Celebrating Washington's Seascapes: What Lies Beneath?

By Jodie Toft, Acting Director of Marine Conservation

Let’s break the surface this summer. From water’s edge to thousands of feet below, Washington’s seascapes are replete with weird, fascinating animals and plants, currents and geology that create one of the most productive ocean systems on earth. Breaking the plane – that thin layer that holds air above and water below – is fundamental to our work in marine conservation. For everyone in the Pacific Northwest, connecting to our marine waters, not just the sparkly or wind-chopped surface, but beneath, is an accessible luxury.

Nature is pre-programmed to break the surface for us. The long days and low tides of summer give us ample time to explore coastal ebb and flood—a stage curtain that rises and falls on an ever-changing intertidal show. But though the rich intertidal offers sea anemones and shore crabs as powerful magnets for pokey little fingers, why should it garner all the glory? To break the water’s surface beyond wadable depths is to pull back the curtain on a dizzying cast of characters.

 Tidepools offer vibrant glimpses into sea creatures, but they only scratch the surface of the wealth of wildlife that lies beneath. Photo by Nancy Sefton.

Tidepools offer vibrant glimpses into sea creatures, but they only scratch the surface of the wealth of wildlife that lies beneath. Photo by Nancy Sefton.

In June, while you’re waiting to depart on one of Washington’s iconic ferries, and before procuring your chowder (and/or garlic tater tots if that’s your thing), have a peek over the rail. If you’re headed west from Seattle, look closely for tiny, juvenile Chinook salmon no larger than your index finger, schooling as they prepare to move to deeper waters. (Puget Sound’s Chinook salmon are federally-endangered, but Seattle’s new fish-friendly seawall may provide an innovative answer.) 

Once your ferry launches, you’ll be gliding over a 700-foot deep trough (FYI – the Space Needle tops out at 605’), the glorious leftover of a glacier’s swan song. Break the plane and you’ll find herring, Dungeness crab, harbor seals, sea lions, porpoises, rockfish, ratfish, dogfish and, when they choose to be here, sixgill sharks, just to mention a few. And octopus (they get their own sentence because they’re so cool). Exit Puget Sound through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and you’re suddenly in the Pacific, the largest and deepest of the earth’s oceans.

 A humpback whale breaks the surface as it traverses the Pacific on a monumental annual migration. Photo by Jon McCormack.

A humpback whale breaks the surface as it traverses the Pacific on a monumental annual migration. Photo by Jon McCormack.

Imagine yourself out 30 miles from La Push. Dive down and you'll be standing at the edge of the 60-mile-wide Juan de Fuca canyon, where an underwater river the size of the Amazon carries nutrient-rich, deep ocean water uphill. To get to the Canyon, you've skipped across the continental shelf, where millions of pounds of Pacific hake migrate, you've gone over deep pockets thick with halibut, and past whales on a monumental migration from Baja to feeding grounds in Alaska.  And, depending on the time of year, you’ve gone past some or all of five species of Pacific salmon. It’s a busy place out there.

But don’t take my word for it. Tune in to Nautilus Live this summer, where you can watch in real-time as Robert Ballard’s Expedition Vessel, the Nautilus, live-streams its amazing surveys of the underwater world off the coasts of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California. 

Breaking the plane matters now more than ever. Ocean acidification and climate change, along with population growth and increasing demand for seafood, already affect our marine waters and the livelihoods of many Washingtonians. Marine ecosystems here and around the world will do what is in their fluid, dynamic nature – they will change. Our timely and pressing challenge is to adapt accordingly, advancing a new model for marine conservation that engages people while ensuring protection of precious ecosystems.

I say the more, the merrier. And here’s an easy way to start:  Join us in celebrating the big blue next week on World Oceans Day (June 8th). There’s still time to assemble the perfect nudibranch costume, folks. 

Learn More About Our Marine Work