Friday, May 31, 2019

Fossil finding fun!

Softball-sized concretions hold treasures

You never quite know what you’re in for when you work at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. Sometimes, the day will get totally away from you - and you just have to go along for the ride.

As part of our responsibilities for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, PTMSC has been tracking a deceased gray whale first seen floating off Indian Island at the beginning of the week. On Tuesday, we got a report that the whale had landed in our response zone and so little time was wasted before a crew of staff and AmeriCorps were piling into a car and driving out to respond to the stranding.

The particulars about this stranding are still being pieced together, and will certainly warrant its own blog post once more information comes to light. For now, I’ll end this part of the story by saying that gray whales are having a particularly rough year up and down the West Coast. More information on the current increase in gray whale strandings can be found here.

But here’s where the day took a sharp turn toward the unexpected. (And, yes, I recognize that getting to see a gray whale up close is the “expected” part of this story. Such is the life of a PTMSC AmeriCorps member.)

As we were packing up our stranding gear and getting ready to hike back up the bluff, I glanced down and saw - lying in a pile of dull, unassuming beach pebbles - a dull, unassuming, but perfectly spherical rock.

I was immediately suspicious. I pointed it out to Citizen Science AmeriCorps Michael Siddel, and then again to Education Coordinator Carolyn Woods, and then (for good measure) Citizen Science Coordinator Betsy Carlson.

We all agreed: this softball-sized rock was a concretion.

Dull and unassuming, concretions stand out only due to their shape. They are almost perfect spheres!
Take a fresh piece of prehistoric plant or animal, bury it in sediment, let it cook for a few years, and eventually that piece of organic matter might become the center - or nucleus - of a concretion. Today, these orb-like formations are harder than the surrounding rock, and so are easily eroded from our bluff faces and deposited on our beaches. Crack one open, and that organic nucleus is still there - a fossil, in a perfect geologic gift box!

Once we spotted one concretion, we started noticing that the stretch of beach we’d been working on was littered with them, ranging from baseball- to soccer ball-sized formations.

So, like good scientists, we got cracking.

One of the best fossils of the afternoon, found by the beach's landowner. Check out the carapace on the crab in the center! Photo by Betsy Carlson.

In a few short minutes, we had quite the collection going. We found fossilized snails, wood fragments, leaf impressions, and one very nice crab. It had quickly turned into an incredible learning opportunity for the landowners who had initially reported the stranding - they had no idea their beach was full of potential fossils!

Eventually, we left the landowners to their newfound hobby and went a few miles up the road to two of our stranding network volunteers’ home. Our intention was to explore potential necropsy sites for the gray whale (again - more details to come in a later blog post). Of course, Michael and I were immediately distracted when we started seeing even more fossils on this stretch of beach.

Checking to see if any fossils were exposed after
a few good hammer smashes. Photo by Carolyn Woods.
This time, we were prepared. We brought a hammer.

An hour or so of rock smashing later, we found more wood fragments, leaf imprints, and a handful of additional shells. We even found a few non-concretion fossils, embedded in large boulders at the surf’s edge!

All in all, it was a pretty spectacular day. Getting to see a mature gray whale up close was one of those awe-inspiring moments that will last a lifetime. And the fossilhead kid in me - who happily watched Jurassic Park on constant rerun throughout her childhood - is having a blast trying to identify some of her fantastic new paperweights.

Another incredible find: a marine snail shell, preserved in a
rock totally exposed to the beach! No concretion needed!

Written by Ellie Kravets, Natural History AmeriCorps Member 

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Update on the future of the PTMSC Aquarium!

Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission to hold public meeting on Monday, June 10

The Washington Parks and Recreation Commission will hold a public meeting on Monday, June 10, 6-7:30 p.m., Room A the Commons Building at Fort Worden, that has direct implications on the future of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center Aquarium.

The boat launch, dock and pier on which the PTMSC Aquarium is located, viewed from above.
Photo courtesy of Washington State Parks and Recreation
The primary purpose for the meeting is to present plans to replace the boat launch ramp -- adjacent to the pier on which the PTMSC Aquarium is located -- with one that is more compatible with the shoreline ecology.

Also planned is a discussion on the future of the pier itself.

Because the PTMSC has a facility located on the pier, a new proposed location will be presented.

This meeting follows the public meeting held on April 18, when various proposals were discussed and public input was documented

This is the first phase of the project, which requires State Parks to prepare a predesign report for the Washington State Office of Financial Management. The report compares alternatives with each other. 

Many factors will be analyzed during this process including constructibility and costs, compatibility with the natural environment, recreational access improvements, and consideration of aesthetics within the historical context of Fort Worden.

The commission is requesting public comments at the meeting on its preliminary recommendations. Please consider attending the meeting and also commenting on alternatives presented at the meeting!

More information can be found here.

For more information about the June 10 meeting, contact Michael Hankinson, 360-725-9756, or send an email at

Monday, May 13, 2019

Apply Now for 2019 PTMSC Anne Murphy Ocean Steward Scholarship

The Port Townsend Marine Science Center is pleased to announce the annual $1,500 Anne Murphy Ocean Stewardship scholarship for a graduating East Jefferson county senior. 
Applicants should be graduating seniors from a public or private school, or a home-schooled student who expects to complete high school level instruction by June 2019.  The person who wins this scholarship will be selected on the basis of his or her demonstrated interest in science and the environment. Having volunteered on behalf of education about or conservation of the Salish Sea is especially desirable, particularly at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. The scholarship may be used for tuition, books, or living expenses while pursuing higher education.

To apply for the scholarship, please go to and search for Anne Murphy Ocean Stewards Scholarship. Questions, please contact Liesl Slabaugh, Development and Marketing Director, at or 385-5582 x101.

Applications are due by May 22, 2019. The winner will be selected and notified by May 30, 2019.  The award will be given at the PTMSC Annual Meeting on Tuesday, July 9th.

Friday, May 10, 2019

UPDATED May 9! Two PTMSC volunteers join a NOAA Ecosystem Assessment Cruise

PTMSC volunteers Frank Handler and Melody Stewart were selected for an 11-day voyage aboard a NOAA research vessel to collect samples for marine toxins. Frank's periodic messages and smart phone images appear below, scroll to the bottom for the latest!

“I’ve always wanted to be a marine biologist,” Frank Handler once told his friend, Port Townsend Marine Science Center Citizen Science Coordinator Betsy Carlson. And yet his professional pathway took him elsewhere.
PTMSC voliunteer Frank Handler

Now, retired, Frank has the chance to fulfill a life-long dream. With security clearances, medical office approvals and bags packed, Frank and his neighbor, PTMSC volunteer Melody Stewart, arrived in Newport, Ore., on April 28 to start an 11-day voyage aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel, Bell M. Shimada.

Frank and Melody will be alternating 12-hour shifts on the state-of-the-art fisheries survey vessel, collecting samples for marine toxin and harmful algal species analysis during the 2019 Northern California Current Ecosystem Assessment Cruise.

The trip came together quickly.

In March 2019, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center Harmful Algal Bloom team sent out a request for volunteers to participate in a series of cruises along the Washington, Oregon and California coastlines. The request was shared with PTMSC SoundToxins volunteers.

Melody and Frank, prepping for departure
For Melody and Frank, it was a perfect fit. Both have spent many hours looking through a microscope as part of their volunteer work with the SoundToxins project. They are skilled with plankton nets and have practice identifying plankton. So, the duo took the initiative, contacted NOAA to volunteer and were accepted!

Here is the project description sent from NOAA:
“The project will be conducting 24-hour operations, sampling stations on the continental shelf and out to 200 nm along transects from 38°N to 45.5°N [see map below]. At each station a CTD (with rosette, fluorometer and DO) and plankton nets (bongo and vertical net) will be deployed for the primary project. The NWFSC Harmful Algal Bloom team is seeking volunteers to participate in the cruise to collect samples for particulate and dissolved toxins (e.g. domoic acid), macro-nutrients, chlorophyll, DNA, and cell counts from the Niskin bottles on the CTD rosette at the stations on the map below. A hand deployed phytoplankton net tow will also be conducted at each station to collect a concentrated sample for phytoplankton ID."

News from the ship

At first, the PTMSC staff didn’t expect any news from Frank or Melody because of security concerns. So, it was a great surprise and relief when Frank sent his first message while underway. The images are small (apologies for their low resolution), so just consider this a teaser for when we can hear more about their experiences: How they adjusted to life on board, what they did, what they saw and where they went.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Stefanie Worwag and Mario Rivera: new, old hands for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network

Throughout the 2019 GiveBIG campaign, we are showcasing the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s long-standing commitment to the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Plan your donation now -- we have a dollar-for-dollar matching fund of $8,000 -- to support this crucial program that is so vital to the well-being of the marine mammals that make the Salish Sea their home.

Stefanie Worwag and Mario Rivera started volunteering for the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s Marine Mammal Stranding Network just over a year ago. Stefanie is a veterinarian and Mario is a retired police officer and retired military. 

“What drew us to the Marine Mammal Stranding Network is the strong desire to help animals,” said Mario, who has also volunteered for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Mario Rivera and Stefanie Worwag, right, with the northern elephant seal stranding team.
“We both have a great passion for animals, and the aspiration to learn more about marine life.”

Because Mario and Stefanie are new to the program this season, they have only responded to five or six stranding call-outs. A typical call-out can last anywhere from 1 ½ to 4 hours depending on the situation and location.

“Something we also do before responding is to do a quick research of the type of animal we’re going encounter, to have a working knowledge of the animal,” said Mario.

Despite their relative lack of experience with marine mammals, they have jumped in with both feet.

“On two call-outs, Stefanie assisted with performing necropsies on two mammals, one being a [northern] elephant seal and the other a Steller sea lion,” recalled Mario, who added that the necropsy of the sea lion was a memorable event for Stefanie because they determined the actual cause of death.

“A Ratfish spine had lodged in the animal’s esophagus and migrated into a large vessel in its chest,” said Mario. “He bled out and was septic.”

An unforgettable experience for Mario was the stranded elephant seal.

The team of PTMSC staff and volunteers examine the
stranded northern elephant seal. Staff photo.
“It was huge, about 14 feet long and it weighed approximately 4000 pounds!” Mario exclaimed.
The project took on added importance because the PTMSC was allowed to preserve the full skeleton as a tool for future study, education and display. 

Above: Mario in action, left; Stefanie, right, checking on the decomposition 
with with PTMSC's Citizen Science Coordinator Betsy Carlson. Staff photos.

Besides the MMSN program, Stefanie and Mario volunteer for home crew (tank cleaning), beach surveys and public events. On Sunday, April 21, they staffed a PTMSC table at the Finnriver Earth Day Expo, where community organizations showcased their programs in support of environmental protection and stewardship. About 40 people stopped by to learn more about upcoming programs, volunteering and membership. 

Staffing the PTMSC table at the 2019 Finnriver Earth Day Expo.
The PTMSC is very grateful for Mario’s and Stefanie’s support and the ways in which they have rolled up their sleeves – literally – as citizen scientists and volunteers.

“Volunteering for the MMSN is a wonderful opportunity to learn about the marine mammals in this area and possibly be a crucial link in the survivability of the animals,” said Mario. “It is a very rewarding experience.”

To learn more about the Marine Mammal Stranding Network and other volunteer opportunities at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, visit

Friday, May 3, 2019

Citizen Science Day BioBlitz 2019

On Saturday, April 20, local volunteers gathered at Port Townsend Marine Science Center to conduct the second annual BioBlitz of Fort Worden State Park in celebration of both Citizen Science Day and Earth Day.

A BioBlitz is a 24-hour intensive study that aims to document as many species as possible for a given area. Our goal was to find and identify as many plants, birds, mammals, invertebrates, fungi and more as we could during the event.

Pacific blood star (photo by Wendy Feltham)

All of this was made possible with the use of iNaturalist. iNaturalist is a social network for naturalists, and it allows its users to document and upload sightings of any living thing that they encounter in the wild. Anyone can click on these observations to view photos as well as see where and when it was observed. Other users can also suggest identifications, which is very helpful when the person uploading the observation doesn’t recognize what they saw.

Rockweed (photo by Wendy Feltham)

Using the iNaturalist mobile app, volunteers photographed, identified and uploaded every living organism they encountered in Fort Worden to our iNaturalist project page, which is available for anyone to view online here.

All members of the public were welcome to attend. This year we had 22 participants, many of which were local students from Port Townsend High School. It was wonderful to have them all become engaged in citizen science and discover more about the organisms that live in their local area.

A purple shore crab observed by
 Port Townsend High School students (photo by Claudia Garfias)

In total, our participants made 344 observations of 150 different species. Of those 150 species, the three most common groups were plants (62 species), birds (22 species), and mollusks (20 species). The information that we gathered during the BioBlitz will be especially useful to visitors of Fort Worden State Park, as it will give them an idea of what organisms they are likely to find during their visit.

A map displaying all of the observations made during the BioBlitz

Many of the organisms that were observed during the BioBlitz have yet to be identified. If you would like to help us identify these species, or simply get started on making your own observations, go to to sign-up for a free account.

Written by Michael Siddel, Citizen Science Educator AmeriCorps Member