Archive for August, 2012

A Pentamera-Dominated Sandy Environment

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

The Place – Where, When, Why.

The American San Juan Islands in the Northern Puget Sound. Waldron Island is at the top (North), CB = Cowlitz Bay. The Friday Harbor Laboratories location is indicated by the colored star on San Juan Island.

Cowlitz Bay, Waldron Island, Washinton. Viewed from the north, July, 1976. The primary study area is indicated in blue, the rocky reef used for orientatioin is indicated in yellow.

Cowlitz Bay of Waldron Island, Washington initially attracted my attention in the early 1970s as the result of a collecting trip undertaken out of the University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL) as part of my doctoral dissertation research.  These trips used a converted fishing boat which was configured to pull a “biological dredge”, which is effectively a metal frame with some sort of netting attached to retain the catch.

Operated under contract to the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, this was the boat I used for dredging in the 1970s. Photographed in San Juan Channel, July, 1976.

This dredge is lowered to the sea floor and pulled along it for some, supposedly, known distance.  Depending on vessel’s velocity, the configuration of the dredge frame, and the substrate,  the apparatus will – optimally – dig into the bottom and collect a sample of that bottom along with what is in it.  The dredge is returned to the surface, emptied on to a “sorting table”, typically, a large box-like apparatus which contains the sample.  The sample is rinsed and organisms of interest are collected.

Samples collected in this manner by oceanographic vessels using well-designed dredges can be taken in a reasonably precise manner.  For example, if the apparatus is pulled at a given speed, it will dig into the bottom of a certain type to a known depth.  Our samples were nowhere near as well-controlled!  In shallow waters, 60 to 200 feet, we could be reasonably sure of getting something.  At other times, it was quite feasible to have the dredge hang up on an underwater obstacle  no sample would be obtained.   Very occasionally the apparatus could be lost, along with all of the cable pulling it.  This latter proposition is, at the very least, expensive and, at least to the person in charge, embarrassing.  Consequently, one had to choose one’s dredging sites with care, and hope that the boat driver knew what he/she was doing.

To help pay for my studies, I applied for and was awarded what at the time was referred to as an National Science Foundation doctoral dissertation grant.  As part of the grant, I requested funding to explore habitats in the region for various of the turrid gastropods I was studying.  I used these funds to pay for dredging trips to the soft sediment habitats that nobody else was really interested in investigating.  I would sort through the materials obtained by the various dredges and if I found some of my “target” snails, and if the area seemed otherwise interesting and diveable, I would try to do some diving in the area and ascertain the habitat first hand.

I chose to dredge in Cowlitz Bay because it was off of the beaten track.  Most of the dredging trips out of the FHL went to the same places over and over, ignoring other areas both near and far from the labs.  As I could readily get information from the commonly dredged places, I decided to spend my grant’s money to go elsewhere.  I didn’t find much in the way of turrids in the dredging results from Cowlitz Bay, but I did find some live scaphopods, Rhabdus rectius, to be exact.

Scaphopods, 3 species commonly found in the Pacific Northwest. Gadila aberrans is not found in Cowlitz Bay, the sediment is unsuitable, and the salinity is likely too low.

As I had an abiding interest in scaphopods  predating my interest in turrids, I later spent some relatively intensive field work looking at the scaphopods and other critters found in the bay.  I did over 30 dives in Cowlitz Bay, most of them with my friend, Dr. F. Scott McEuen, as my diving partner.  Our objectives, on many of these dives, were doing various types of quantitative sampling, either doing transect surveys or collect samples for later laboratory analyses.  On other dives, we simply took pictures.  Scott was investigating the sea cucumbers in the genus Pentamera which are found there in absolutely mind-boggling numbers, and I was looking at the scaphopods whose abundances, while significantly less than boggling, were still high enough to make sampling worthwhile.  Additionally, there were a lot of other interesting things of one sort or another, either in the bottom, on the bottom, or swimming above the bottom of the bay that served to tweak our collective or individual fancies bringing us back to the bay time and time again.

Sea cucumbers in the genus Pentamera in the substate in 20 feet (6 m) of water in Cowlitz Bay in July, 1977. Juveniles of the year have just settled, but are too small to see in this image; all the cukes that are visible are adults. The cucumber population density is in excess of 50,000 animals per square meter.

The Place

This large west-facing embayment opens toward the west.  Most of my diving was done in the northern half of the bay.  There is an underwater ridge running more or less east-west located in the middle to eastern portion of the bay, about one third of the distance from the bluffs forming the southern edge of the bay to the spit of land forming the northern edge.  The ridge has a kelp bed growing from it, so to orient ourselves when we arrived, we would find the kelp bed and go north in our boat until we had covered about half the distance to the northern shore.  There we’d anchor, typically in about 60 feet (18 m) of water.  When we anchored we were a long way from any shoreline, easily a half mile (700 to 800 m), and on cold, drizzly, gray winter days, it seemed a lot further.  This meant that when we hit the bottom after following the anchor line down, we took careful compass bearings so that when we needed to surface we could find our way back to the vicinity of the boat.  Or at least that was the plan.

The substrate in the area was sand or sandy-mud and was generally gently sloping to the west or south.  The deepest we normally swam to was about 90 feet (27 m), and most of our dives were between 20 to 60 feet (6m to 18m). Occasionally, we did a dive in the shallower eastern reaches of the bay.  Over the course of several years, I made dives in this region in every season, and what I will discuss in this sequence of blog articles is a summary and compilation of my diving logs from all of the dives.

Near-shore shallow waters of the NE Pacific are tremendously influenced by the local climate.  The annual cycle is worth mentioning here, as I will discuss details of it in passing.  It is not too much of a stretch to say, “Everything depends on the weather”.  Undoubtedly, climate change is affecting the subtidal communities of this region; while I can guess some of the changes due to global alterations, I don’t think that is a profitable course of action.  These images were taken in the period from about 1976 through 1986, and I will use the observations I made at the time

The Seasons

The seasons of the marine shallow subtidal habitats in this part of the Pacific Northwest region, basically the shallow waters of  Northern Washington, British Columbia, and Southeastern Alaska, bear only a passing resemblance to the seasons likely to be encountered above the waterline (Table 1).  As with the terrestrial environment, the primary driver of seasonality is sunlight, but sunlight’s effects come in pure and modified forms.  Pure solar illumination is really pretty uncommon in this region, and typically is found mostly in the summer; generally these bursts of sunlight result in phytoplankton blooms that degrade visibility significantly.  The blooms tend to alternate, in  textbook fashion, with periods of very clear water, probably due to zooplankton blooms.  When we were diving in this area, the visibility we would expect was predictable most of the year, but in the later summer, as the old carnie saying goes, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”

The rest of the time, sunlight is filtered and muted through clouds.  While solar illumination is, of course, the ultimate driver for the region’s weather both illumination and weather events working together results in the overall marine environment of the entire region exhibiting remarkably stable physical conditions.  Temperature variations below 16.5 feet (5 m) are minor, seldom varying by more than a couple of Celsius degrees, and generally no more than about 6 or 7 Fahrenheit degrees.  Salinity fluctuates much more drastically due to the rainfall and runoff from snowmelt, but even so, deeper areas, below 10 m (33 feet) remain reasonably stable.  Freshwater layers due to major runoff events such as floods tend to flow out over the more stable underlying areas.  This is not to say there are no effects due to these factors, but major salinity and temperature effects are abnormal, variable in extent and degree, and relatively unpredictable.

Table 1.  Subtidal Seasons Of Cowlitz Bay,


The Northern San Juan Islands, Washington. 









Low Illumination, Cool Temperatures

“Everything is shut down”

Clear water, no plankton




Increasing illumination and temperature, Nutrients from spriing runoff increase

Substrate becomes covered with a thick diatom coat.

There is clear water with scarce plankton.

Filter-feeders start emergence

First Plankton



As Above

Phytoplankton blooms;

Water becomes greenish and visibility drops;

Substrate diatom layer becomes thinner;

Some benthic herbivores present; 

Filter-feeders emerged.

Second Plankton


Late – May

As Above

Zooplankton bloom becomes noticeable;

Phytoplankton presence is less, Water visibility increases slightly,

Water color changes from green to gray-green/aquamarine;

Spawning is occurring with some benthos,

Diatom cover is largely gone,

Benthic herbivores are common.


Late – May


Nutrients from runoff become less, Illumination and temperature still increasing

Small animals and settled juveniles become very common. 

Plankton pulses, going from phytoplankton dominated to zooplankton dominated to no plankton (clear water) in short (week long) sequences; 

Water often cloudy, greenish white.



Early- October

Runoff absent,  Illumination begins to drop, Temperature peaks.

Filter-feeders evident;

Benthic predators very active. 

Diatom cover almost gone. 

Small predators disappearing.


Early October

Mid to LateOctober

Temperature drops, Illumination drops, Rains begin.

Plankton disappears;

Filter-feeders shut down. 

Water clears up, becomes dark green.

Diatoms on benthos gone.


The Current Conditions Are….

Cowlitz Bay, as in the rest of the San Juan Islands, has semidiurnal tides which generally have a pattern of two unequal high tides interspersed with two unequal low tides.   The tidal cycle is primarily driven by the lunar cycle, and the relative magnitudes of the highs and lows fluctuate through the year following the lunar calendar.   The most extreme tides, the largest difference between the higher high and the lower low tides, are found near the solstices, while the least extreme tides are found near the equinoxes.   The differences between the most extreme tides is reflected in the  velocity of water currents, and the unconsolidated substrate in the bay belies the rather strong currents that may occur there.

Coming up next… the animals and interactions.


Ecological Observations From Northeastern Pacific Subtidal Habitats – Sticky Post #3.

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Series Introduction.

All things must have a beginning, and putting these brief words prior to the beginning of my “series” about my subtidal ecological/natural history observations and “reflections”, is probably as good a place as any to put them.  I hope to add to these tales from time to time, and I hope “the times to times” are more frequent than they have been previously in my blog.

Exiting the water on the south shore of Alki Point in Seattle, Washington.

Here I am exiting the water on the south shore of Alki Point in Seattle, Washington in October, 1982, after doing a dive examining the sea pea bed that was found offshore of that beach (R. Fredrickson image).

That is the plan at least.

If I can do it, I hope to add in this series many of my unpublished and, prossibly, unpublishable, observations made while diving over the period when I was actively doing subtidal natural history research; roughly the period from 1971 to 1993.  There are a lot of reasons for writing this now, but suffice it to say, I am definitely not getting younger and it is possible that some of this material may be of interest to a few other people.  At the very least, they, and the rest of the readership, should get a good laugh out of considering that I would think that it could be useful. :-)

Nonetheless, I think it would be nice, if it simply did not disappear with my demise.  Perhaps, as well, what I write here will serve as an historical record of what occurred prior to any future wholesale habitat destruction due to climate change or some more directly local human activity.   Of course, the fact that many of the presumed untouched Puget Sound and Pacific NW subtidal habitats had previously been messed up seems to have escaped the notice of many people, researchers and divers alike, working in the region.  I will try to point out some of these communities when the need arises.

On the other hand, maybe all I am doing, however,  is just putting down the garbled memories of an old man.  I guess you get to choose.

I will add these tales, or studies (depending on how seriously one wishes to take them), in no particular order over no particular time frame.  Rather I will add them as my muse allows.  Those readers who have previously read my ramblings will realize I know how fully well that my writing depends upon my personal muse  and how she feels about each topic I try to write about.  If she doesn’t like it… nothing good will be written.  If she loves it… well, maybe the writting will still contain nothing good, but if so, there will be a lot of it!  When she likes the topic, though, my good gawd, how the writing flows.  The gorgeous litle blue-green minx (= my muse)  has been known to change her mind in the middle of an article as well.   That has NOT been a fun experience, but it occurs.  As I am writing here to just enjoy the process, I think she will be the helpful creature she truly can be.

If anybody that reads these pages is a scientist, I will add the advice of “not to hold your breath waiting for any of this to appear in the peer-reviewed journals”.  Trying to publish most natural history information and observations in such venues is a serious waste of time and effort.  And if you have gotten this far, you have read the first paragraph and realize that I feel don’t have that much time to waste.   So…  On with the show!

To examine these posts/articles/essays in this “series” as a group:

Please click on the blog “Category” (listed at the top of the column to the right) titled:


“Ecological Observations From Northeastern Pacific Subtidal Habitats”.