Keystone Jetty (Fort Casey State Park), May 2021
By Stacey Thompson, SWS Class of 2011 (all photos by Stacey unless otherwise indicated)
As a Camano Island member of Sound Water Steward of Island County, I had not explored Whidbey Island beaches since my training ten years ago. On May 28, I accompanied Jeanie and Paul McElwain and Susan Mador to the Keystone Jetty at Fort Casey State Park on a minus 3.9 foot tide. Any low or minus tide below a -2.0 will do at this location when searching for extraordinary, rarely seen organisms like masses of fluorescent-colored fish eggs or giant gumshoe chitons or giant mussels but much of what we found could only be seen at an extraordinary -3.9 tide.
Keystone Jetty (Getting to the Water’s Edge site #30) is a structure built alongside the Keystone Ferry channel and lies within the Fort Casey State Park. Safety practices are essential at this site. The boulders that make up the jetty are jagged and large, often slippery and can still sometimes move. I was glad I wore my boots as I soon discovered that wading into the water was sometimes my only way of getting around the large boulders. I also recommend wearing gloves to protect your hands from sharp barnacles on rocks. Do not climb on these rocks alone as it is dangerous and you are exposed to rogue waves, high winds and the ferry wake that can splash you and cause you to misstep. I used a walking stick for three-point contact on the rocks.
The jetty is adjacent to the famous Fort Casey Underwater State Park and is in the Keystone Conservation Area and is a Marine Protected Area. No one can remove anything from this area or the state park. Exploring this jetty is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it comes to discovering rare organisms. Underwater there await many more species for SCUBA divers.
Most noticeable about this location is the rich variety of algae and seaweeds and the creatures they harbor on the rocky beach on the north side of the jetty. Many hard-to-find creatures are revealed at lowest tide levels among the natural boulders and protected by the deep, dark and moist caves and crevices.
That day I saw two Oystercatchers, Haematopus palliatus, their long orange beaks and matching colored eyes, against the dark rocks on the shore, each about 12” tall with a solid black body and white-ish legs and feet. They were looking for the saltwater bivalves they mainly feed on, but they also eat limpets, jellyfish and even sea stars and sea urchins. We observed these two eating mussels. I rarely see them on Camano Island.
The Jetty’s rocks are covered in barnacles; most are Haystack barnacles Semibalanus cariosus phylum Arthropoda, another difference between Whidbey and Camano Islands. Camano Island has mostly acorn barnacles, Balanus glandula and Chthamalus dalli, little brown barnacles with Balanus crenatus, a smooth, almost white barnacle that is mainly subtidal. While Camano Island’s west shore faces Saratoga Passage, Keystone Jetty is exposed to Admiralty Inlet and the Straits of Juan De Fuca. I have not seen any such habitat as this on Camano Island.
We found the exotic-looking shells of the leafy hornmouth, Ceratostoma foliatum ranging in size from 6 to 8 cm making them easy to spot on the rocks. I was so tempted to take a beautiful shell home but their inhabitants are all alive and it is illegal to remove anything from this protected area. Leafy hornmouth shell is heavy with spiral ridges and raised axial ribs. Dr. Eugene Kozloff describes them in Seashore Life of the Northern Pacific Coast as a shell that looks like it was designed by committee because the frilly ribs are not continued the length of the shell on most specimens. The ribs have a protective function; when the shell is dislodged by a predator underwater, it falls spinning to the sea floor and can land with its aperture and foot facing the ground, thus protecting the animal within. The leafy hornmouth feeds on barnacles, Semibalanus cariosus and Balanus crenatus and various bivalve mollusks. Like many snails, it can drill a hole in a shell to insert its proboscis to feed on the soft bodies.
Among our finds was the blood star, phylum Echinodermata Henricia sp. nestled among the algae, bryozoans and sponges which they feed on, they spawn in early spring. Like most seastars, they have 5 slender arms and a small central disc but they are bright red. The ones we saw were about 5 cm and found on the low tide, but they can live down to 400 meters deep.
We also discovered a few six-rayed stars (Brooding star), Leptasterias sp. which were approximately 4 cm across. They come in various colors including the striped, red one pictured here. It is a carnivore that feeds on sea cucumbers, snails, limpets, mussels, chitons, and barnacles. Their eggs are yolky, and the female broods her eggs after they are fertilized by holding them with her tube feet in a mass near her mouth. They are even cared for by the mother after they hatch into tiny sea stars that mature in two years.
Various crab species were seen: red rock crabs, Cancer productus; graceful kelp crab, Pugettia gracilis floating on the kelp as well as a flat porcelain crab, Petrolisthes cinctipes. There were fluorescent fish egg masses in yellow, light orange and dark orange squeezed between rocks. Tunicates, also known as Ascidians, are visible to the naked eye but hardly recognized as living organisms because of their odd forms and colors that blend in with the rocks they are on.
Chitons and more at Bush Point Boat Launch, May 2021
On May 30, I attended a field trip for Class of 2021 trainees at Bush Point Boat Launch led by Jeanie and Paul Ben McElwain. We started at the boat launch and, as the sign requests, we walked quietly past the private beach houses to a public area 400 feet to the north (see details in Getting to the Water’s Edge guidebook, site #38).
Bush Point on Whidbey Island is a rocky beach on Admiralty Inlet with a wide variety of beach creatures to find and identify. It is regarded as a high-energy beach because of its relatively strong wave action due to winds coming from the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Admiralty Inlet. I used a walking stick because the cobble-sized rocks at low tide are covered in slippery seaweed and the lowest tide is where you find the most organisms.
Chitons, in the phylum Mollusca, are characterized by their eight plates that cover the upper dorsal side of their bodies. They have a muscular foot that clings to the rocks underneath and gills surrounding the foot. They are herbivores and feed on algae, sponges, bryozoans and coelenterates with their radula, a rake-like tongue that can be retracted or protruded. The red veiled chiton, Placiphorella velata is the only carnivorous chiton in our region and usually is found on the rocky shores of the open coast.
The plates of some chitons are covered with hundreds of eyes called ocelli. As documented by National Geographic, these eyes can detect shadows overhead. They are so numerous because it is an animal that can’t move very fast and needs that perspective to know when to tighten its grip on the rock. Underwater the chitons raise their flanks to expose their gills on their undersides to breathe. When their eyes detect movement overhead, the chitons can clamp down on the rock by lowering their armor for protection. The eyes cannot see detail, scientist Daniel Speiser of the University of California Santa Barbara discovered, but they are useful to see shadows and form coarse images. Unlike most lenses in animals, the chiton’s lenses are made up of Aragonite, the same substance as its shell. Eyed chitons have retinas and lenses. Even the eyeless chitons have light-sensitive cells on their surface to detect changes in brightness in the environment.
We found the Gumboot chiton, Cryptochiton stelleri, named so because its eight plates are hidden by a thick leathery covering called a girdle and crypto means hidden. When it was named, there was rubber boot it resembled and the name stuck. It is reddish brown in color and can grow up to 30 cm long. It has sharp teeth made partially of magnetite, hard enough to scrape algae, bryozoans, diatoms, and barnacles off the surface of rocks. This intertidal mollusk is generally found in intertidal zone 4 or the subtidal region and feeds nocturnally. It can live to be 40 years old!
Other notable and prevalent chitons in the subtidal region are the lined chitons, Tonicella lineata. These beautiful chitons can be brightly colored with dark brown lines crossing over a lighter background that can be a variety of colors like yellow, orange, pink, orchid, green and lavender. They are usually found feeding on encrusting coralline algae, the abundant red algae, very noticeable, especially in the intertidal zones 4 and subtidal zones. It looks like spilled pink pepto medicine. Seaweeds hide a variety of chitons and anemones and provide moisture and food for herbivores. Most of the chitons were found on large boulders with seaweed draped over them except for the gumboot chiton which were on top of rocks.
We found green encrusting sponges, Phylum Porifera, Halichondria panicea spilled out like paint with texture and tube worms clustered in colonies. Large sea stars, Pisaster ochraceus, phylum Echinodermata, are making a comeback after the sea star wasting disease and we saw large healthy, singular specimens of the purple sea star, but not in large numbers. Little Nucella lamellosa, smooth shelled snails, mollusks, were found in bright yellow and orange.
And to top off the day there was a giant barnacle, Balanus nubilus, Phylum Arthropoda, that can reach 10 cm in diameter but the one we saw was about 5 cm in diameter anchored to a huge erratic boulder that Susan Mador (SWS Class of 2011) nicknamed “The Monolith.” Giant barnacles can only be seen at subtidal region in Puget Sound, and these were encrusted with various organisms like algae and smaller barnacles. [Giant barnacle is not pictured here because it is hard to distinguish in pictures.]
The large boulders and erratics are like micro ecosystems with interconnected life forms. Most of the substrate consisted of large cobble, sand, and clay underneath it all. There was a wide variety of marine algae and all three groups of algae (red, green, brown) can be found at Bush Point in abundance. They play an important role in the web of life: a moist blanket protecting other organisms from predators and heavy wave action, a place to seek refuge from the hot sun at low tide, and vital nutrients for many different species.
A variety of brown seaweeds including bull kelp, Nereocystis luetkeana, are exposed at 0.0 feet and below. They make up the order Laminariales, phylum Phaeophyta. Kelp forms underwater forests in shallow oceans requiring nutrient rich waters and water temperatures 39 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit (3.5 to 15 degrees Celsius). The kelp stalk, known as a stipe, grows from its branching holdfast on the bottom of the ocean floor, leading up to a bulbous float with long blades. The stalk can be as long as 20 meters and the bulb, filled with carbon monoxide, can measure 12 cm in diameter, with blades 3 meters in length. Its growth rate is astounding at up to half a meter a day. As an annual, it grows in the spring and summer and dies off after it reproduces in the winter. It then breaks apart in the storms and washes ashore.
Kelp is used commercially to thicken a variety of foods such as ice cream and salad dressings. Rich in iodine, salt and many nutrients, it is used in cuisines of China, Japan, Russia and Korea. In Norway and Scotland, it was burned as a source of soda ash starting in the 1820’s. Now it is being considered to make ethanol. Kelp forests harbor biodiversity and provide ecological function by sheltering schools of fishes. If I may offer my opinion, I think that is a better use of kelp forests than human harvesting of wild kelp beds. Coastal runoff, pollution, ocean acidification, and warming waters already threaten the future of many species.
Numerous species of other laminarians, brown algae, genus Laminaria wash ashore and cover this beach at low tide, many still attached to their stalks and holdfasts, others with their blades shredded by the waves.
We found Turkish towel, Chondracanthus exasperatus, a red seaweed with a bumpy surface, thick and rubbery. It arises from a single stipe which may bear two or three blades of algae. It can grow to 50 cm long and 20 cm wide but most often much smaller pieces of it are found. Green seagrasses such as native eelgrass Zostera marina were present. Moon snail egg casings and rough piddock clams with their double siphons sticking up from the sand were noticeable as were the divots left by geoduck siphons. Red rock crabs, Cancer productus, ventured out from crevices under boulders.
It was like a new planet to me, and I enjoyed visiting this habitat that is so colorful, fascinating and vital. Salish Sea shores offer much enjoyment and need to be cared for as we go into the future as Stewards. I enjoyed exploring with others who could point out what they saw, and I could share my observations with them. Together we are working towards leaving a legacy of a sustainable, thriving environment by educating ourselves and our communities on what makes healthy Salish Sea and Pacific Ocean ecosystems. I encourage all Stewards to survey beaches to see what phenomenal creatures you may find close to your home and to occasionally venture to the “other” island.
Extraordinarily low minus tides return at the end of June, so check your tide chart and make plans now to see what you can see.