In the wee hours of Sunday 12 August 2018, the F/V Pacific Quest ran aground near Terrace Point. Over the next 24 hours she broke apart and began leaking diesel fuel into Monterey Bay. Fortunately most of the diesel was removed from the wreck, but the boat itself continued to disintegrate, with a lot of the debris washing up on the nearby shoreline. Due to the wreck's position on the beach, clean-up crews have access to it only at low tide. We are now getting into a period of neap tides, limiting the time that people and equipment can be safely deployed on the beach. The good news is that after a delay yesterday due to an electrical problem, the removal of the Pacific Quest itself has begun.
The real deconstruction of the boat started during the evening low tide on 15 August. It was supposed to start on the morning low tide, but there was a problem with the equipment and the crew spent the day waiting for and installing parts. The salvage crew used a crane to lower a small excavator onto the beach, which gathered debris into a large pile. The excavator was also used to smash the remains of the boat into smaller pieces, so the crane could hoist them up the cliff. My husband walked down to the lab and took some video of the action:
I was at the lab on the morning of 16 August and took some pictures, too. The coastal access pathway is blocked around the area where the salvagers are working, so I could get only so close. Plus, the lighting conditions were about as bad as daylight can be, for taking photos: I was shooting directly into a bright morning sun, with a lot of fog in the air. As a result these photos aren't great, or even good, but they give a sense of what was going on at the time.
This picture of the crane was taken before any actual clean-up activity had started. The crane is positioned near the edge of the cliff on the coastal access trail. In this photo it is swiveled 180° away from the cliff.
While the crane was being fired up and moved into working position, two guys were on the beach using an excavator on the beach remove debris from the deck of the F/V Pacific Quest into a pile on the beach itself:
Then salvage workers attached a piece of debris to the line that was lowered by the crane:
And the crane began to lift up the chunk of debris:
And finally the piece of wreckage was taken off the beach:
I imagine the same sequence of events was repeated many times that morning, as often as the tide would allow. I hope the salvage guys are also picking up the flotsam that was carried to other beaches. The work will be limited by the tides. Fortunately we're into neap tides now, which is a mixed blessing. The highs and lows won't be as extreme as they were a week ago, resulting in less time that the crew can work on the beach (bad) as well as tides that are less likely to wash flotsam off the beach and back into the water (good).
The last I heard, the clean-up at the Terrace Point site was supposed to be completed by Saturday. That's tomorrow. Today (Friday 17 August) I went out to the point and had a nice chat with the security guy, who updated me on the progress. He said the crew removed the rest of the boat and a fuel tank yesterday. And the site of the original wreck is now clear of large pieces of boat:
There is one more fuel tank on the other side of that point, which the salvage crew will work on removing this evening at 20:00h when the tide will be low again. There are also people picking up debris on the Natural Bridges side of the point.
It isn't easy, working in these conditions, and once the immediate hazard of additional fuel discharge was abated the clean-up seems to have made slow but steady progress. Most of the flotsam is already gone, except for the inevitable little pieces that will get missed in this initial burst of clean-up activity. This Sunday, a week after the initial shipwreck, a visitor to the beach will not know that anything of interest happened here. Those of us who live and work and study here will remember, though.
This morning I went out on what will probably be my last low tide of the season. We don't get any good (i.e., below 0 feet and during daylight hours) until November, so it's time to hang up the hip boots for a few months and work on other things. I had planned to go to Natural Bridges even before the shipwreck incident, and since the wreck is right next to Natural Bridges I thought it would be good to check on how much debris is washing up at a site I visit frequently.
I'm sure that most people are familiar with the phrase "flotsam and jetsam", referring to pieces of miscellaneous stuff. I had to look up the terms to remember the difference between them. Flotsam is the stuff that floats on the water and gets washed up when a ship or boat wrecks, while jetsam is the stuff that is deliberately thrown overboard to reduce weight (say, to increase speed). What I would be seeing today is flotsam.
It was so sad. I'm not naive enough to have thought there would be no debris, but I wasn't sure what to expect--big pieces? small pieces? identifiable pieces? At this point I hadn't checked on the status of the boat yet and didn't know how much of it was still grounded off Terrace Point.
The first thing I saw was something (I don't know what) that had been dragged up the beach. It looks like a piece of equipment tangled up in a big piece of fabric, maybe a t-shirt? More than one t-shirt?
The first recognizable thing I saw was, oddly, a bulb of garlic. I don't know why it was surprising. Obviously, people who spend a lot of time on boats eat on boats, and some of the flotsam from any shipwreck is going to be food, right? Another food item that washed up was a vacuum-sealed package labeled "Emergency Ration".
Another everyday household (boathold?) item was a tube of sunscreen. I also saw a few plastic utensils, which may or may not have been from the shipwreck. Unfortunately there's always some plastic detritus on all of our beaches these days, a legacy from decades of single-use plastics being literally thrown to the wind to end up as garbage in the oceans and elsewhere. Hard to believe that "out of sight, out of mind" used to be the universal prevailing outlook, isn't it? Here in California and elsewhere there is much greater awareness in recent years that plastic in the environment never really goes away. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, which can enter the food chain at lower and lower trophic levels. That's a whole other story to talk about. Maybe some day I'll be brave enough to tackle it.
Stuff from the wreckage was strewn across all of the intertidal benches and pocket beaches at Natural Bridges. This is looking towards Terrace Point, where remnants of the boat are stuck in the ground:
When I was watching the crews pumping fuel off the wrecked boat yesterday, I saw two survival suits washing around in the surf, and wondered where they would end up. I saw one of them this morning, along with two life vests.
And a respirator:
And an entire boat. This is the inflatable Zodiac that had been tied to the roof of the cabin of the F/V Pacific Quest.
I don't know what Marine Compound is, but a bottle of it washed up, along with what looks like a piece of insulation:
And of course there was styrofoam. Styrofoam is insidious stuff, because it doesn't remain intact long enough to be removed as big pieces, but instead immediately starts breaking down into small bits that will soon enough become the nurdles that are such a problem for marine life.
Already the pieces of plastic and styrofoam were getting smaller. I don't know what the blue stuff is; another form of styrofoam, maybe?
Not all of the flotsam has washed onto the beaches and rocks. There is still a significant amount floating in the water, to be transported to other sites near and far. There's even flotsam in the tidepools. Wood, fiberglass, and plastic are all included.
After leaving the intertidal I went to the marine lab to see what things looked like from the cliff about the wreck. The entire front part of the boat is now gone, and the only part remaining is the aft end containing the two heavy engines.
From the cliff you can better see how widely dispersed the flotsam is. It isn't concentrated in any particular area but is everywhere, in pieces small and large.
There is some good news. All of the fuel was removed from the boat so there's no further danger of additional chemical pollution into Monterey Bay. The salvage crew did remove some of the debris from the immediate area around the wreck, and tomorrow the engine will be removed by crane up the cliff. It's going to be an impressive and LOUD undertaking, starting very early in the morning.
Taking the long view, this is one of a great many acute insults to the marine environment. The ocean is resilient to some extent, but our actions are causing changes that affect the entire biosphere. I'm having a hard time finding a silver lining in this shipwreck. I certainly never wanted to bear witness to an environmental disaster on any scale. And while in the grand scheme of things this is a small localized event, it feels pretty momentous to me.
I'll leave you with this more positive photo. Flotsam aside, it was a beautiful morning.
Very early in the morning of Sunday 12 August 2018, the F/V Pacific Quest ran aground near Long Marine Lab. I found out about it because the lab facilities manager sent out a global e-mail telling us that a boat had wrecked and telling us that the seawater pumps had been turned off just in case the boat leaked any fuel or oil. The e-mail came through at about 06:00h. By the time I got to the lab at 10:30 the pumps had been turned back on. After I made sure all of my animals were okay, I moseyed over to the cliff to see what I could see.
The tide was coming in, to a high of 5 feet at 12:42h. The captain had dropped an anchor before leaving the boat after it got stuck on the reef ledge, which kept it from drifting away and becoming a hazard to other vessels on the water. The rising tide had lifted the boat from the ledge to land between the ledge and a small rock island. The swells picked up the boat, but the hull had been damaged and she was taking on water. The captain was the only person on the boat, so there was no loss of human life in this incident.
The swells were continually breaking over the bow, flooding the cabin and washing flotsam off into the ocean.
A Vessel Assist boat was there when I arrived and was stationed just inside the kelp bed. They put two guys into the water, who swam to the Pacific Quest and attempted to attach a tow line.
Ultimately, however, they decided that conditions were too dangerous for the Vessel Assist boat to tow away the Pacific Quest. The hull had been breached and the boat had taken on a lot of water, making her too heavy to be towed safely. Besides, the Pacific Quest is a 65-foot fishing boat, making her about twice as long as the small Vessel Assist boat. The two guys swam back out to the rescue boat and they drove away.
Meanwhile the tide continued to rise, and the Pacific Quest was clearly floating, albeit listing to port and heavy in the bow. I think that if she hadn't been anchored to the shore she would have floated away. Could she have been safely towed away at this point? I don't know. I do know that no other actions were taken to try to remove her.
I returned in the late afternoon for the high low tide, and it was clear that the boat was resting on the sand between the ledge and the small island. The continued bashing against the rock had put a big dent in the starboard side, no doubt worsening the hull breach.
With the boat stationary on sand, a salvage crew finally started taking action. They removed the remaining debris from the deck, including the fuel tank from the inflatable zodiac, and attached some lines.
Someone had determined that although the hull had been breached the fuel tanks were undamaged and were unlikely to release any diesel fuel or other oil into Monterey Bay. At the end of the day yesterday the plan was for the salvage crew to tie the boat down and keep her from drifting away after the evening high tide, and start pumping off the fuel at low tide this morning. Then the salvagers could work on removing the boat itself. I couldn't figure out exactly how they would remove the boat, but hey, I'm only a marine biologist, not a marine salvager. As long as the fuel tanks didn't rupture, things would be juuuuust fine.
So much for plans. The caretakers reported smelling diesel fumes at 21:30h last night, and shut down the seawater intake pipes. Turns out the boat had broken up during the rising tide, with at least one fuel tank ruptured. Fortunately, if that's a word that can be used in this situation, the shipwreck is downstream from the seawater intake. The pumps were shut down for a few hours this morning and we're on short rations, but there doesn't seem to be a significant amount of diesel in the seawater system.
I was working the low tide this morning and had an appointment afterward, so I didn't get to the lab until about noon. The boat was well and truly broken up by then, into two large pieces and a great many smaller ones. The pieces of wood, plastic, and fiberglass were already dispersing with the currents.
The good news is that the salvage crew had finally started pumping off the fuel remaining on the boat. As of 17:17 today the crew reports that they should be able to offload all of the fuel before the next high tide tonight. With any luck, they'll be able to finish the job and we can carry on as usual without anymore seawater interruptions. At this point I don't know what plans, if any, are in place to remove the boat parts on the beach. The various organizations at the marine lab are parties of interest, but none have the responsibility of cleaning up this mess. We just have to live and work with it.
UPDATE: As of 19:00h on Monday 13 August 2018 all fuel has been pumped out of the PacificQuest. The major risk of chemical pollution into Monterey Bay has been abated. The next stage of recovery is the retrieval of debris from the beach and ocean.
About a week ago, as part of yearly summer fire prevention, some of the fields at the marine lab were mown. After this happens many of the little critters living in the dried grasses are left homeless and become relatively easy prey for predators of all sorts. Since the mowing I had been seeing a great blue heron hunting in the field, and it took me until the day before yesterday to remember to bring the camera with me. Fortunately it was overcast that morning and the heron was there!
I watched the heron hunt (unsuccessfully) for a while, then my attention was drawn to a much more dynamic avian predator. A juvenile red-tailed hawk, possibly the one that grew up and fledged from the nest across the canyon from my house, flew overhead and perched in a cypress tree. From there it had a birds-eye view of the field, and it didn't take long for it to spot a late breakfast. The heron left, squawking loudly to protest the interruption to its hunting.
The hawk actually skinned the rodent before eating it. . .
. . . and then it ate the skin!
The hawk did not linger on the ground after eating its rodent prey. It flew back across the road up to the cypress tree again. I got lucky and managed to catch a few shots as it flew by.
Of course, I have no way of knowing if this young hawk is indeed the one we watched grow up. I'm reasonably certain that the marine lab is in the parents' foraging territory, as I've watched them leave the nest site and fly towards the lab. At some point the juvenile will have to disperse away from its parents and establish a territory elsewhere. In the meantime, it, along with other birds of prey, will have easy pickings in the fields. This has been a banner year for wood rats and gophers (ugh!), which means there should be plenty of food to go around.
By the way, the heron did not catch any rodents while I was watching. It did not return after the hawk arrived.
In early July we joined my in-laws on a 2-day driving trip around the International Selkirk Loop, a series of highways that follow rivers and lakes through the northeast corner of Washington, the northern skinny part of Idaho, and southern British Columbia. These roads pass through some beautiful country in both the U.S. and Canada, and it would be a nice trip to take at a more leisurely pace, stopping to explore some of the little towns along the way.
Knowing that we'd be driving through some spectacular scenery, I decided to test-drive a wide-angle lens. I rented the Nikkor 16-80mm lens, designed for crop-sensor cameras such as my Nikon D7200. I don't have much experience with wide-angle lenses, so it was a different kind of photography for me. And boy, talk about a whole new way of seeing things! I could get into landscape photography now. This post will showcase some of the photos I took with this lens.
Day 1: Our trip started in Blanchard, Idaho, a tiny dot on the South Lakes Super Side Trip outlined in pink in the map. Our first sight-seeing stop was the Kootenay National Wildlife Refuge, near the town of Bonners Ferry and about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. I hoped to see a moose. En route to the Refuge we took a dirt road and got a little lost. But our accidental detour took us through some wide open landscapes, and the sky was fantastic.
The Refuge is on the Pacific Flyway and is visited by many migrating birds in the spring and autumn. Mid-summer is supposed to be the best time to see moose, but the moose didn't read the same pamphlet that we did.
Seriously, doesn't this look like quintessential moose habitat? No moose to be seen.
Crossing into Canada, we continued driving north along the east side of Kootenay Lake. One of the perks of the trip is the free ferry ride across the lake, from the town of Kootenay Lake on the east shore to Balfour on the west shore. During the summer season the crossing is traversed by two ferries, the M/V Osprey 2000 and the smaller M/V Balfour. We were on the Osprey, which runs year-round. Kootenay Lake remains ice-free in the winter, allowing business and pleasure craft to operate year-round.
Here's the other ferry vessel making the eastward crossing:
That night we stayed at Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort, where we had a fantastic dinner and 'took the waters' before going to bed.
Day 2: Our first stop on the second day was a town called Kaslo, the home of the S/S Moyie. The Moyie was one of several steam ships that transported passengers and cargo up and down Kootenay Lake. She operated from 1898 to 1957, when she was retired from service and sold to the City of Kaslo for $1.00. She was hauled up onto land, permanently dry-docked, and restored to become a museum. As the oldest known intact vessel of her type, the Moyie gives visitors a glimpse into the past. One thing I noticed right away was that people were a lot smaller 100 years ago.
Back in the day, there were 11 sternwheelers running on Kootenay and the other lakes in the region. The really cool thing was that they connected with the railroad lines, allowing transport of goods and people throughout the area before there were roads. Passengers would board the Moyie in the morning, stow their children and the nanny in one of the staterooms, and party in the parlor while cruising up or down the lake. It would be a leisurely cruise, with the passengers relaxed, well fed, and liquored up.
Passengers were looked after by a crew of stewards. I like kitchens, so this butler's pantry was my favorite part of the boat. Note sloping floor!
And because safety always comes first, here's the obligatory set of instructions for how to put on your cork life jacket. I'm guessing that they are called Cork Life Jackets because they are filled with cork, which apparently was A Real ThingTM.
The Moyie is docked on land right next to the shore of Kootenay Lake. Just off her port side there's a piling with an osprey nest on the top. And we got lucky in that the osprey was there, too!
The osprey was the first of our wildlife sightings on the second day of the trip. Heading west on Highway 31A between Kaslo and New Denver, we stopped at a little lake on the side of the road. This was Fish Lake.
In addition to being a pretty little lake in the mountains, Fish Lake is home to a species of amphibian called the Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas). The toads are likely restricted to a few lakes in this basin and are listed as Near Threatened by the World Conservation Union, and as Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. We didn't see any toads, but there were many proto-toads in the lake.
And guess what we saw a few miles up the road from Fish Lake? That's right, a moose! And not just one moose, but a cow and a calf. They were right off the side of the road, and all we had to do to get a good look was find a safe place to turn around and drive by again. I took these shots from the car.
Despite her proximity to the highway, the cow was pretty undisturbed. She kept feeding in the shallow water. It was surprising how long she could keep her head underwater. Meanwhile the calf, obviously not weaned yet as it kept trying to nurse and didn't feed on vegetation, just waited until its mother raised her head again. Then she looked around to check her surroundings and plunged her head right back into the water.
I haven't always had the best of luck in moose country, so I was glad to see these two. They are odd-looking, lumpy animals, even the calves. And to get a good close-up look at two wild moose totally made up for not seeing any at the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge.
So, what do I think of the Selkirk Loop? Highly recommended! The roads are lightly traveled, passage between the U.S. and Canada is easy through these ports of entry, and the scenery is spectacular. You can take the driving trip as we did, or stop and camp along the way. When we were there in early July the weather was quite warm, but those were the first sunny days of the season after a long, wet spring. You'd probably want to have a back-up plan in case your camping trip gets rained out. Honestly, though, the entire drive was gorgeous. If the opportunity comes your way to drive this loop, take it. You won't be sorry.
The marine macroalgae, or seaweeds, are classified into three phyla: Ochrophyta (brown algae), Rhodophyta (red algae), and Chlorophyta (green algae). Along the California coast the reds are the most diverse, with several hundred species. The browns have the largest thalli (the phycologists' term for the bodies of algae), including the very large subtidal kelps as well as the smaller intertidal rockweeds. The green algae are small in both thallus size/complexity and species diversity; many of the greens are filamentous and look like nothing more than slime growing on rocks or other surfaces.
On the other hand, what appears to be simple at first glance can turn out to be delightfully complicated and puzzling upon closer examination. Take, for example, the two species of green algae in the genus Codium that occur intertidally in northern California: Codium setchellii and C. fragile. Codium setchellii is a native species here. It grows as a thick rugose mat over rocks in the mid-intertidal. Its color is a very deep olive green, but when dry it looks almost black.
Codium setchellii has a smooth texture and feels like very thick velvet. It grows on vertical faces of rocks, rarely on exposed horizontal surfaces--at least, I've not often seen it on top of a rock. Patches of C. setchellii are usually about the size of my outstretched hand, although some can be a little larger than that. When you see C. setchellii in the field, it's hard to imagine what type of structure would result in a thallus like this. To figure out what's going on, you need to look at small pieces under a microscope. It's this level of observation that reveals the filamentous nature of C. setchellii.
Phycologists have a few tricks for observing the internal structure of algae. The firm-bodied algae can be examined via cross-section, which can be more or less difficult to make depending on the species. Many simpler thalli, however, can be examined by making a squash, which is exactly what it sounds like: You take a piece of the alga, place it in a drop of water in a slide, and squash it with a cover slip.
A squash of C. setchellii revealed this mishmash of filaments:
This particular squash shows the utricles, which are the pigmented ends of the filaments. It didn't really help me understand how the filaments are organized within the thallus, though. I even tried making a cross-section of the little piece of C. setchellii I have, but it turned to mush. I did at least get one squash that showed the filaments to be arranged in approximately parallel fashion at the outer edge of the thallus.
So, seeing the internal structure of Codium setchellii allows me to understand how its closely packed filaments produce the velvety cushion of the thallus that I see in the field. The way that the filaments are aligned allows them to be tightly packed together, resulting in a cushion that is surprisingly firm rather than squishy.
The second species of Codium that we see in northern California is C. fragile, commonly called 'dead man's fingers'. It is a non-native species here, originating in the western Pacific near Japan, and has spread into the Atlantic. In California it has a patchy distribution and, in my experience at least, isn't as common as C. setchellii. I have never seen the two species together at the same site, but according to iNaturalist they do co-occur in some locations.
Like its congeneric species, C. fragile is a dark greenish color and lives in the mid- to low-intertidal. But otherwise it looks entirely different. The thallus morphology must be what gave rise to the common name. I remember learning years ago about a seaweed called 'dead man's fingers' and being disappointed when I saw it for the first time. It didn't look like dead man's anything!
This thallus resembles a clump of approximately dichotomously branching tubes. It is spongy in texture and is often colonized by bits of a filamentous red alga.
In this case, the red alga (Ceramium sp.) is in turn colonized by the benthic diatom Isthmia nervosa:
You might expect Codium fragile, having a tubular morphology, to be more amenable to being examined in cross-section. I can tell you that that isn't the case. It's easy enough to make the first transverse slice of one of those 'fingers', but the second slice, even made with a brand new razor or scalpel blade, results in a pile of mush. I made and looked at several such piles, hoping that at least one would show an approximation of the cross-sectional anatomy of this thallus. The best I could get was this:
At least it shows the radiating arrangement of the filaments. I think this is really interesting. The utricles (pigmented tips of the filaments) are a bit thicker than the unpigmented section of the filaments that make up the interior of the cylinder, but there's still space between them at their distal tips. It is this arrangement that gives Codium fragile a squishiness that C. setchellii lacks.
So there you have it. One genus, two species with radically different gross morphology but similar internal morphology. They're made of the same types of cells, at least. Like I said, I've not seen them in the same place in the field, but here in my blog you can see them side by side.
When low tides occur at or before dawn, a marine biologist working the intertidal is hungry for lunch at the time that most people are getting up for breakfast. And there's nothing like spending a few morning hours in the intertidal to work up an appetite. At least that's how it is for me. Afternoon low tides don't seem to have the same effect on me, for reasons I can't explain. A hearty breakfast after a good low tide is a fantastic way to start the day.
Sea anemones are members of the Anthozoa (Gk: 'antho' = 'flower' and 'zoa' = 'animal'). These 'flower animals' are the largest cnidarian polyps and are found throughout the world's oceans. They are benthic and sedentary but technically not sessile, as they can and do walk around, and some can even detach entirely and swim away from predators. The anthozoans lack the sexual medusa stage of the typical cnidarian life cycle, so the polyps eventually grow up and have sex. In addition to the sea anemones, the Anthozoa also includes the corals, sea pens, and gorgonians.
With their radial symmetry and rings of petal-like tentacles, the sea anemones do indeed resemble flowers. You've seen many of my anemone photos already. Here's one more to drive home the message.
Sea anemones are cnidarians, and cnidarians are carnivores. Most of the time anemones in the genus Anthopleura feed on tiny critters that blunder into their stinging tentacles, although the occasional specimen will luck into a much more substantial meal. I've watched hermit crabs crawl right across the tentacles of a large anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica), and while the anemones did react by retracting the tentacles, the crabs easily escaped their grasp.
Of course, not all potential prey items are so fortunate. Sometimes even big crabs get captured and eaten, like this poor kelp crab (Pugettia producta):
There's no way to know exactly how this situation came to be. Was the crab already injured or weakened when the anemone grabbed it? Or was the anemone able to attack and subdue a healthy crab? I've always assumed that the exoskeleton of a crab this size would be too thick for the rather wimpy nematocysts of an Anthopleura anemone to penetrate, but maybe I'm wrong. A newly molted crab would be vulnerable, of course; however, they tend to stay hidden until the new exoskeleton has hardened, and the crab in the above photo doesn't appear to have molted recently.
Even big, aggressive crabs can fall prey to the flower animals in the tidepools. I'd really like to have been there to watch how this anemone captured a rock crab!
And crabs aren't the only large animals to be eaten by sea anemones. Surprisingly, mussels often either fall or get washed into anemones, which can close around them. Once a mussel has been engulfed by an anemone, the two play a waiting game. Here's what I imagine goes on inside the mussel: The bivalve clamps its shells shut, hoping to be spit back out eventually; meanwhile, the anemone begins trying to digest the mussel from the outside; sooner or later the mussel will have to open its shells in order to breathe, and at that point the anemone's digestive juices seep inside and do their work on the mussel's soft tissues. When the digestive process is finished, the anemone spits out the perfectly cleaned mussel shells.
In the photo above, the anemone is working on a clump of several mussels. I can't see that any of these mussels have been compromised, but the pale orange stringy stuff looks like mussel innards and slime. It could be that several mussels are still engulfed within the anemone. There is always a chance that an anemone will give up on a mussel that remains tenaciously closed, and spit it out covered with slime but otherwise unharmed. I assume that hungry anemones are less likely to give up their meals than ones that have recently fed.
So how, exactly, does an anemone eat a mussel, or a crab? The answer lies within the anemone's body. Technically, the gut of an animal is outside its body, right? Don't believe me? Let's think it through. An animal with a one-way gut can be modeled as a tube within a tube, and by that reasoning the surface of a gut is contiguous with the outer surface of the body. Our gut is elaborated by pouches and sacs of various sizes and functions, but is essentially a long, convoluted tube with a mouth on one end and an anus on the other. Sea anemones, as all cnidarians, have a two-way gut called a coelenteron or gastrovascular cavity (GVC), with a single opening serving as both mouth and anus. Anemones, being the largest cnidarian polyps, have the most anatomically complex gut systems in the phylum.
Imagine a straight-sided vase with a drawstring top. The volume of the vase that you'd fill with water and flowers represents the volume of the anemone's gut. Anemones can close off the opening to their digestive system by tightening sphincter muscles that surround the mouth; these muscles are analogous to the drawstring closure of our hypothetical vase. Now imagine that the inner wall of the vase is elaborated into sheets of curtain-like tissue that extend towards the center of the cavity. These sheets of tissue are called mesenteries. They are loaded with various types of cnidocytes that immobilize prey and begin the process of digestion. The mesenteries greatly increase the surface area of tissue that can be used for digestion. The mesenteries are also flexible and can wrap around ingested prey to speed things up.
This anemone (below) that was eating both a mussel and a piece of kelp:
Those frilly ruffles are the mesenteries. You can see how greatly they'd increase the surface area of the gut for digestion. They are also very soft, almost flimsy. Here's a close-up shot:
Maybe I'm especially suggestible, but seeing these animals working on their own meals makes me hungry, too. After crawling around the tidepools for a few hours I'm always ready for a second breakfast or brunch of my own.
Monterey Bay is shaped like a backwards letter 'C', with Santa Cruz on the north end and the Monterey Peninsula on the south end. The top of the 'C' is comparatively smooth, while the bottom is punctuated by the Monterey Peninsula, which juts north from the city of Monterey. The most striking geologic feature is the Monterey Submarine Canyon, but of course you can't see that from land. It is crazy to realize that the canyon starts right off the jetty at Moss Landing. It is this proximity to deep water that makes the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) so ideally situated.
Separated by 40.2 km (= approximately 25 statute miles) as measured harbor to harbor, Santa Cruz and Monterey represent both the same and slightly different marine habitats. On a large scale they are both part of the California Current system, strongly affected and biologically defined by seasonal upwelling in the spring and summer months. On a finer scale they differ in a few ways, primarily geologic. The rock on the Santa Cruz end of the bay is a soft sand- or mudstone, and at sites like Natural Bridges can be easily eroded; you can scratch it with your thumbnail, and falling on it might give you a bruise but probably won't beat you up more than that. The rock of the Monterey Peninsula is much less forgiving: granite with large quartz crystals. Falling on that stuff can leave you with bruises and a bad case of rock rash; I usually end up bleeding from at least one laceration when I'm in the intertidal there.
The difference in rock type between the north and south ends of Monterey Bay also manifests in the tidepools themselves. The soft mud stone of the Santa Cruz erodes into small particles, which form nice soft sandy beaches. Small particles also remain suspended in water more so than larger ones, which affects water clarity. Larger and heavier particles, on the other hand, sink out of the water, so that the water column itself tends to be less murky. Clear water has some marked advantages over murky water. For example, light transmission is directly proportional to water clarity. Thus, all other factors being equal, photosynthetic organisms such as algae have access to more light, in waters above large-grained sand than those above finer sediments.
That being said, it is not always the case that clearer water is better. Remember Phragmatopoma californica, one of the worms I wrote about recently? They build tubes out of sand grains. However, it turns out that they are particular about the sand grains they use. If you were to examine a Phragmatopoma tube under a dissecting scope you'd see that all of the sand grains are the same size. Just how they select and sort the sand grains isn't understood, but somehow they manage to choose the particles they want and cement them together underwater. Phragmatopoma is one of the most conspicuous animals at Natural Bridges on the north side of Monterey Bay, forming large mounds of hundreds of individuals, yet very few live on the Monterey Peninsula. There are likely several reasons for this, but part of the explanation is that the sand grains are too big to be used in the worms' tubes.
I live in Santa Cruz, on the north end of the bay, and most of my intertidal excursions these days are to locations in Santa Cruz and north along the coast. I haven't spent nearly as much time as I'd like to in the tidepools on the Monterey Peninsula and locations further south. It's tough getting to a site an hour away, when the low tide is at dawn. And with my post-concussion syndrome I don't yet feel comfortable driving myself that far away and back. Fortunately for me, I am currently mentoring a student working on an independent study project, and she was willing to drive down to Asilomar last weekend. So I tagged along with her.
Asilomar State Reserve is one of California's no-take marine protected areas (MPAs), where people can look and take pictures but are not allowed to remove anything, dead or alive. It is a glorious site. The water is clear and blue, and the biota is both similar to and different from that on the north side of the bay. I want to highlight some of the organisms that I see there, that are less common here on the north side.
Abalone (Haliotis sp.) are not unheard of here. In fact, there is a black ab (H. cracherodii) at Natural Bridges that I've been keeping an eye on since 2015, tucked into a crevice and generally not visible except on a minus tide. And further north at Pigeon Point I have seen red abalone (H. rufescens), both living and empty shells. But I've never seen as many black abs as I saw at Asilomar. Standing in a depression about as big as my kitchen table, well above the water level, I easily counted at least 20 black abs. Some of them were as big as my hand. How many can you see in the photo above?
Abalone are large herbivorous snails. They feed on macroalgae, both reds and browns. If they venture from the safety of their nooks and crannies they can chase (at a snail's pace) down algae, but then they are vulnerable to predators such as cabezons and sea otters. Abs that live in crevices, like these, have to rely on drift algae to come to them; they don't have the luxury of choosing what to eat. It's the age-old compromise between safety and food, one of the driving forces in foraging behavior.
While we have four species of anemones in the genus Anthopleura at the Santa Cruz end of the bay, as well as other anemones such as Epiactis, we don't have any in the genus Urticina--not intertidally, at least. I have seen Urticina anemones at Carmel, and last weekend saw what I think was U. coriacea. It was in a pool, and partially obscured by sand and its own pharynx.
It's own pharynx, you ask? Yes! Anemones are cnidarians, and as such have a two-way gut. This means that food is ingested and wastes are expelled via a single opening, which for politeness' sake we call a mouth even though it also functions as an anus. Sometimes, when an anemone is expelling wastes, it also turns out the top part of its pharynx. This is a temporary condition, and the pharynx will be returned to normal soon. The anemone in the picture above appears to be in the process of spitting out something fairly large and undigestible.
Here's another example of an anemone eating a big meal, this time of mussels.
What do you think this thing (below) is?
I had at first misidentified these as something else, but have since been told that they are the tubes of another of those strange terebellid polychaete worms. This one is Pista elongata. As with many terebellids, P. elongata lives in a tube, the opening end of which is elaborated into a sort of basket. They reportedly range from British Columbia to San Diego. I think I've seen them at Carmel Point, but not at Point Piños, which I've visited more often. And I'm positive I've never seen it at Natural Bridges.
At Asilomar I saw some large clusters of P. elongata in the low intertidal. They are not clonal, to my knowledge, so these aggregations would form by gregarious settlement of competent larvae when they return to shore.
One solitary ascidian that I saw at Asilomar is Clavelina huntsmani, the appropriately called lightbulb tunicate:
For people too young to remember what an incandescent light bulb looks like, they were made of clear or frosted glass. Inside the glass bulb were tungsten filaments, through which electricity flowed; the filaments heated up enough to emit light. In Clavelina, the two pink structures running down the length of each zooid resemble the filaments of an incandescent light bulb, but are in fact parts of the pharyngeal basket, the structure used for filter feeding.
We have neither Pista nor Clavelina in Santa Cruz--at least, I've never seen them. They remind me that although Santa Cruz and Monterey are part of the same ecosystem, they do not represent the same microhabitat. I'm pretty familiar with the intertidal floral and fauna in Santa Cruz, but I absolutely love exploring the intertidal along the Monterey Peninsula. There's something exciting about spending time a place I don't know as well as the back of my hand. I hope that as my brain continues to heal I'll eventually regain the stamina to travel so far for a low tide.
Today is the first day of the week of low tides dedicated to Snapshot Cal Coast, a statewide citizen science project headed in my area by the California Academy of Sciences. This week groups and individuals will be making photographing the organisms they see in the ocean or along the coast, and uploading observations to iNaturalist. Participants will include both scientists and non-scientists, making the week-long event one of the biggest citizen science projects that I regularly take part in. Next Monday I'll be taking a group of Seymour Center volunteers and staff up to Davenport to conduct a Bioblitz. The other days I'll be out on my own, or with 1 or 2 people.
This morning the low tide was very early (-1.3 feet at 05:09), so I stayed close to home and went to Natural Bridges. The tide was low but the swell was big and I wasn't able to get down to the low spots I could normally reach with this kind of tide. However, this meant that I could spend more time in the low-mid-intertidal, where there is a lot of biodiversity to document.
Today I want to write about polychaete worms. These are the segmented marine worms in the Phylum Annelida, which also includes earthworms and leeches.
Worm #1: Phragmatopoma californica
One of the most conspicuous inhabitants of this zone is the tube-dwelling polychaete worm, Phragmatopoma californica. This worm has a couple of common names: honeycomb worm, which refers to the mounds of tubes they build; and sandcastle worm, for the fact that the tubes are built of cemented sand grains. In effect, these worms are tiny masons!
Each of the tubes is inhabited by a single worm. Mounds form because competent Phragmatopoma larvae, looking for a place to settle out and live permanently, are attracted to the tubes of existing adults. This phenomenon is called gregarious settlement. Once settled and metamorphosed, juvenile worms build their tubes by selecting sand grains and cementing them together around a lining of chitin-like material. How they do it, underwater, nobody knows. And these tubes are tough! The worm inside is skinny, and a humongous one would be all of 4 cm long, but it takes a lot of force to pry apart those sand grains. The openings to the tubes are 5-10 mm in diameter. Each worm can close off its tube with a circular-ish disc of stiff, fused chaetae called an operculum; this protects the worm from both predators and desiccation.
When the tide is out the worms withdraw into their tubes and clap the operculum down. They wait for the water to return. Phragmatopoma is a filter feeder; like most of the tube-dwelling polychaetes these worms use a crown of ciliated tentacles to create water currents that draw food particles to the mouth. When the tide is in the worms pull down the operculum and extend their feeding tentacles into the water. In the field, this is the most you can see of the worm's body.
Worm #2: Serpula columbiana
Many polychaetes live in tubes, and tubes can be made of a variety of materials. Phragmatopoma californica builds tubes out of sand grains. Another worm that I saw today, Serpula columbiana, builds tubes out of CaCO3 precipitated from seawater. Like other animals that build calcareous skeletons, S. columbiana may in the future have difficulty precipitating CaCO3 in an increasingly acidic ocean. Tubes of Serpula worms are white when new and soon become fouled with algal growth, and tend to wander over the substrate. The best photo I could take this morning is a little blurry but you can see the general morphology of the tubes.
These worms are incredibly shy, and react to any perceived threat by pulling into their tubes. Their tentacles have tiny eyespots that can detect changes in light, so passing a hand over them can cause them to withdraw. Fortunately I was able to sneak up on one lazy worm in a pool, and grab a shot of its 'head' region. Worms that live in tubes are poorly cephalized, with none of the structures that we generally associate with a head. Serpula columbiana's 'head' looks like this:
The tentacles of S. columbiana are morphologically complex compared to those of Phragmatopoma. Serpula's tentacles are pinnate, or feather-shaped, and in cross-section look like a V. Cilia on the side branches of the tentacle create the feeding current, and food particles are transported by other cilia down the trough of the V to the mouth.
See that long, trumpet-shaped structure? That's the worm's operculum!
Worm #3: Unidentified cirratulid
Unlike Serpula and Phragmatopoma, worms of the Family Cirratulidae don't live in tubes. Instead, they live with most of the body hidden in crevices, and extend tentacles to feed.
As you can imagine, it is extremely difficult to identify a worm when all you can see of it are its tentacles; with the rest of the body hidden in a crevice, there are no visible characteristics to use to distinguish species. Cirratulids use their tentacles to feed, but in a way that is entirely unlike how Phragmatopoma and Serpula use theirs. Instead of feeding on particles suspended in the water, cirratulids are deposit feeders. They sweep their tentacles across the surface and collect organic deposits. Sticky mucus on the tentacles picks up organic matter, and cilia on the tentacles sweep the organic matter to the worm's mouth.
Don't believe me? Watch this!
It doesn't matter if the surrounding substrate is sand or rock. The cirratulid's sticky tentacles are very effective at gathering organic muck.
Worm #4: Flabesymbios commensalis
This worm remains an enigma. There doesn't seem to be much known about its biology. I have seen them twice, both times on the body of purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), and although the genus name has changed twice since the first time, I'm pretty sure it's the same worm. As the species epithet commensalis implies, this worm is a commensal on sea urchins. This means that it neither harms nor benefits its echinoderm host. Similar to the worm I've seen on bat stars, F. commensalis presumably cruises over the urchin's body and feeds on detritus or scraps of kelp that the urchin grabs.
When I took the photo in a tide pool this morning I didn't see the worm. It wasn't until I downloaded the pictures from the camera onto my computer that I saw it. See how well it blends in with the urchin's color?
Here's a tighter crop of that photo:
For many polychaete worms, another animal's body seems to be the ideal habitat. And for some reason, echinoderms are likely hosts for such commensal worms. I've written about the bat star worms, here is the urchin worm, and there's also a scale worm that I've seen crawling around on the body of a sea cucumber. What is it about echinoderms that makes them habitat for worms? Or is this type of commensalism also common, but less observed, between polychaetes and other non-echinoderm invertebrates? I don't know the answer to either of those questions, but am very intrigued.
This morning, after months of invitations that I could not accept due to teaching commitments, I was finally able to join a group of folks at the Younger Lagoon Reserve (YLR) for their weekly bird banding activities. During the summer months they start early, trying to catch birds in the few hours after dawn. I didn't get out there until almost 07:00, and they had been "fishing" for about 45 minutes already. They were finishing up the process with a Wilson's warbler and went out to release the bird as I came up.
Bird banding activities are overseen by a person who holds state and federal permits to work with birds. The permit holder for the Younger Lagoon Reserve and the Fort Ord Natural Reserve is Breck Tyler. Either he or his partner, Martha, must be on site whenever birds are being banded. The other regular participants are YLR staff members Vaughan Williams (Restoration Field Manager), Kyla Roessler (Assistant Restoration Steward), and various UCSC undergrads who are interns, volunteers, or students visiting with classes. Back in March I brought my Ecology students to YLR to observe bird banding and work on vegetation restoration in the Reserve's terrace lands; on that day we did help with planting, but got skunked on birds.
When I arrived this morning it was sunny and cool. Vaughan told me that the best weather for bird banding is one of the overcast, foggy mornings that we often get in the summer. When it's sunny, like it was today, the birds can see and avoid the nets.
The mist nets are made of an extremely fine nylon mesh. They are very loose and flexible and don't hurt the birds. A bird flies into the net and gets tangled in it. If the bird is heavy enough, it and the mesh it is tangled in fall into one of the pockets of the net. The banders check the nets about every 20 minutes, so a bird isn't tangled for very long. At the end of the morning the nets are taken down and put away so they aren't a hazard to birds. In addition to the nets, the banders set traps at ground level. The traps are kept in place all the time and are baited with seed so the birds know they can get food there. During a banding session the trap doors are allowed to shut on a critter that ventures inside, but at other times the doors are clamped open so animals can wander in and out. This morning we caught a vole in one of the traps. I didn't get to see it because I was with the group of people checking the nets.
But the first bird I got to see was caught in a trap! It was a California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) that had clenched its feet around the wire of the cage, making for a difficult extraction. Sophie, the intern wrangling this particular bird, had quite a job of it.
The bird, once extracted from either net or trap, gets put into a cloth bag and taken to an area called The Yard to be worked up. Each bird gets the following treatment:
A complete formal ID, which can be really easy or really difficult
Banded on the left leg with a unique number
Sexed, if possible
Aged and life history stage determined. Age can be guesstimated by examining patterns of wear on the feathers. Missing feathers can indicate either a molt or some recent mishap in the bird's life. Some species are not sexually dimorphic, but females that are incubating or brooding have a patch of bare skin on the front underneath the feathers. Our scrub jay had a brood patch and is thus a girl!
Measured and weighed
The banding itself has to be done by either Martha or Breck. They are the ones with the training required to squeeze tiny bracelets around skinny legs.
It takes practice and skill to hold a bird immobilized but still able to breathe. You also have to avoid the feet, which are equipped with sharp talons. Elizabeth, the intern to whom Martha relinquished this bird for the remainder of the workup, neatly solved the problem of the feet by giving the jay a bag to hold onto. The bird's left leg, wearing the band, is tightly clenched and the right one is grasping the bag.
To examine the skin the handler blows up the feathers. To me this was surprisingly effective. I sort of assumed the bird's down feathers would be too thick to blow through. A good puff blows the feathers up and uncovers the skin.
Birds the size of jays are weighed in bags hung from a spring scale. The scrub jay in its bag weighed 90 grams. The empty bag weighed 15 grams, so the bird's body weight was 75 grams. The weighing was the last part of the workup, and after that she was released. Birds with an active brood patch are probably tending eggs or babies, and should be released in the area where they were caught so they don't have to expend a lot of energy flying back to the nest.
In addition to the scrub jay, we also caught a bushtit and a Bewick's wren. Bushtits can be problematic because they flit around in large flocks, and sometimes 20 or 30 of them will fly into the nets all at once. This results in a frenzy of activity for the banders, who want to work up the birds quickly so they aren't overly stressed. Breck said that while the data are important, the birds are more important, and if they have to let birds go without working them up, then they will. Bushtits are tiny birds--look at how small that wing is!
The last bird we caught was a Bewick's wren (Thryomanes bewickii). These little birds have a reputation of getting pretty tangled in the nets, because when they hit the mesh they start thrashing and making things worse. When I went out with Elizabeth to check the nets we saw the wren wrapped up in the net. It took Martha's expertise to get the bird free, and it screamed the whole time. That's a good sign, as a bird that complains is a bird that is angry rather than scared. Sometimes the net needs to be cut to free the bird, but this time patience and expertise were all it took.
A Bewick's wren is more substantial than a bushtit, although not by much. And it has a tiny leg that requires a tiny band.
And the coolest thing is how they weigh these teensy birds. They're so small that they can fly around inside the bag, which means they aren't confined and would be unlikely to hold still long enough to get an accurate weight measurement from the spring scale. But years ago there was a company named Kodak that manufactured and sold millions of small plastic canisters that probably make up a significant proportion of landfill materials around the world. These little plastic containers happen to be the perfect size for containing the head half of a wren-sized bird, keeping the bird calm so it can be weighed.