Microcosm at the Salish Sea!
Part 6: All’s Well That Ends Well

It is always sad when time in the field comes to an end for a few reasons: firstly and most importantly, it’s because we have to leave the field; secondly, it means we spend infinitely more hours reviewing, digesting, and scripting things we have learned, and doing other not-so-sexy things that aren’t as much fun to write about. That being said, we are not quite there yet, and have a few more cool notes to add before closing out this awesome trip to Washington.

Microcosm-Salish-OysterCatcher Sunrise in a coastal community is always a treat. Waking up at sunrise often means a rare glimpse of nature in all its golden-lit glory. This morning on our tide pool rounds, it was the oyster catchers that commanded our attention. While waiting for the light to be just right, this particular oyster catcher managed to poetically sum up EXACTLY how we feel about leaving the San Juan Islands!

After three days of paddling, nature excursions, lively company, and a fantastic lighthouse hike, it was sadly time to say goodbye to the good folks at Sea Quest and gear up for our trip back to Seattle. The ferry from San Juan to Ana Cortes is typically about one hour, but on this special day, an engine cut out, so we got to help the Washington State Ferries perform some safety protocol as we all congregated on the lido deck and donned life jackets (sans Julie McCoy and Gopher).

Microcosm-Salish-BeachCamp It is always curious to see just how many “selfies” happen in a state of emergency, but fortunately, it wasn’t SUCH a huge emergency, rather it added about an hour to our return voyage as we limped along at reduced engine power. Still, would there have been “selfies” happening on Titanic? Based on the display this afternoon, we think resoundingly yes.

On the way out of Seattle we stopped to visit Microcosm co-producer Annie Crawley at her incredible Beach Camp at Sunset Bay. Annie’s summer occupation offers opportunities for young ocean lovers to engage in sports, science, team building, and incredible water based activities in the backdrop of the glorious Puget Sound.

It’s sad that the kids don’t seem to be having ANY fun though….but Ryan, the littlest member of team Microcosm said it all….”Okay, so WHEN are we coming back?”
Microcosm at the Salish Sea!
Part 5: Kayaking on the Salish

Microcosm-Salish-Camping San Juan Island is merely a starting point in a network of islands that number over four hundred. Formed by glaciers, the dramatic island coasts and bays are best experienced from the water. In order to get the optimal perspective, we set out on a three day kayaking adventure for a full immersion experience. Sea Quest Expeditions offers a wide range of tour opportunities that range from a few leisurely hours up to five days.

Once we squeezed everything we needed for our three day journey into our kayaks, we set off paddling the emerald waters of the Salish Sea. As our guide Eric told us stories of the native people who inhabited this coast for centuries, we were able to take in the dramatic scenery and learn the geology with periodic stops for photo ops and snacks.

Microcosm-Salish-EagleNoms There is a rich ecosystem here with a sophisticated interdependence that presented itself to our eager camera lenses. While we saw many sea birds and predatory raptors, a highlight was this young bald eagle ravenously devouring its prey while a vulture patiently awaited its turn at the quarry. Other birds such as hawks, oyster catchers, gulls, murres, auklets, and cormorants dotted the sky and rhythmically bounced on the gentle waves at every turn.

After several miles of paddling, we set up camp for the evening on uninhabited Posey Island, an idyllic setting with rock pools and plenty of brush to explore. It is a tiny island made even tinier still when the tide is in, yet it still offers a splendid array of wildlife and wilderness to enjoy. Once camp was set up, we were offered the chance to enjoy a sunset paddle. Though the word epic is a bit overused these days, the lighting spectacular we were treated to our first night on the water really was textbook epic!

It was a satisfying but exhausting first day, and a cozy tent never felt so good!


Microcosm at the Salish Sea!
Part 4: Going With the Flow

Last summer on our visit to the Bay of Fundy in Canada, we studied the intense tidal exchange, its impact on the distribution of plankton, and the megafauna its nutrient rich waters support. With such powerful water flow to distribute plankton, it almost seems as though the microuniverse is filled with haphazard travelers, but this summer at FHL we learned that it isn’t quite so simple.

Microcosm-Salish-SubductionThe San Juan Islands are located near very deep points in the ocean called subduction zones. a subduction zone occurs where two pieces of Earth’s crust collide and one gets pushed under the other, creating a deep depression on the ocean floor. In the Salish Sea, the Cascadia subduction zone is a dominant feature that heavily influences the way that water moves through its basin.

In the emerald waters of the Salish Sea there are periodic events called upwelling, which drives nutrient rich waters from the deep up toward the surface in a vertical sweep. Scientists are starting to observe that a wide range of microorganisms may use this oceanic conveyor belt to help direct their movement and distribution.

Microcosm-Salish-UrchinLarvaDr. Richard Strathmann and Dr. Daniel Grunberg are two researchers at FHL who study the biomechanics of a variety of creatures found in the microcosm. Their work involves studying the structure and function of body parts across various organisms. Some of their most interesting work (from our humble perspective) involves observing how organisms use their appendages (often hairlike structures called cilia) to swim and eat.

Microcosm-Salish-JellyChandelierIn some of the creatures they study, the cilia used for eating are shaped and function differently from those used for swimming. Some larval creatures like sea urchins tend to orient themselves upside down as they drift for better stability and to make more efficient use of their swimming appendages. Another area of study involves looking at why some zooplankton settle to the bottom very quickly verses those that drift for long periods of time. What are the advantages to either method and how does staying suspended longer offer an advantage for certain forms of marine life?

As our interviews concluded, it was amusing to look up and notice the jelly chandelier that was presiding over our discussions the entire time!

Microcosm at the Salish Sea!
Part 3: A Killer Day

We feel lucky that working on Microcosm has taken us to so many wonderful places and though the work is very rewarding, we must also take pause to appreciate the journey. To that end, we would be remiss to visit the glorious San Juan Islands without making an effort to spot the resident killer whales.

Microcosm-Salish-KillerWhaleThere are three pods of resident killer whales that can be seen in the San Juan Islands with all three pods combined totaling just over eighty members. The resident pods follow the seasonal salmon migration as salmon is the favorite culinary delight. Transient killer whales also frequent the area traveling in much smaller groups than residents with less familial bonding than resident pods. Instead of fish, the transients have a diet focused on marine mammals such as seals.

One of the best places to see the killer whales from shore is the famed Lime Kiln State Park. Appearances are never a guaranty, but chances of seeing them increase if you can visit on more than one day. At the very least it is a grand spot for a picnic, with plenty of other biological and scenic highlights including a beautiful lighthouse to explore.

Microcosm-Salish-SealPupPatience paid off for us and we were rewarded with several waves of killer whales coming incredibly close to shore on their quest for salmon in clusters of twos and threes. With so much action it was hard to know where to point the camera first, but we did manage to get a few very lucky shots to share with all of you!

As if the killer whales were not enough spectacle, August is also a great time of year to catch sight of brand new harbor seal pups. Youngsters only nurse for about four to six weeks before striking out on their own, so we felt awfully lucky when this thirsty little pup photo bombed our shot of Mom!
Microcosm at the Salish Sea!
Part 2: Dr. Emily Carrington

Microsocm Blog SalishDid you ever consider how something as tiny as the Microcosm can affect what ends up on your plate? Dr. Emily Carrington knows more about mussles and the things that affect them than anyone we know. Her work is helping mussel farmers understand how things like water chemistry, temperature, and run off from land impact the ability of mussels to attach and flourish in shellfish farming situations.

In our conversation with Dr. Carrington, she pointed out that if we fail to understand the needs of microscopic juvenile mussels (veligers) then we will not have adult mussels to worry about. To that end, Dr. Carrington takes a wholistic approach to understanding the entire life cycle of the mussel in an effort to help farmers predict and maintain healthy conditions for their livestock to seed and grow.

The important work Dr. Carrington does is not limited to the waters of Washington state. In fact, her work has taken her across continents to coasts such as Spain and New Zealand to compare and analyze data and farming techniques. We are very excited to follow Dr. Carrington’s work as she strives to help promote sustainable aquaculture techniques!

Salish-Boat-MicrocosmAfter the visit with Dr. Carrington, we actually had about an hour of free time to visit Pelindaba Lavender Farm which is only about a fifteen minute ride from Friday Harbor Lab. The farm is quite a sight in August with lavender in full bloom as shades of purple ripple in the gentle breeze across rolling hills. If you walk through the fields you can actually hear bees that are busy at work pollinating. We asked the staff about sting risks, but they assured us that the bees are way too interested in their pollination routine to trifle with humans.

We ended our day in the Microcosm with a cup of lavender ice cream punctuated with a chocolate chip (lavender laced) cookie. This unique culinary experience was a useful reminder of the incredible diversity of our world whether it is an infusion of new flavor or the aggregation of different species in a rock pool. If you have never had lavender ice cream, the folks at Microcosm think you should try it as a chance to embrace the road less traveled! Until tomorrow from your friends in the microcosm…

Microcosm at the Salish Sea!

Water-PlaneEveryone appreciates the chance to get away from the desk and breathe fresh air some place other than home. It is no different for us here in the Microcosm so we have once again gone back to the field, this time to the remote San Juan Islands of Washington state. There are so many amazing things about San Juan Island from Pelindaba Lavender Farm and San Juan Winery to the resident camel Mona, but the main reason we are here is to learn what we can from the incredible researchers at University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Lab (“FHL”).

Mona-the-camelFHL is an awe inspiring facility that looks more like an artists’ retreat than a research station. Flanked by towering conifers and overlooking the sparkling waters of the Salish Sea, the network of buildings that make up FHL are as in concert with the natural world as the talented scientists who work there.

In 2011, FHL was enhanced with a dedicated ocean acidification lab so researchers can explore changing ocean chemistry and it’s impact on the environment and denizens therein. We had the opportunity to visit with resident scientist Becca Guenther who is completing her PhD. While we won’t share all the details, what impressed us most is how she built really cool microcosms in Igloo coolers that most people just toss their beer in!!!! While most folks picture scientists in fancy labs using wildly expensive equipment, often they are left to their creative imagination to innovate equipment that simply doesn’t exist yet, or to keep costs down when funding and grants are limited.

Micrcosom-Becca-GuentherAll of that aside, the work that Becca and others like her at FHL are doing is shedding light on some of the most prolific threats to our world ocean. Many of the experiments take several months at a time to complete, and analyzing results can take even longer. Most of the time answers lead to more questions and before long, years have gone by. It is awe inspiring to have the chance to talk with people who spend their lives this way, passionately engaged in their work and eager to share it with us so that soon we can share it with all of you!
Stay tuned for more news from the Microcosm in the Salish Sea!

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