Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Feeding Flounders

The starry flounder wouldn’t eat. Over the preceding week, I’d tried nearly everything. He turned up his nose at krill, herring, clams, shrimp, and geoduck. If he didn’t eat soon, I was going to have to release him back into the wild. This starry flounder is about a foot long, with the sassy expression and bugged out eyes that only a flatfish can master. He’d only been in the exhibit for two weeks but I was already pretty attached to him.

I decided to play my picky-eater trump card. I went outside with a net and caught a few small grass shrimp off some kelp. I dropped one into the tank — the flounder either didn’t see it or didn’t care. The next one I held carefully by the tail and inched closer to the mouth of my new friend. He was uninterested until the shrimp wiggled wildly. The flounder slid closer and then snapped up the shrimp! Success! “Good boy!” I said. “Good fish!”
Serving as the Marine Exhibit Educator AmeriCorps Member at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center is full of small puzzles like the Flounder Dilemma. Each one has to be tackled with care and speed because there are many different individuals from every imaginable phylum counting on me. The starry flounder needs to eat so that he can stay healthy and strong in the exhibit. But he also needs to eat so that he can be a vibrant and interesting ambassador of his species. On an ideal day, I don’t teach people about the fish — the fish themselves are interesting enough to teach the visitors.

Me cheesin' with the starry flounder (in the water directly below me).
A few days later, the starry flounder had developed a prodigious appetite. Now he eats everything offered to him, although he still greatly prefers to be hand-fed grass shrimp (how luxurious). On public feeding days, he swims around his tank vivaciously and children ask, “what kind of fish is that? How does he swim? Why are his eyes on one side?” We talk about the spotty patterns on his back, not unlike the night sky, his nearly symmetrical dorsal and anal fins, and the fascinating transformation he went through as a larva that shifted both of his eyes onto his right side. As often happens in the Marine Exhibit, these answers beget more questions and a day of learning and exploring begins.

As a Washington Service Corps Member, my mission is the same as that of the organization at which I serve: to inspire conservation of the Salish Sea. The work that feeds into this mission can be dirty; some days I leave the office covered in herring guts or rotten whale slime or muck from inside the pipes. But each of these messy projects supports the education and outreach programs we tackle every day. I take the time to look after our starry flounder; to clean his tank, monitor his behavior, and figure out his favorite food. Now, as a team, we will teach hundreds of people about his species, his habitat and the sea on which his life depends.

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

The Marine Exhibit is open for Summer Hours! Come say hello to the resident animals, and get ready to meet some brand-new critters! The exhibits are open every day from 11 am -5 pm, except Tuesdays.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

2015 Marine Science Center Annual Report

Change and growth were significant themes for the Port Townsend Marine Science Center in 2015. An updated website, new logo, and a number of new staff members were welcomed this year.

In this report, you'll see exciting stories of the people and programs making the Science Center's growth a reality and highlights of 2015 accomplishments.

Check it out, and let us know what you think in the comments!

CELEBRATE FATHER'S DAY with free admission to our exhibits and a lovely afternoon on the water cruising to Protection Island and Rat Island in one Puget Sound Express' comfortable vessels and enjoying wildlife interpretation from our onboard naturalists. Become a member to save $20!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Pollock in the Night

Last week, two intrepid NOAA researchers came to collect fish in Fort Worden. Mara Spencer and Scott Haines have been collecting walleye pollock off the Fort Worden floating dock for the past 20 years. After collection, the fish rest in the Marine Exhibit Lab before the long trip back to Newport, Oregon, and the Hatfield Marine Science Center, where Mara and Scott are based.

One tiny walleye pollock in his new home
The walleye pollock fishery is one of the largest in the world, with over 3-million tons harvested each year. The NOAA team is investigating the effects of global change on these and other arctic fishes. They use a collection technique I’d never seen or heard of, so I practically begged to tag along to watch the fish-trapping spectacle.

In the dark of night, Mara lowered a bright light into the calm, black water. At first, all we saw was blue water and the glare from a huge net lying in wait below. Then, there was movement. A small gray speck squiggled towards the light. It was joined by another and another until there was a thick swarm of crab larvae following the light. Next came the fish. Juvenile walleye pollock, some only a few centimeters long, began to creep towards the center of the net. Bright green and orange gunnels slithered passed, pipefish effortlessly floated by, and tadpole sculpin frantically swam in the midnight sun. Like flies to a porch lamp, the life in the eelgrass bed below was inescapably drawn towards the glow. Undulating shadows signaled the arrival of more mysterious creatures. Bizarre polychaete worms squirmed and burrowed into the net, a solitary squid jetted away, and kelp isopods flew by, silhouetted like bees in the sun.

Fish in the exhibit: Walleye pollock, shiner perch (giving birth!), and a painted greenling
Just when I thought I knew this ecosystem fairly completely, it threw a few more surprises my way. Just a friendly reminder from this stunning planet that mystery abounds and adventure is out there. As I grow as a naturalist, it can be frustrating to encounter new organisms I can’t identify. I must remind myself to see the phrase “I don’t know” as a puzzle, not a failure. Surprises like a squid under a light are what make fieldwork so fun and the Marine Exhibit such a joy.

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

The Marine Exhibit is open for Summer Hours! Come say hello to the resident animals, and get ready to meet some brand-new critters! The exhibits are open every day from 11 am -5 pm, except Tuesdays.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Announcing Winner of Anne Murphy Ocean Stewardship Scholarship!

The Port Townsend Marine Science Center is pleased to announce the winner of the Anne Murphy Ocean Stewardship scholarship.

The Port Townsend Marine Science Center awards this $500 scholarship annually to a graduating East Jefferson county high school senior who embodies the values that Anne Murphy lives: curiosity, wonder, and love of the marine environment.

Anne Murphy served as Executive Director of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, pouring her heart into growing an organization that would nurture exploration and discovery of our local shores and waters. She retired after 24 years, leaving behind a vibrant community treasure that has profoundly affected thousands of people.

Anne Murphy
The winner of this year's award, Chloe Dawson, is no stranger to the Marine Science Center. Chloe has given hundreds of hours in volunteer service to the Marine Science Center.

As part of the Plastics Project, Chloe spent years peering through a microscope dissecting seagull boluses and sifting through sand looking for tiny plastic pieces. As part of the Orca Project, she cleaned, measured, and restored the bones of Hope and then articulated the skeleton of a seal, which we now have in the Natural History Exhibit. Finally, she did a settling plate study and assisted in seal necropsies.

Chloe dissects seagull boluses, 2009
The selection committee was impressed and inspired by Chloe's future plans. She said in her application, "I am intrigued by the place where environmental science meets with computer science." She did a coding workship that changed her life. Now, she said, "when I feel the small wriggling bodies of the salmon smolt in my hand at a restoration site, I can see the code I would write to create models that predict salmon populations and aid in restoration." Chloe plans to pursue a double major in Environmental Science and Computer Science.

Chloe on a recent NOAA cruise
Finally, the selection committee was moved by Chloe's statement, "I have loved the Port Townsend Marine Science Center since I was a small child. Growing up, it was inspiring to be part of a community of volunteers who cared about our ecosystem. As I move on to college, I greatly appreciate the financial support of this scholarship so I can pursue my dreams of being a scientist who can contribute to the health of our planet.

We wish Chloe calm seas in this next chapter of her education!

Don't forget to join us this Saturday, June 4, at 9 am for a guided low tide walk! We're expecting to have great weather, so if you haven't ever participated in one of PTMSC's low tide walks, this would be a great weekend to grab your brand-new PTMSC hat and come out to explore!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

How to Sink a Gray Whale

The time has come! we're excited to finally share with you all the Marine Mammal Stranding Network adventures we've been having here at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. You may have seen the article in the Port Townsend Leader, the article in the Peninsula Daily News, or yesterday's blog post from Katie, and it's true — we have a gray whale!

Operation Gray Whale began when we received word that NOAA and Cascadia Research Collective had found the gray whale, and needed a spot to tow it for a necropsy. NOAA also wanted to confirm with us that we were definitely interested in the skeleton, as that influenced the final locale of the whale. We decided that yes, this would be an incredible opportunity, and we were able to secure a spot at Naval Magazine Indian Island.

And thus began a super-impressive, rarely-seen whirlwind of individuals, groups, and organizations coming together to accomplish an incredible feat in a short amount of time. Betsy Carlson, our new Citizen Science Coordinator, exuberantly took the reins to develop, coordinate, and oversee this operation.

Google searches of "how to sink a whale" filled our internet histories, and by Tuesday night, less than a week from the original call, the plan was set for Wednesday morning. A team of 20 Marine Science center staff, AmeriCorps, and volunteers were at the ready. It would be an exciting day!

Having only observed small animal necropsies (such as a harbor porpoise), I was excited and nervous to participate. The smells of decaying marine mammals are some of the worst I've experienced; I couldn't imagine what it would be like emanating all around me from such a large mass. Would I toss my cookies? (I ate a light breakfast that day.) Would I pass out? (is blubber a good cushion?) Would I stand strong in front of the tough Navy guys? It turns out I didn't have a thing to worry about. I did not toss my cookies or pass out, and I stood strong in front of those tough Navy guys. In fact, they were incredibly impressed that out of the 17 participants working on the whale, only four were male. Go, women power!

I wasn't actually doing the cutting and filleting (huge kudos to Team Whale!), but I had the important task of photo-documenting the process. I had my camera in hand doing macros of the baleen, of the fine layer of hair visible on the whale's skin, and of the fine capillaries and blood vessels.

I also captured the faces of those working on the whale — faces of disgust (this whale was stinky!) and faces of utter exhaustion. Sometimes I traded my camera for a shovel, and got to help bury the whale's intestines. How often does one get to respond with "I buried whale intestines" when asked what they did that day? I consider myself lucky.

Overall, it took 8.5 hours to execute the operation — from preparing ourselves in white Tyvek suits and dabbing essential oils under our noses to removing the viscera, baleen, pectoral fins, and scapula, wrapping the whale in a burrito of Spectra netting, and anchoring it to the sea floor with the help of a support boat.

Reflecting on this experience, I am truly in awe of what we all accomplished that day. With a crunched timeline, there were many things that could have gone wrong, but everything aligned in perfect order. Tensions were non-existent as everyone pulled together in what I can only describe as a dance. A bloody, gory, and smelly dance, yes, but a beautiful, synchronized dance where everyone had their part to play and executed it perfectly.

Furthermore, the amount of generosity and support pouring out from the community through in-kind donations, volunteer time, and more, is humbling. Thank you, to all, for your hard work, dedication, and unwavering enthusiasm for dead things!

And of course, thank you for your pursuit and support of marine science education. This gray whale represents a new chapter of citizen science projects, educational opportunities for our students, and incredible exhibit content for us at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. We can't wait to see what comes next!

AMY JOHNSON is the Volunteer Coordinator at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

Don't forget to join us this Saturday, June 4, at 9 am for a guided low tide walk! We're expecting to have great weather, so if you haven't ever participated in one of PTMSC's low tide walks, this would be a great weekend to grab your brand-new PTMSC hat and come out to explore!