April 2016, by Steve Green
They began arriving on the west coast in March 2016, like the year before and the year before that. There was no stopping them. Wave after wave they stormed the shoreline and we could only watch. There numbers were countless. Some of us had seen them before, and some were deeply concerned. Where did they come from? Why are they here?
After several days we witnessed the front line dying helplessly along the shore as other sailors were still arriving to face the same demise. Meanwhile, there was word on Facebook that these sailors were also storming the beaches in Florida.
The smell of their decomposing flesh was too much for some, as they could only turn away and retreat from the beach in disgust. Others began walking and driving vehicles over their beautiful translucent blue innocent bodies. We had no choice, if we were to navigate the coast line at all in search of a treasure that often accompanies these sailors. Japanese glass floats! Found two small ones that week.
Velella velella, also known as" by-the-wind sailors," are a beautiful bluish purple relative of jelly fish about 3 inches long when mature with a translucent sail angled strategically to keep them at sea. When winds are not favorable, they wash ashore in the spring sometimes lasting all summer long probably in the trillions!
Velella have stinging cells called "nematocysts" that are equipped for seizing plankton and little else as they sail the high seas. They’re believed to possess independent living components responsible for reproduction, digestion, locomotion and other duties like the Portuguese man-o-war. Velella inhabit all oceans including drifting into Puget Sound. Some notable predators of Velella are sea turtles, ocean sun fish, and sea slugs among others.
Velella die when exposed to the shore, and if turned upside down at sea. On the shore, birds eat Velella. My dog Damon has eaten them like I eat potato chips for his second year now, and he can still fetch a stick. So I see little problem with Velella, although if one fails to remove their shoes when getting home from treading through Velella, you might experience some discomfort at home!
Photograph from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/ by Tiffany Boothe, Seaside Aquarium
May 2015, by Lorene Dailey
I was in Ocean Shores visiting for a few days the end of May (my first time there). I was standing out on the jetty about half-way from the parking area toward the ocean where sand had filled in around the boulders making it a bit easier for me to climb up on the rocks to look out over the water. I was watching some dolphins playing near the jetty when I turned around and there was a little critter watching me from a space between the boulders.
It turns out to have been a Long-tailed Weasel according to Google/Wikipedia. Then there were two. I took pictures with my cell phone (my camera battery having died). They were quite unafraid of me and very curious. Earlier while walking in the sand headed toward the ocean but near the inside of the jetty boulders, I had seen trails in the sand of some type of small animal with tiny feet and well-defined toes with small claws coming out from under the jetty rocks and into the sandy area. I thought to myself then that something lives in those rocks and comes out hunting. But I had no idea what they might have been or what they would be hunting out in the sand until these little guys showed up. I showed the photos to my two friends and they were stunned and had no idea that the weasels lived there. They asked around a bit but no one else knew anything about the weasels either. My encounter with the weasels lasted ten or fifteen minutes before they went back into the crevasses in the boulders and I moved on as well. But it was a most exciting treat for me to experience.
March 2015, by Steve Green
“Thar’ she blows!” hollered the whale spotter. The year is 1920-something, and a thunderous roar from a discharged whale gun succumbs to an eerie silence as another whale becomes victim of the hunter’s piercing harpoon. But it’s a glancing blow. As one of the gunner’s legs becomes entangled in the line attached to the spear, he is swept out to sea. As the whale now turns back towards the ship, he begins to violently strike back at the whalers by destroying their death vessel with its large tail flukes. It appears this gray whale (aka “devil fish”) will foil one of the last few successful whale hunts in and around Grays Harbor. As the plot thickens, so does the blood in the veins of whalers as their ship slowly sinks and all lives are lost.
For centuries, whales were relied upon for supplying us with food, fuel, lubricants, and cosmetics among other things including shoring up women’s waistlines with whalebone corsets. As synthetics began replacing raw materials and alternative fuel sources were being discovered, whaling began to decline. Another factor in reduced whaling was the decline of many whale species, which brought a public awareness from around the world. A conservation strategy was implemented by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), an international alliance, extending an invitation to nations to ban hunting on a volunteer pact.
From the small pink and fresh-water dolphins to the mighty 100-foot blue whale, cetaceans have intrigued us for millennia. While Hollywood has embraced us with Flipper the friendly dolphin, Willy the Orca seeking liberation from aquarium life, and even a Star Trek movie with a premise on saving humpbacks. Biblically speaking, Jonah was swallowed by a whale. And we must never forget Moby Dick. But we have come to know the gray whale.
Gray whales belong to the order Cetacea, which includes dolphins and porpoises. Grays weigh in at 40 tons or more, with a length of over 40 feet as well. With a lifespan of 40 to 60 years, they are primarily a bottom feeder, feeding on benthic amphipods, other crustaceans, and even fish. After a gestation period of 12 to 13 months, mothers bear a single calf in and near Scammon’s Lagoon in Baja California. Migration begins in the spring as the whales travel north toward the Bering Sea, with the mothers leaving shortly after the calves are nourished and strong enough for the journey. With the Western North Pacific stock believed to be near, if not already, extinct, our Eastern North Pacific stock remains stable at roughly 25 thousand or more. Feeding and avoiding predation of their young by Orcas, grays keep relatively close to the shoreline for all to enjoy, especially near our jetty right here in Ocean Shores.
Locally, whale advocates, among others, have expressed concern over the aerial spraying of carbaryl, a pesticide that eradicates a percentage of ghost shrimp (whale food) which prey on local shellfish, by local growers of oysters and clams from Willapa Bay to Grays Harbor. A less invasive spray was introduced with an aerial spraying near the Ocean Shores airport last August with results pending.
As whales still recover from centuries of over-harvesting, we are faced with new challenges with the rise of oil spills, plastic, ocean acidification (another story in itself), crab pot entanglements, ship strikes, and lack of food, continued obstacles will be bestowed upon our gentle giants for years to come if we don’t respond.
Now, therein lies a personal responsibility far inland as well as on the high seas. With recycling, responsible consumption, activism and education, we can remain hopeful that our grandchildren can enjoy the closest thing in size to a dinosaur they’ll ever witness, and that’s no whale’s tale!
Come observe the retired whale gun from the Grays Harbor whaling fleet, and the array of bones, a skull, and even some baleen at the Coastal Interpretive Center.
SEA OTTER ADVENTURE
July 2015, by Virginia Molenaar
Remember the song “Muskrat Love?” Some of us do. Written and recorded by Willis Alan Ramsey in 1972, covered by the band America in 1973, and made a bigger hit by Captain and Tennille in 1976, the song anthropomorphized two muskrats, Susie and Sam, and their romantic encounter. You either loved it or hated it!
I don’t know much about muskrats, and they are a much different aquatic mammal from a sea otter, being about a tenth of the size and living in rivers instead of oceans among other things. But I do think there should be a song about sea otters, and sea otter behavior looks so human it would be very difficult not to anthropomorphize extensively!
Why am I even thinking about this? I will explain. In June I got to pretend to be a wildlife biologist for three days, observing a site known to be frequented by sea otters and recording what I saw. During this welcome respite from my usual computer job I also boned up on sea otter lore.
Once upon a time, sea otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni here in the north) were plentiful along the Eastern Pacific Coast. The Washington population was hunted to extinction (the dense beautiful fur, up to 1 million hairs per square inch, was extremely valuable in early trading years). In 1911, the International Fur Seal Treaty began protecting them from hunting, but by then only some of the Alaska population and a tiny number in California (E. lutris nereis, southern subspecies) had survived. The 1960s saw some conservation efforts begin, and some Alaska sea otters were translocated to southern sites. In 1969 and 1970, fifty-nine sea otters were flown from Amchitka Island, Alaska to the Washington coast. This effort succeeded in restoring the population, which in the Olympic National Marine Sanctuary now numbers around 500. Washington still, however, lists the sea otter as an endangered species, and it is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The geology of the Washington Coast prevents sea otters from living between the Quinault River and the Columbia River, understandable when you realize their habitat needs are rocky shallows. My observation site was on a bluff above the beach, with a big rock pile directly west just below the low tide mark and small rocky islands to the north and south. It was prime habitat, with a kelp bed running outside the rock pile and the island to the south. My days were lucky too, due to mild overcast weather excellent for visibility and because three sea otters were hanging out in the area. It seemed like home.
I could make out the sea otters with my naked eye, but to see any kind of detail I needed binoculars or, better yet, a nice big spotting scope. Having been provided with that, I learned to identify male from female and make out what they were feeding on. The female had some wounding on her face, which occurs sometimes during mating, and the fur on her head was lighter in color from the other sea otters. She earned the nickname “Blondie,” and was happy to be in the area all three days. Her frequent companion was a male we called “Studley.”
Moving between the ocean bottom, where they find their food, and the ocean surface, where they rest and groom, sea otters spend nearly all of their time in the water. Kelp beds provide forage area, hiding urchins, crabs, clams, and some fish from other predators. Sea otters use rocks and their sharp front claws to dislodge prey and open shells. I observed Studley come up to the surface with an octopus the size of his head. He wrestled the octopus on his chest, devoured it tentacle by tentacle, and then ate the canteloupe-sized rest of it too, while paddling on his back slowly south, away from the other otter. Not into sharing that meal!
Sea otters must constantly groom their fur in order to preserve its insulating qualities. Not having a layer of blubber like other marine mammals, they keep warm by eating 25 to 30 percent of their body weight per day and keeping their fur coat clean. The grooming consists of ruffling, licking, and rolling in the water. It looks like somersaults, head over tail at the surface of the water, and Blondie spent most of her time doing this.
When Studley came to visit, it seemed like they kept about a ten-foot distance from each other. They floated there together for a good portion of the first two days, grooming themselves and feeding, riding the surf waves. On the third day, though, they interacted more. They ruffled each other’s heads, and when Studley would float away, Blondie would reach her front paws out to him. (Hence my mental connection to “Muskrat Love.”) Sea otters are semi-social animals, and are known to float rafted together in groups, usually females and pups together and males separate. Sometimes otters will wrap themselves in a “head” of kelp to rest. Mothers might wrap their pup in kelp to keep it in one place while she forages. Pups have a layer of baby fur that retains so much air that the pup can’t dive, but bobs around on the surface like a cork. It takes several weeks for a pup to learn to dive. Most are weaned by eight months.
The third sea otter I observed appeared at the far edge of the kelp bed, and it kept moving. I wasn’t able to know much about it. Perhaps it didn’t want to enter what was obviously another otter’s territory. When traveling, sea otters swim on their bellies, with a rolling up-and-over motion. From a distance it is hard to tell if you are seeing an otter or a harbor seal or sea lion. I became accustomed to the head shape and motion patterns, though, so could pick out the harbor seal’s more stationary, upright head position. And when the otters are on their backs, their hind feet stick up out of the water making a unique profile.
Sea otters are mustelids, related to badgers, weasels, ferrets, wolverines, minks, and otters, the largest family in the order Carnivora. Muskrats are in the order Rodentia, so belong taxonomically with the squirrels, chipmunks, gophers, rats and mice. Humans seem to have a need to judge animals and deem some cuter and cuddlier and others uglier and less desirable. I know better, but I can’t help but rank sea otters right up there with puppies for cuteness. In any case, I was content to have observed a piece of Blondie’s and Studley’s summer. I hope they live long and prosper. And come on, all you musicians, somebody write a song!
SPOTLIGHT - Coyotes
We have heard several reports of coyotes being present and even "brazen" on the beach, including seeming to follow or stalk beachwalkers even in the more populated sections of the beach. This is of concern especially to those walking their dogs. Humans are not likely to be in danger, but pets definitely could be. Please take care with your dogs, smaller ones in particular. This has been true in our neighborhoods and even yards as well.
The best plan if you do encounter a coyote is to "haze" it. Never run from it, that triggers the predator-prey instinct. Hazing includes making yourself appear larger (arms overhead), yelling at the coyote, using homemade noisemakers (pebbles in a can) or airhorns, squirt guns, hose in your yard, chasing with a stick. Hazing teaches the animal to be afraid of humans and will help train it to avoid us. Keep your pet close to you, even into your arms if necessary.
Additional information at this Humane Society link.
OH DEAR, THE DEER, SO MANY DEER!
September 2015, by Jim Nagan
Vegetable and flower garden nibbler. Tourist attraction. Roadside hazard. Cute. Nuisance. Beautiful. Wild. Photographic subject. Semi-tame. Community debate topic. Pick your term of choice, as there are many descriptors for the ubiquitous deer all around Ocean Shores and the Point Brown Peninsula.
Center visitors have a variety of questions about our frequently seen residents. The Columbia Black-Tailed Deer - “Odocoileus hemionus columbianus” – is a sub-species of the mule deer. A 2nd mule deer sub-species is the Sitka Black-Tailed Deer, found along the coasts of SE Alaska and around the Gulf of Alaska to Kodiak Island. Both sub-species are similar in size and appearance. Mule deer in general are commonly associated with the Rocky Mountain region and westward of that.
If you think your neighborhood deer look familiar, they most likely are. Black-tailed deer typically maintain a range of ½ mile to 3 square miles. In Ocean Shores, with the amount of available forage, one can quickly recognize the same general group of deer within a few blocks of their residence.
One reason for the extensive local deer population is the low incidence of natural predation factors. Coyotes may target young fawns. A harsh winter may affect older weaker animals. An occasional cougar may wander into the territory. In terms of human predation, within the city limits of Ocean Shores, there is no deer-hunting season. However, vehicle – deer accidents are fairly common.
Local deer thrive in the ideal habitat. Deer forage on a wide variety of browse vegetation readily available. This may include the green tips of trees, shrubs and plants. They also eat fruit, lichens, garden food crops, grass, clover and decorative yard plants. While foraging, deer prefer an edge habitat allowing them open space to find food, with brush and tree cover nearby as a safe escape place.
Concerned local citizens seek answers about how to better manage the local deer population at a healthy level. Their interests range from discouraging feeding by humans, the garden and landscape damage, and traffic safety. Many other communities have similar concerns. To date, there are no easy answers or solutions.