Monthly Archives: February 2010

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Escargot caviar and upcoming beach walk

A snail egg example in a minute, but first I wanted to invite you to an upcoming beach walk where we’ll probably find eggs and snails in the flesh. Beach Naturalists in the Kitsap WSU Beach Watchers program (and me as the co-coordinating UW Husky) will lead a walk on Thursday, February 25th, 2010 from 7-8:30PM (-1.1 tide at about 8:15PM).

Frilled dogwinkles (Nucella lamellosa) eggs on a rock. Photo: Jeff Adams

A few parking spots are available where Sebring Dr. splits off from the ferry line. You can also park roadside on Cherry or possibly in the Southworth Grocery Parking (don’t know their hours). I’m sure there’s street parking elsewhere in the community. I think the big lot next to the ferry line is $5. We will start at the point of entry at the end of SE Sebring Drive (click for map) and walk south under the ferry dock and beyond. In Seattle area? For the price of a walk-on ticket from Fontleroy (~$6) you can enjoy an awesome evening on the water.

Bring flashlights/headlamps and warm waterproof clothes and boots. We’ll see lots of life under the ferry dock and and along the beach. We’ll also see a cool eroding high bluff (as much as we can in the dark anyway). If we catch some sea pens in the right mood, maybe we can check out their bioluminescence. We’ll also keep our eyes out for snail eggs…

Frilled dogwinkle (Nucella lamellosa) with eggs. Photo: Jeff Adams

Some marine snails lay very distinctive eggs. The most commonly encountered is the frilled dogwinkle (Nucella lamellosa). These beauties aggregate and produce eggs in prodigious quantities. The bright yellow, rice shaped blankets of eggs on a rock will catch your attention. Then look at the base of the rock and you will likely see a few or even heaps of adult snails. Frilled dogwinkles range in color from brown to cream to orange and purple. They aren’t always frilled either. More often than not, I see them with rather smooth shells. Their shells thicken and lose the frills in response to the presence of predators (red rock crab for example). Frilled dogwinkles are slow compared to a crab, but their speed is plenty adequate for their immobile prey (barnacles and mussels). I’ll share other snail egg images in the future.

Frilled dogwinkles (Nucella lamellosa) eggs on a rock. Photo: Jeff Adams

An amazing site I came across for images of marine mollusk (clams, snails, limpets, chitons, abalone, etc.) shell, live animal and egg images is the Pacific Northwest Shell Club website. I can’t imagine this escargot or caviar on my dinner plate, but I hope you enjoy looking at it as much as I do. Enjoy the afternoon and evening low tides this week! JEff

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Ocean and Fishery Sciences and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea-life blog, email to or call at 360-337-4619.

Angels in the plankton

One of my fondest memories in while submerged in waters of the Northwest was an encounter with an angel. I was snorkeling around San Juan Island when I shifted my focus from the awesome seaweed and invertebrate life on the rocky outcrop, to the plankton mere inches in front of my face. There floated one of the loveliest and most graceful creatures I had ever encountered (it would be a few years yet before I cast eyes upon my wife). The sea angel (Clione limacina) gets up to 3″ long, though the one I shared the water with was smaller. During late winter, sea angels populations can explode in the plankton, though chance encounters can happen any time.

It seems I’m not the only one smitten with Clione. It has apparently reached cult status in Japan where sea angel figurines have even been packaged and sold with beer.

Of course, Clione‘s not the only angel in the plankton. Sea angels actually like to eat sea butterflies (Limnacina helicina). In fact, the sea angel’s species name is the same as the sea butterfly genus (limnacina). This is one of the many cases where taxonomists (people who identify things) name name creatures in a way that tells us something about them or their relationship to their environment.

Like the sea angels, sea butterflies are also planktonic gastropods, though in the case of butterflies you can actually see the shell through their clear tissue. Their wings (a snails foot that has evolved into two large parapodia [translation: near foot]) can beat rapidly, and since they have to compensate for the added weight of their shell, their wings have to keep busy when they’re close to the surface. They are minute fishermen (only 1/2″ long),

The graceful flappings of the winged sea slug (Gastropteron pacificum). Photo: Jeff Adams

stringing up mucus nets 4 times their size to capture tiny copepods and other microscopic plankton. When the net is full, they reel it in, gobble it up and spit out a new one.

While on the Bremerton Marina docks recently, I was able to get a few blurry shots of a winged sea slug (Gastropteron pacificum). It only reaches half the size (1.5″) of a large sea angel, but is such a pleasure to watch swim. It’s opaque, darker color and graceful swimming make it easier to spot from the surface than a sea angel. When not swimming, it often curls up on the bottom to rest.

All these species are not directly related, though they’ve evolved away from their snail, sea slug (nudibranch), limpet, and chiton cousins. They have left the sea floor to take advantage of the bounty of the plankton.  Here’s to the angels in our lives! JEff

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Ocean and Fishery Sciences and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea-life blog, email to or call at 360-337-4619.

The devil comes knocking… and is most welcome!

Giant Pacific octopus jetting through the water. Photo: Jeff Adams

While piering over the edge of a dock, taking pictures and looking for an invasive (but beautiful) marine bryozoan, I saw a flash of dark. In the second that followed, my first thought was a large salmon, but its movement was too fluid and agile. My next thought was small seal, but the shape and size weren’t right. Since I had my camera in the water, I pointed in that direction and took a shot. An instant later, the flash opened like a parachute and came to an abrupt halt a dozen feet from the water’s edge.

The octopus changed colors in two quick waves before dashing under the dock. I was afraid that was the last I’d see of it, but it then “tip toed” (for lack of a better description) with much less urgency across the boat launch to the next dock. This was an odd time and an odd place to find a giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) which is generally nocturnal and spends the day in their favorite crevice.

Particularly before recreational diving came into being, it’s easy to imagine how tall tales grew out of the existence of such a terrifically unusual creature. I have an old marine biology text, where the author refers to our Pacific Coast species as devilfish (not uncommon still today). At the same time, the author decries the misnomer and describes the creatures in colorful language not found in modern textbooks. The fear people had of old was clearly derived from ignorance. It was not unusual for the octopus to be depicted with pincers at the end of its arms or other nightmarishly concocted details. Today… many divers consider encountering these intelligent creatures like bumping into an old friend – except the friend’s under water… and doesn’t actually get very old (only 3-5 years!).

The speed with which an octopus can change color is mindblowing! Photo: Jeff Adams

I mentioned above that this octopus changed its color. For a creature with so many striking features, this is probably one of the most impressive. Octopuses and their kin (squid and cuddlefish) have four types or groups of cells that can influence their color. The most useful for this octopus is the chromatophore. The pigment-containing chromatore cell is surrounded by more than a dozen muscle cells and at least one nerve cell to trigger an instant contraction or relaxation of the chromatophore, thus changing the visible pigment. In the image to the left you can see the shudder of light running across the octopus. Other amazing features include their beak, their suckers, their lack of many hard parts, their diet, intelligence, ink, hydropropulsion, fishing pressure …). Maybe I can blog about those later.

We have two octopus species in the shallower waters of the Pacific Northwest – The giant Pacific and the Pacific red octopus (Octopus rubescens). The red is small (up to 20″ with arms spread), while the Pacific giant can reach 160 pounds and stretch their arms 24′! Much larger individuals are thought to exist. The octopus in these photos was a more modest size – 3 or 4′ while swimming and basketball sized while walking. Other identifying features include lots of flat, rounded skin flaps on the giant Pacific and more cylindrical, pointed skin flaps on the red. Also, the red has three skin flap eyelashes just below each eye; the giant Pacific has none.

You can see tightly coiled arms around the edge of this resting octopus' body. Photo: Jeff Adams

Divers enjoy regular visits with giant pacific octopus, but for those who don’t get more than wader deep in the water, it’s worth keeping an eye out for them when you’re exploring the intertidal, particularly in rockier areas.  They can survive for some time out of water as long as they stay cool and damp.

To get a wonderfully close look at these critters, check out the Port Townsend Marine Science Center or Seattle Aquarium. Octopus week at the Seattle Aquarium is coming up (2/13 – 2/20). A highlight is the annual Valentine’s Day “blind date”. A male octopus has already been introduced into the tank with the female, but they are currently separated by a perforated gate. The holes allow them to sense each other but not to come into contact. At noon on Valentine’s Day the two will be allowed to meet in octoperson.

On the Kitsap Peninsula, the Poulsbo Marine Science Center is a fabulous place to visit an octopus and enjoy other marine life. Currently “Mr. Bob” is the resident octopus. You can see a couple pictures under News on the PMSC website. Exploring the Center is free of charge and the doors are open 11-4 Thursday-Sunday.

There are lots of places to look for more information. A couple good starts might be The Giant Octopus Web Page or The Cephalopod Page. May you be so fortunate to enjoy a devil of your own! JEff

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Ocean and Fishery Sciences and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea-life blog, email to or call at 360-337-4619.

Time to pen a brief blog

For some, the keyboard has replaced the pen. Of course, the ball point has long since replaced the plume. Fortunately, for you retro folks, you can still enjoy the lovely plume of the orange sea pen (Ptilosarcus gurneyi – “Ptilo” is Greek for feather or down) gracing the subtidal (if you’re a diver) or in sand or mud of the the lower intertidal. On the Kitsap Peninsula, I’ve only seen them intertidally at the Southworth ferry dock. In fact, I dropped a camera in the drink trying to take a picture of it. That salt encrusted camera carcass now hangs in my office. … My new camera is waterproof. … I wonder if they’re higher in the intertidal at the ferry docks because the ferry wash kicks them up and they reroot at a shallower depth? Hmm, need more info for that question. Let me know where you find it intertidally.

Orange sea pen (Ptilosarcus gurneyi) - Photo: Jeff Adams

When exposed on a low tide, this beauty squeezes out its water and recoils into something resembling a small orange brain. Add a little water though, and presto! They expand to a lovely plume, feeding on the plankton that wash past. Now for the even cooler part… They aren’t really a single living creature with a body and some sort of feathery feeding appendages (like a feather duster worm or plumose anemone).

They’re related to corals, which have many tiny polyps that build and add onto the calcium carbonate base they all share. The hundreds of polyps in a sea pen have different functions but work together as a single organism. The big “stem” of the pen is made up of one enormous polyp that no longer has tentacles and formed a big bulb at the bottom that it uses to fix itself in the sediment. The feathery parts of the pen that branch out from the stem are made up of tiny polyps that feed on plankton, intake water or produce sperm and eggs.

Orange sea pens may fall prey to several species of sea stars, but are the primary prey of the striped nudibranch (Armina californica). Alas, the pen is not mightier than the slug.

Oh yeah, touch them at night …  They’re bioluminescent! We’ll probably see these during a beachwalk at the Southworth ferry dock on Thursday, February 25th (7:pm). We’ll see if we can coax them to illuminate the tide. Hope that splash of color brightens your day, JEff

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Ocean and Fishery Sciences and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea-life blog, email to or call at 360-337-4619.