worden State Park. 

Part of their decision-making process to have a child in the current climate has been their hope to “cultivate and support her interest in our natural surroundings and the animals that inhabit it. Hopefully, this will contribute to a passion for conservation. If we can help her to just love all these things, then hopefully that will turn into her wanting to take care of it and protect it,” Sarah added. 

At the aquarium, each time the sea water flowed forth into the surge tank, Ruby took note, saying “high tide” as the bubbles and froth entered the tank. Ruby carefully examined all of the tanks and was excited to see the wolf eel emerge from its hiding space. 
A moment of wonder with Ali Redman,
Ruby. and her grandmother Peggy Albers

Ruby’s dedication has not gone unnoticed by PTMSC’s staff and volunteers. Ali Redman can often find time to engage with Ruby when she visits, and Sarah notes that Ai takes the time “to come out and speak to Ruby, really matter of factly, as a fully realized human being, which has been incredibly gratifying.” 

Although Ruby makes time in her life for other fascinations (chiefly: garbage trucks), her mother notes that Ruby is an “equal opportunity lover” of all the animals in the exhibit and does not just reserve her adoration for the giant Pacific octopus. 

“She loves everything equally and so she sees the animals and then she has a frame of reference, and is then excited to read books about sea animals and Pacific Northwest marine life. And that continues to tie it all together for her,” said Sarah. “Our trips create this common thread throughout the rest of her week.” 

While Ruby shares her appreciation of the animals, her mom recounted a story that highlights the specificity of her admiration. 

“Yesterday morning she was looking at a PNW marine life guidebook, and she got to the sea urchin page. In her little toddler voice, she told me, passionately, ‘sea urchins are really really pokey. I like sea urchins so much!’ 

 We hope that Ruby’s fascination with marine life and the Salish Sea continues, and we are thrilled to welcome this three-generation group into the exhibits whenever possible.

Written by Volunteer Program Coordinator Tracy Thompson

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

New bull kelp exhibit shares the wonders of this undersea ecosystem

Creating awareness and understanding of our undersea kelp forests

How can one create urgency and awareness for the protection of a largely unseen ecosystem? For the many scientists, designers, artists, educators and volunteers who worked on the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s “Bull Kelp: Our Remarkable Underwater Forests” exhibit (BKE), the answer is through teamwork and artistry.

The first kelp forest exhibit was created in time for the 2018 Wooden Boat Festival, with creatures made out of upcycled fabric and found materials. PTMSC Program Director Diane Quinn, Aquarium Curator Ali Redman and exhibit designer Andrew Whiteman knew they could create a richer experience from this initial design.

Education Coordinator Carolyn Woods  and Outreach Coordinator
Mandi Johnson work together sewing bull kelp fronds to the exhibi
A successful application for funding from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account (ALEA) program helped PTMSC staff, volunteers, artists and artisans create this new experience: A multi-sensory exhibit that suggests a dive in a bull kelp dominated forest.

Visitors are surrounded by dynamic artwork, created by Timbul Cahyono, as they walk through the small structure. Cahyono’s images of sea otters, swimming puffins and other sea creatures are printed on translucent fabric, which provides a watery feel.

Port Townsend visual artist and former PTMSC AmeriCorps Marine Educator Mariah Vane created a host of kelp forest residents, including fluffy sea anemones, prickly sea urchins and realistic articulated crabs.

The bull kelp fronds and particularly, the bull kelp bulbs, are strikingly realistic and have been crafted from green microfleece around a hidden craft ball. A ball joint from an electrical supply store connects the stipes to the bulbs with a satisfying click.

Layers of bull kelp fronds composed of the same translucent fabric as the exhibits walls were carefully hand sewn into the exhibit’s “ceiling’ (or water surface) by PTMSC staff. That water surface also includes what can only be described as a”pigeon guillemot’s butt,” the swimming side when viewed from underwater.

The interpretive panels are printed on PET 100% recyclable material and PTMSC will upcycle them when the exhibit eventually ends — turning them into bags and other merchandise.

The kelp bulbs are made from upcycled holiday ornaments and the rocks that the holdfasts attach to are filled with upcycled packing foam. 

Mandi Johnson and Program Director Diane Quinn at work
hand sewing bull kelp fronds to the exhibit's ceiling.

The rewarding opportunity to sit together around a large table during a work day and hand-sew exhibit highlights proved to be a delightful chance for coworkers to get to know one another. Staff members brought in their sewing machines from home to hem the exhibit walls and attach fabric signs, and others donated bins of quilted batting and fiber stuffing to create the exhibit’s sea floor "rocks.”

The fact that the exhibit artist is married to the aquarium curator, and that the exhibit designer and the program director worked together at Seattle’s Burke Museum for many years, added to the fun of the whole project.

The beauty of the structure’s imagery extends to the carefully researched and thoughtfully written interpretive panels that accompany the exhibit. Andrew Whiteman took the lead on writing the narratives based on an outline that Ali Redman created. The text incorporates some of the work that the Puget Sound Restoration Fund did for their bull kelp StoryMap.The panels feature historical, cultural and even culinary uses of kelp with imagery freely offered by generous sources who believe in the importance of sharing the value of this vital ecosystem.

BKE visitors will learn that the kelp forest is one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. Found in cool marine waters around the globe, kelp forests’ diverse and dynamic communities are comparable to coral reefs and rainforests. In North America, kelp forests provide habitat for over 1,000 species of plants and animals such as fish, invertebrates, sea otters, sea lions and whales.

Interpretive materials also include 21 actions one can take at work, within one’s community, while on the water and as one goes about their day, including purchasing sustainable seafood products and supporting kelp farming by using toiletries, food and other household products containing sustainable kelp ingredients. Support for organizations working to conserve and restore kelp forests is also encouraged.

Hand constructed sea creatures populate the exhibit.
A handy field guide is provided at the exhibit, featuring the beautiful images from the installation, helpful for identifying the 40 creatures illustrated.

Designed to be a highly portable exhibit, the structure is basically a folding tent that features several enhancements, including a recorded soundscape that will play sea sounds on discreetly placed speakers. Ambient lighting simulates the nearshore habitat’s location to the sun and future plans include a live tank with sea creatures found in the forest. A video of a kelp forest underwater experience by well-known documentary videographer Florian Graner will be available as well. 

PTMSC volunteers have been very eager to sign up for opportunities to provide interpretation for the exhibit and have been provided resources and individualized training to effectively tell the story of this ecosystem. These volunteer docents will be on hand for the exhibit Friday through Sunday, November 25 through February 25, in our Flagship Landing Gallery located in downtown Port Townsend.

The nearshore, including kelp forests, are a priority habitat but comparatively few people in our area have access and means to explore them. We know that education and outreach are an integral part of their protection and recovery, and we are excited to introduce this immersive science learning experience to students, families and adults throughout the region.

Written by PTMSC Volunteer Coordinator Tracy Thompson.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Update: PTMSC's resident giant Pacific octopus

Sylvia weighs more than 20 pounds and is still growing

When our resident giant Pacific octopus (GPO), Sylvia, joined our collection in June 2020, he was a planktonic paralarva no bigger than a dime. Over two years later, Sylvia weighs more than 20 pounds and is still growing. GPOs live around 3-4 years and weigh 44-66 pounds when fully mature.
photo by Melissa Bixby

In the wild, GPOs are found from the rocky intertidal to the quiet depths, with many found in kelp forests. While Syvlia’s kelp forest is admittedly smaller than nature, it forms the base of the husbandry and enrichment program that keeps his physical and psychological needs met. 

As he matures, how we care for him adjusts to his changing needs. New and more challenging puzzle feeders, enhanced training, frequent meals, and a little extra attention are all components to providing the best possible experience for visitors and Syvia himself.

When mature, octopuses reproduce and then pass into their final life stage: senescence. To promote animal welfare, we aim to release octopuses as they reach maturity and before they enter senescence. 

Many visitors wonder how we determine when that is. Although age and weight can be general indicators, there are many additional physiological and behavioral indicators such as appetite, physical condition and changes in behavior patterns. So when will we release Sylvia? We don’t know yet, but we are watching carefully to find out. Until then, Sylvia continues to grow to maturity while showing visitors just how amazing and precious our marine environment and its inhabitants are.

Written by PTMSC Aquarist Ali Redman

Monday, October 24, 2022

Microbial ecology, aquaponics and more with Lee Bebout

Volunteer Spotlight

Former NASA research scientist 
Lee Bebout is an outstanding volunteer.
As a child growing up in Arkansas and Oklahoma, Leslie (Lee) Bebout’s family loved to go fishing. “What you did as a family on your weekends, or whenever you got together, you would go fishing,” she recounted.

Lee wasn’t that enamored with fishing. “My favorite thing was to sit by the side of the river or creek and watch the little fish or tadpoles. Sometimes I would build little dams to see what they were eating. There was something about the light and the breeze and the sun, I found it very fascinating and mesmerizing.”

This childhood activity of quiet contemplation and observation no doubt influenced Lee’s career as a microbial ecologist, which is the study of the interactions of microorganisms with their environment, each other, and plant and animal species. She holds a Master’s degree in geology from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and a Ph.D. in microbial ecology from the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

Lee met her biogeochemist husband Brad Bebout at Chapel Hill when they were studying for their Master’s degrees. They have been able to work at four different places together, most recently at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

“It has been amazing, how we have done this [career in academia] and managed to survive. What we do is similar, but different enough that I always ended up finding a position too,” she said.

The Bebouts made the move to Port Townsend from Bonny Doon, Calif., in December 2020. The pandemic and eventual shutdown of their research lab gave them a lot of dark hours to fill that winter, so they took a variety of Washington State University extension classes, including the Beach Naturalist, Stream Stewards and Cultivating Success courses, the latter of which taught them how to run a farming business.

Lee doesn’t currently have a plan to start a farming business but she and Brad continue to be fascinated with aquaponic farming. This system uses the ammonia and nitrates in the fish waste water and converts them into nitrates to fertilize the vegetables, while using less water than traditional agriculture.

They were active aquaponic farmers at their home in California, cycling through tilapia, koi and catfish along the way. Ultimately, however, Lee said they found the catfish “too cute” to eat. She is unclear as to which fish they might use for their Port Townsend efforts.

The couple hope to ultimately grow enough vegetables for their own use, for their friends and neighbors and to donate to the local food bank.

Lee began volunteering for the PTMSC in earnest this past spring. She has staffed a regular greeter shift on Sundays in the aquarium, a role she enjoys.

“I like greeting people, it's kind of fun! I really try to make it a positive experience for folks,” Lee said.

She’s gained a lot of knowledge about pinto abalone and giant Pacific octopuses but feels she has more to learn to be a docent.

Lee and Brad also commit time as volunteers for PTMSC’s SoundToxins program, pulling plankton samples from Discovery Bay. They are also involved in a mussel sampling program with the Washington State Department of Health.

Lee is interested in studying aquaculture for shellfish farming and hopes to learn more about zooplankton. She is becoming more familiar with the local phytoplankton thanks to her time behind the microscope in PTMSC’s ‘labacita’ and enjoys the diversity of specimens in the cold water of her new environment.

She credits her adult daughter, who attended college in Tacoma, with enticing her to the area. Her daughter is now an EMT and emergency room technician who also teaches kayaking and stand up paddleboard classes.

“We enjoyed visiting the Olympic Peninsula over the years and wanted to get away from the crowds, earthquakes and drought of California,” Lee said.

She and Brad both have plans to get more involved in PTMSC’s education programming. They have experience with valuable teacher education models used in California, including the STEP and Star programs, both of which focus on real-world applications for both students and teachers.

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