Getting to Know Who Lives in Our Big, Blue Backyard: The Value of Place-Based Ocean Education
by Kayla-Marie Kulczycki
I have always loved living by the ocean. The sight of the sparkling water in the sunlight and the deep colour of it during overcast days, the sound of the waves crashing rhythmically upon the shore, and even the smell of the sea carries a familiar comfort. Moreover, since childhood, I have been fascinated by the diversity of life that lives within the ocean. Watching nature-themed films and documentaries helped to foster my appreciation for the planet’s diverse ecosystems and inspired me to seek out opportunities to positively interact with nature. In 2018, I began volunteering with Seaquaria Ocean Education and found myself swimming in a world of fantastical creatures – also known as marine invertebrates! The diversity of life that exists in the ocean is almost incomprehensible – I have heard time and time again that humans know more about outer space than we do about the ocean, and I find that so interesting! The ocean is what makes Earth habitable — it not only regulates climate and weather, it shapes landscapes, provides natural resources that humans depend on for our livelihoods, and is a major carbon sink. Life in the ocean means life on land.
I have been working in the field of ocean education for nearly three years now, and fostering empathy for aquatic ecosystems has become a prominent theme along my career path. I have had the opportunity to learn and grow from being a curious individual into an excitable educator. Every day I go to work, I discover new invertebrate animals that live in the Salish Sea (give or take a few species of fish, which I also love learning about)! I feel a greater sense of connectedness to the ocean now that I am familiar with the organisms that live in my big, blue backyard! I’m always eager to share my sea discoveries with others, so I have chosen four creatures to showcase in this blog that I encountered for the first time this year (along with some resources that I find helpful for learning about marine environments).
1. Comb jellies
Ctenophora! I had never seen a ctenophore in person before this year, so it was so exciting to see one at Cattle Point (this is an amazing spot in the Greater Victoria area to see intertidal life at low tide)! While collecting water, this ctenophore (Beroe spp.) was spotted drifting into the boat ramp area. Ctenophores are marine organisms that have a gelatinous body and swim using rows of cilia. Some have tentacles and specialized colloblasts that help them capture prey (somewhat similar to cnidarians that use cnidocytes). However, the Beroe spp. don’t have tentacles or colloblasts! They have macrocilia inside their large mouths, which help them “bite” off chunks of larger prey. The one I saw was about the length and size of an adult human thumb, but some ctenophores can grow to 5 feet! My favourite part of this encounter was when sunlight hit the organism a certain way, and we saw a rainbow effect (caused by its comb rows moving and scattering the light)! Check out this short video to see it for yourself…
2. Dirona nudibranchs
I love nudibranchs (a type of sea slug) because they exist in all sorts of colour combinations and textures and quite frankly, are adorable, charismatic ocean creatures. Nudibranchs are almost exclusively marine animals, and unlike their gastropod relatives, snails, nudibranchs shed their shell after their larval stage. This evolutionary adaptation of having an exposed gill plume presumably contributed to the scientific order name Nudibranchia (“nudus” – Latin for “naked”, and “brankhia” – Greek for “gills”). Earlier this year, I encountered my first Dirona species: Dirona aurantia (Gold or Orange Dirona) and Dirona albolineata (White-lined or Alabaster nudibranch) in the WestWind Sea Lab (a sponsor of Seaquaria Ocean Education). I was mesmerized by the brightly coloured and bulbous cerata these species have! I learned that they mainly feed on certain species of bryozoans, hydroids and ascidians, and can be found between 0 to 28 meters deep in cooler water. They can also shed their cerata when stressed. Now, you may also be wondering how these soft-bodied molluscs defend themselves from predators… Well, after doing some quick research, I learned that nudibranchs (more generally) often get their colour from whatever they typically eat. Sometimes, nudibranchs can even adopt the toxins from their prey after digesting them, making the nudibranchs foul-tasting to predators! So neat!
3. Hedgpeth’s Sea Hare
This next creature is distantly related, but is not technically a nudibranch… the Hedgpeth’s Sea Hare or Sapsucker (Elysia hedgpethi) is a sea slug belonging to the order Sacoglossa. Sacoglossans are mainly herbivorous, and some species, including the Elysia spp., can house chloroplasts in their bodies after feeding on green algae. This particular species does not have cerata but instead has lateral parapodia flaps (these are an extension of the body used for locomotion and respiration) that can fold in or out, thus allowing the absorbed chloroplasts to absorb more light and thus live longer. Super interesting! Elysia hedgpethi are primarily olive green in colour and have white and sometimes blue speckled spots on their body surface. It’s known to feed on Codium fragile, a green algae commonly referred to as “Dead Man’s Fingers”. You can watch it curl and unfurl in this video!
4. Brittle Star
The last creature I want to share is a brittle star (class Ophiuroidea)! Before doing the Seaquarium takedown at Stelly’s Secondary School this year, I had only seen these creatures in aquariums like the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea. It was surprising to me that this brittle star survived the school year and was not eaten or picked on by any of the other creatures. Unlike the sea stars in the class Asteroidea (leather star, ochre star, blood star, bat star – to name a few local species), brittle stars can move their arms quite rapidly! Their central disk is also sharply marked off from the five arms, and the madreporite is located on the oral surface (underneath). It’s amazing to read about how these unfamiliar creatures function. For instance, despite not having any eyes, brittle stars can sense light and chemicals in the water as well as touch with their sensitive nerve endings that extend from the nerve ring in their central disk.
Thanks for reading this far! I hope you enjoyed learning about the Salish Sea critters above and are inspired to visit a local beach, waterway, or aquarium to discover more marine life! I also recommend checking out iNaturalist, resources from the Monterey Bay Aquarium website (sea animals don’t understand borders!) and your local library for some guidebooks! If you want to go a step farther, I invite you to research an environmental issue you’re interested in (it doesn’t have to be marine-related) and identify 3 things people can do to mitigate the impacts of the issue.
Ctenophora. (n.d.). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ctenophora
Brietzke, C., Fretwell, K., & Starzomski, B. (2013). White-lined dirona. https://www.centralcoastbiodiversity.org/white-lined-dirona-bull-dirona-albolineata.html
Dirona albolineata. (n.d.). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirona_albolineata
Cowles, D. (2006). Elysia hedgpethi. https://inverts.wallawalla.edu/Mollusca/Gastropoda/Opisthobranchia/Order_Sacoglossa/Elysia_hedgpethi.html
Hedgpeth’s Sapsucker (Elysia hedgpethi). (n.d.). https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/47798-Elysia-hedgpethi
Sacoglossa. (n.d.). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacoglossa
Brittle Stars (Class Ophiuroidea). (n.d.). https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/48836-Ophiuroidea
Kayla-Marie is passionate about promoting care for the environment and fostering a sense of connectedness through science communication and visual storytelling. She is happiest when exploring new places with her film camera in hand, whether that be by the sea or amongst the trees and mountains. She graduated in 2019 with a B.A. in Anthropology and Environmental Studies from the University of Victoria and will now be pursuing graduate studies in Coastal and Marine Management starting this August. She envisions working in a collaborative capacity where she helps with building and maintaining positive relationships between people and nature.