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.


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