Sometimes, even when you're doing something you really enjoy, it can get to be a bit monotonous when you're doing the same thing, again, and again, and again. I like doing the touch tanks when I'm volunteering at the aquarium- I like working with the little kids, and seeing their joy, and sharing gross stuff about the animals, and spending lots of quality time with the Echinoderms- but it's a small area of the aquarium that needs the most attention, and after awhile you want a little variety.
So I was happy today to move around a bit more. I started off learning more about the Puget Sound fish in The Dome. (Not at all related to Mad Max, but rather a giant underwater glass dome with fish and the occasional diver cleaning the windows. When the new exhibit opens up in two months, with a tank the size of a movie screen, some of those fish will be moved there.) Puget Sound fishes are probably my weakest area at the aquarium, so it was good to learn a little bit more. I find the most interesting fish there to be the 4' sturgeon, of great age, individually and as a species. They positively breath age, with their armored body and heterocercal tail providing greater lift with a larger upper lobe.
In one of the smaller tanks near the dome I saw a sea cucumber, on the glass. I've seen seastars there before, but never a sea cucumber. It was my first opportunity to see it's tube feet from below, as you often see seastars. And, even better, to watch it feeding, as it scraped off microscopic particles with the it's tentacles, slowly moving them in to it's mouth.
Next was off to the Orca station. We don't have live Orcas, though sometimes I'll tell the public that the Orcas swimming in the TV screen are Pygmy Orcas...It was my first time at this station, where we provide cards for kids to trade with, focusing on different individuals of J Pod, the one off the coast here. We also have a number of small plastic whales and cartilagenous fish for kids to play with, and reading books, a full-size Orca skull replica, and a selection of videos to play- it's all very relaxing. I enjoyed the calmer atmosphere here, and getting to explain to interested Girl Scouts about barnacle parasites, and how whale lice aren't a parasite but are helpful, and showing them how baleen works with a sample. My favorite video that I returned to again and again was of Orca echolocation. There's just something calming and at the same time eerily intimidating and primeval listening to the pops and staccato of Orcas on the prowl. I am washed over with the sonic booms, and at the same time feel as if I, too, am about to be prey to an Orca.
Then I came in for the last hour, for a "plankton tow". It's not a real one, from a ship, but rather simply a dip of a net into the harbor. We did the phytoplankton net, and so got a lot of biomass in the codend. Since I've done plankton tows before, I got to give my first talk, ironically on plankton, one of the areas of the ocean I am least intimately familiar with. There are some aspects I know, but there's just so much there in the top layers of the water, it's difficult to be able to cover it all.
But it was beautiful. We project our samples on an overhead microscope, and see what we swim in and drink when we take that extra gulp of seawater. There were some salps (like tunicates, our closest relatives among the invertebrates- "ugly bags of mostly water"); arrow worms and fish eggs; copepods, where I talked about the no-slip boundary layer and the one-eyed pirate of Sponge Bob; nauplius larvae of seastars and very similar looking megalops and zoea crab larvae; and a giant (relatively speaking) barnacle exoskelton. But the best of all, the most beautiful of all, was definitely the diatoms. In chains or individually, I have never before seen such exquisite biological geometry. Sure, you read about it, but there's nothing like actually getting to see it right there in front of you. Here was the big CO2 sink of the planet; the place where most of our oxygen comes from. There was even an intricately formed snowflake of an individual diatom, rounded to perfection.
This was truly a day of serenity.