Researchers from USGS, Monterey Bay Aquarium and other institutions recently concluded sailing the Olympic Coast of Washington to study sea otters as part of the Pacific Nearshore Project investigating coastal health. Team members shared their field experiences through journal entries that they sent home regularly.
Opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect those of the USGS.
Pacific Nearshore Project
Washington Expedition – August 7, 2011
Darcie Larson, Seattle Aquarium
A second day of hiking for me today! Good thing I brought extra socks so I could double up as I did end up with one blister from the hike yesterday. Today our team consisted of myself and Dr. LeAnn White, wildlife epidemiologist with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center.
The weather is even better today as the low clouds and fog lifted early in the day and we had sunny conditions to enjoy as we scanned for sea otters. The sea otter group was actually in almost the exact same place as they were the day before -- so although I was tempted to take credit for immediately spotting them among the kelp, it really was just a matter of remembering where they were the day before!
As we waited for the dive team to take their position, it gave me lots of time to think about the importance of the work we are doing with this Nearshore Project study.
Many human activities affect our environment, each in their own way. It’s easy sometimes to just focus on the visible: the “garbage patch” floating out in the Pacific Ocean gets lots of media attention, for example.
What might be just as or more threatening, however, are the invisible things like extra CO2 going into the ocean, causing the water to become more acidic, and disrupting the food web because animals that form the basis of the marine food web can’t survive if the water is too acidic. Sea otters and other marine mammals are getting sick from viruses and bacteria that flow into the ocean, and some of those agents may be worsened by human activities. Or perhaps the otters’ immune systems aren’t functioning as well because of toxins in the food web, stuff that humans dumped decades ago when we didn’t understand the lasting effect it would have.
It’s harder sometimes to think about these invisible threats, but very important to understand them so decision makers have the proper information to take action.
Luckily, it’s hard to get too depressed as I gaze out at the kelp beds. And here’s why. Part of it is how inspired and energized I feel by just being here to experience it, to feel the sea breeze cooling me off and the sounds of the waves, the gulls and sea lions in the distance. But part of it is the amazing teamwork that has gone into pulling this project off.
To accomplish this big picture looking at the nearshore ecosystem from Alaska to California, it took a huge team effort. To solve the problems that our nearshore ecosystem faces will take an even bigger team effort, but somehow I believe it can happen. It’s heartening to me to see all the people enjoying the recreational opportunities out here -- the full parking lots, the “no vacancy” signs at the hotels -- it means people are experiencing it for themselves, turning back the tide of what some have called “nature deficit disorder” by bringing their children and grandchildren out here to play in the sand and the water.
As long as we hold on to that feeling of wonder and awe that strikes us as we see those little brown, furry sea otters floating in the kelp, I have hope that we humans can continue to form teams like this one to work on solutions that will preserve the sea otters and the entire nearshore habitat that makes the Pacific coast such an amazing place.
Darcie Larson is the interpretation coordinator at the Seattle Aquarium. She is collaborating on outreach and education efforts for the Pacific Nearshore Project.
Expedition photos courtesy of Darcie Larson and the Seattle Aquarium.
The Pacific Nearshore Project is a multinational, multiagency project investigating sea otters as health indicators of coastal waters and marine resources from California north through Canada and Alaska. The project is led by the U.S. Geological Survey with key research partners from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Seattle Aquarium, University of California, University of Idaho, University of Wyoming and California Department of Fish and Game. For a full list of sponsoring agencies, research blogposts, otter photos, please visit the project homepage at http://on.doi.gov/nearshore.