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One Famous Sea Star ⭐️

One Famous Sea Star ⭐️

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

It started on what seemed like a typical autumn day. The weather was calm and Sachi was feeling the pull of crab traps. That feeling, which I feel too, is similar to the feeling of gambling; a rush that comes from the chance to win. Every fisher feels it, I assume, and many know that as long as you’re on the water, there’s no way to lose. 

dungeness crabs in a trap

We boarded Short Story and headed out to Deer Harbor with our supplies in a small bucket, a cooler, and a dry bag. The whole process happens by rote at this point, having gone to check the traps on most days of every week since mid-July. 

This day would be different, but not that remarkable in isolation. As one of the traps came to the surface, I heard Sachi say, “Whoa!” in a tone that was part surprise and part anxiety. It looked as though an alien had entered the trap. It was a bright orange sunflower sea star with 19 arms and we weren’t sure what to do.

sunflower sea star lee lefever

We both were flummoxed for a moment. We knew sea stars are harmless to people, but this 19-armed creature looked like it evolved to be a warning to humans, like a brightly colored spider or snake. Some scientists now believe that our reaction to spiders and snakes is innate and not learned. Perhaps, somewhere in the backs of our minds, an ancient voice was telling us that the bright orange creature in our trap could be dangerous.

In reality, we humans are far more dangerous to it.

Sea stars on the pacific coast of the US have had it rough recently. Starting in 2013, over 90% of them died due to sea star wasting disease. No one is certain what caused it, but many think the culprit was a sudden change in ocean temperatures. Sea stars that used to be incredibly common in our area simply vanished over a few years. Since then, the ocean ecology seems to have been out of balance. 

From this article.

The widespread collapse of sea stars, a top predator and keystone species, has had dire consequences for many of the West Coast’s marine ecosystems. For example, the local extinction of sunflower sea stars, which can live for up to 65 years, has led to an explosion of their primary prey, the Pacific purple sea urchin. On a single reef in Oregon, the population of these animals increased 10,000-fold between 2014 and 2019, to more than 350 million individuals.

Sunflower sea stars, like the one we had in the trap, were recently certified as critically endangered by the IUCN

I was aware of their plight and we brainstormed how to get the sea star out of the trap unharmed and back into the water without touching it. But first, I needed to take some photos. With that out of the way, we dipped the trap back in the water and turned it on its side, and with a little shake, it fell out gently and drifted back down to the shadowy depths. 

sea star in water

My first thought was our friends on the island who work for a non-profit organization funded by UC Davis called SeaDoc Society. Their work focuses on ocean science and the rehabilitation of the Salish Sea and its inhabitants. I looked forward to sharing what I thought was a good sign for sea star recovery. I put the photo on Instagram first.

A week or so passed and an idea struck. I enjoy browsing Reddit and occasionally post photos. One of the communities that seemed perfect and has over 19 million members is called, “Mildly Interesting“. I thought the sea star fit that description, so I shared the photo on Reddit with a short note about it being endangered. This is where things started to hit high gear.

Reddit is designed to be a democratic system. Once something new is posted, the members of the community can each give it one vote: up or down. When something gets traction, the upvotes outnumber the downs, and the post has the potential to ascend to the top of the community page and possibly reach the front page of Reddit itself. 

When I went to bed that night, it was obvious the photo struck a chord. It had thousands of upvotes, with new votes coming by the second. I couldn’t wait to check my phone in the morning to see what developed as I slept. 

To my surprise, the post received over 30k upvotes overnight and reached the Reddit front page at position #10. I was so excited and read almost every comment, including 100+ versions of the question, “how did it taste?” Such is Reddit.  

reddit data
reddit data

That day, I received a succinct message from someone who asked if I was interested in licensing the photo to news organizations. I agreed. He sent over an agreement and questionnaire that gave me a chance to tell the story. I was careful to promote the photo as possible evidence of a sea star comeback and its connection to ocean ecology.

These kinds of relationships are unpredictable. I figured there was no harm in licensing the photo and I might earn a few bucks. More than anything, I expected nothing to happen.

A few days later, a friend on the island shared a link that was a surprise. Fox News had picked up the story and used the photo on their website along with quotes from me, the “fisherman”. I found it hilarious.

fox news story about sea star

Then, the article also appeared on the New York Post website.

new york post sea star

Messages poured in from friends and family calling me, “The Fisherman”. If only they knew that Sachi is the real fisher in the family.  One of my favorite parts of the article is this quote at the end:

“LeFever did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment.”

At a personal level, this was a fun and exciting event to watch unfold. But it’s also a reminder about how little this kind of media exposure matters. It had nearly zero impact on my career or livelihood. I did earn a $75 licensing fee for the photo, which is nice. 

The real outcome, I hope, is building awareness about the sea stars of the Salish Sea and sea star wasting disease. Every person who learns about it is one more potential advocate for taking care of the ocean.

According to Reddit, my post has been viewed over 3 million times and shared over 1,000 times in the past two weeks. The Fox news article has been widely viewed and shared as well. It was not my intention, but I count the few minutes it took to share the photo as a small part I could play in helping the sea stars get more attention and hopefully rebound. 

reddit stats

Since that first catch, we’ve seen three more sunflower sea stars in our traps, so there is growing evidence, at least from our boat, that they are coming back. Here is one escaping just as we pulled up the trap:

sea star escaping crab trap
sunflower sea star
I Can Recommend: Octopus Edition ?

I Can Recommend: Octopus Edition ?

Octopuses are having a moment right now and I admit to being fascinated by them. If you’re wondering, the plural of octopus is not octopi because the word comes from Greek and not Latin. Anyway, here are my recommended octopus stories in four forms:

  • My Octopus Teacher (Netflix) – This film won a well-deserved Oscar. It’s the story of a filmmaker who befriends an octopus for over a year. But it’s so much more. The filmmaker, Craig Foster, free-dives in frigid water off the coast of South Africa and captures the drama of octopus life in beautiful form. Watch the Trailer.
  • Octomom (Radiolab Podcast) – A team of researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium discover, via a robotic submersible, a deep-water octopus who is protecting 160 eggs a mile beneath the surface. They visit her each month for four years and document her unbelievable process of hatching the eggs over time.
  • The Soul of an Octopus (Book by Sy Montgomery) – Sy is a nature writer who became fascinated with octopuses. This book is her story of learning about and getting to know a handful of giant pacific octopuses behind the scenes at aquariums and in the wild. It’s a little woo-woo in spots and I wish it had more science, but was a fun read if you don’t mind the idea of animals in captivity.
  • Salish Sea Wild: Shaking Hands with the World’s Biggest Octopus (5 minute YouTube video) – This feature was made by our friends on Orcas Island at the SeaDoc Society, which is a science-driven nonprofit focused on ocean health. Watch more Salish Sea Wild.

? Go to all Recommendations

The Traffic Jam at Safari Island ???

The Traffic Jam at Safari Island ???

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

In the evenings this time of year, we often hear a deep growling sound coming from across the water that sounds like a call-and-response conversation. We soon learned that the growls come from a group of Steller sea lions that haul out on the tip of nearby Spieden Island. I always imagine them saying “GRRRR, I NEED MORE SPACE”, “UUUUGHHHH, NOT HERE BUDDY GGGGUUUUGGHHH”.

Photo by Rylee Isitt

When Sachi mentioned taking the boat out recently, I knew exactly what to do: investigate the source of the growls and get to know our noisy neighbors, who mainly appear in the spring. But there was a problem. Our boat, Short Story, needed gas. As happened before, we first visited Deer Harbor Marina, which is our home base. Their gas system was out of service again. Ugh. Before adventuring, we needed to fill up and decided to cross the channel to Roche Harbor for gas, and then visit the sea lions. If only it were so easy.

Crossing the channel was a breeze. Once we got across, I noticed four or five larger boats congregating. I told Sachi it looked suspicious. It was a weekday afternoon outside of fishing season. As we got closer, it was obvious that the boats were full of whale watching tourists. We slowed down and watched from afar as the dorsal fins of a handful of killer whales came into view. We were excited to have stumbled upon the spectacle and sat for a bit to enjoy the surprise. 

The whales, of course, are protected and there are laws that govern how close you can get in a boat and what to do when whales are present. These include, according to the Be Whale Wise website:

  • Boats to stay 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales on either side.
  • Boats to stay 400 yards out of Southern Resident killer whales’ path in front and behind the whales
  • Boats to go slow (<7 knots) within ½ mile of Southern Resident killer whales
  • Disengage engines if whales appear within 300 yards.

The tour guides are usually pretty responsible and we stay behind their boats to be sure. After watching the whales, we decided to head towards the gas dock at Roche Harbor. That’s when we realized that we were stuck. The whales and boats had drifted into the smaller channel between us and Roche Harbor. As long as they were around, we couldn’t proceed. Soon another boat approached us from behind and a second boat came from the direction of Roche, all trying to get through. We both laughed. It was a San Juan Islands traffic jam. The damn whales were clogging up the works! We, of course, were more than happy to wait them out. 

Before long we were on our way to the marina. We’d been to Roche multiple times, but never for gas. As I’ve written before, marina gas stations sometimes work in mysterious ways and we weren’t sure exactly what their process was, other than to park at the gas pumps. Roche, being a higher-end resort, usually has friendly staff helping with gas, but not today. We got out, looked quizzically at the gas pumps, and saw no evidence of what to do next. I went up a catwalk to a commercial area and Sachi went 50 yards down the dock to find an empty shack. We were stuck once again.

Within a few minutes, a guy walked by and I struck up a quick conversation that ended with me saying, “Do you know if there is anyone who can help us with gas?” He looked around and pointed at the empty shack and said “It helps if you park near the shack.” Duh. We were as far as you could get from it. 

Before we could get the boat moved, a young staff member in resort shorts finally arrived and asked, “Can I help you guys with some gas?” He turned on the pump and I started to fill the tank. Once it got full, I let the handle go and waited for the last drops. And then I waited some more. It was like a gasket was leaking and the valve couldn’t close tightly. At the time, I thought the problem could be solved by holding the pump nozzle vertically and handed it to Sachi to replace it on the pump.

Within a few seconds, we realized we had a problem. The nozzle never fully closed and now gas was trickling down the pump. We both tried to jiggle the handle to make it close more fully. No dice. I told Sachi to get the staff guy, who was at the faraway shack, while I managed the leak. As soon as she ran off, I realized that I was in a volatile situation. It was a slow leak, but a leak nonetheless. I was on a dock, over the water, with gas bubbling out of a hose that I didn’t know how to stop. I looked for a nearby spill kit. Nothing I could see. I tried to hold my finger over the nozzle, which was a dumb idea that eventually caused gas to squirt from my thumb.

I danced around for a few seconds and eventually noticed two big white boxes that looked like storage tanks. The top cover was flat with half-baseball-sized dimples that looked like they could hold fluid. So, I quickly placed the nozzle in the center of the cover and made sure the gas could leak into the dimples instead of the ground or on me. Just as I got it set, the staff member ran to my side and turned the manual shut-off, which I didn’t know existed. He apologized and immediately started to clean up. That was true for us, too. Our bare hands were starting to burn and turn white from the gas. By the time it was done, it was obvious very little, if any, gas made it to the water. 

With washed hands and a full tank, we finally made our way back to the channel and headed over the closely shaven shore of Spieden Island, which was once known as “Safari Island”. In 1969 two taxidermist brothers imported exotic game and turned the 500-acre island into a hunting ground, with visitors buying the stuffed trophies of their kills. This created outrage and was covered by Walter Cronkite in a CBS documentary. The hunting business only lasted a few years and when the brothers left, the animals remained. Today you can still see mouflon sheep from Corsica, sika deer from Japan, and fallow deer from Europe. 

As soon as we arrived at the island we spotted groups of fallow deer, grazing the hillside and heading south. It seemed like they were escorting us down the shore. Sachi wondered if they have a water source that they visit every evening. I wanted to believe they wanted to spend more time with us. After a couple of miles of shoreline, the island ended at Green Point, the springtime hangout of the Steller sea lions. 

Just as we rounded the corner, it was obvious that we’d found the source of the growls we could hear from home. Only now, they were coming from huge brown beasts lying on the shore like overstuffed sausages on a grill. Steller sea lions can grow up to ten feet in length and weight over a ton. We kept our distance, but you could see pairs of them interacting. It felt like something you’d see in a nature documentary. GRRRAAAGGG… THAT’S MY GIRLFRIEND DUUUUUUUDE… AGGGGHHHHHHH…. I’M FULL OF FISH… UGGGGGHHHGGGG. 

I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard, anyway. 

I didn’t take any interesting photos of the sea lions on this trip, but I did get this shot of them from a kayak off nearby Sucia island in 2011 with Mount Baker in the background.

As the sun started to set, we moved on and took a quick look at Flattop from the water before heading home. Aside from the traffic jams and gas spills, it was an awesome spring day to be on the Salish Sea. From now on, when I hear the sea lions, I’ll know exactly where they are and maybe, what they’re saying.