Massive octopus among the wonders of the Salish Sea

  • Fri Oct 12th, 2012 10:10pm
  • Life

By Sharon Wootton

The largest octopus, the biggest barnacle and an enormous anemone live in our back yard, the Salish Sea, an extraordinary ecosystem that is one of the world’s largest and biologically rich inland seas

It includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the San Juan Islands, and British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia and Gulf Islands.

For Joe Gaydos, chief scientist for the SeaDoc Society (seadocsociety.org), it’s a treasure chest of eyebrow-raising proportions.

“It’s unique in that it’s a little isolated from the outer coast and has only one entrance,” Gaydos said. “Genetically, a lot of species have the same Latin name of species on the outer coast but genetically they are different.

“All this fresh water is coming in and combined with all the nutrients coming up from the bottom of the ocean, it’s a perfect circle of energy and nutrients in a complex habitat,” he said.

SeaDoc Society estimates that the Salish Sea environment includes 37 species of mammals, 172 species of birds, 247 species of fish and more than 3,000 species of invertebrates; 113 species are listed as threatened or endangered, or are candidates for listing.

The sea is home to the world’s largest species of octopus, the giant Pacific octopus, a mollusk related to squids, clams and snails.

There have been reports (or lore) of insanely huge octopus of up to 600 pounds with an tentacle span of more than 30 feet across. Realistically, Gaydos said, a top weight of about 150 pounds is more likely.

“They can actually mate at the end of life. Afterward the female goes into a den and nests for five months, taking care of her eggs, not eating, and (after the eggs are hatched), she dies.

“It’s a labor of love,” Gaydos said.

If fame is about size and beauty, a nominee would be the white plumose anemone (aka giant plumose anemone), the world’s largest sea anemone, which can grow up to 40 inches tall.

“It’s a beautiful thing, an underwater flower that’s a gorgeous white,” Gaydos said.

Beautiful and armed: The thin tentacles at the top of the column are tipped with tiny poison-filled cells called nematocysts. When triggered, the barbed cells are injected into prey, immobilizing it.

The Salish Sea also is home to the world’s largest barnacle, Balanus nubilis, which can measure 6 inches across and 12 inches tall and is related to crabs and lobsters.

In the plankton stage, it attaches its head to a hard surface. Its six feathery appendages (modified legs) beat rhythmically, drawing plankton into the shell opening where it eats its meal.

Other impressive life in the Salish Sea includes the giant Pacific chiton, the largest of chitons, which grows up to 15 inches; the largest burrowing clam, the geoduck, which can live up to a century; and the red urchin, which can live more than 150 years.

“While we can say that the Salish Sea is home to them, frankly, we can look out there and say it is home to us, too,” Gaydos said.

“I know that we hear that (the environment) is doing badly, but that doesn’t mean we have to throw in the towel if we’re suffering from ecological fatigue,” he said.

“Others come here and say, ‘Wow!’ We have an awesome heritage that we want to preserve.”

SeaDoc Society

A science-based organization that uses science to help make good decisions about what we need to do to maintain a healthy Salish Sea.

Contact: www.seadocsociety.org; 360-376-3910.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.