Exploring Islands by Kayak, Anacortes, WA - August 2014

This summer my sister got married north of Seattle in the seaside town of Anacortes, Washington. After the wedding we took a few extra days to take in all that Washington has to offer. My cousins and an old family friend had signed up for a full day kayak tour with Anacortes Kayak Tours around some of the San Juan Islands so I joined.

Here's where we were:

By the time I called to make my reservation, the evening before, they couldn't add anymore boats to the trip so the booking agent asked me if I knew anyone on the trip who might not mind sharing a kayak with me. That's how I ended up sitting in the middle of my cousins in a triple kayak! I am so glad they squeezed me in, because it was really a great experience.

We met at the Skyline Marina office around 8am to get suited up. I had never been in a sea kayak before (the ones that you sit inside with a skirt holding you in and keeping water out) but the instructor showed us how to get out of the kayak if it should flip. Once we were out on the water it was pretty clear that flipping due to waves was very unlikely - the water was smooth as glass.

As we navigated our way out of the marina and into Burrows Bay the guide pointed out bright orange sea cucumbers that covered the rocks along the channel and even as we got to the open beach we could see thousands of them with their feathery, fluorescence. I couldn't get a photo because they were under the water but they looked kinda like this:

As we paddled along we went through many areas thick with bull kelp. Kelp beds provide a resting area for otters, gulls, herons, shorebirds, and waterfowl. Underwater kelp forests shelter snails, crabs, shrimp, starfish, sea anemones, sea cucumbers, brittle stars, sea squirts, and many other marine creatures. Find out more on the Puget Sound Shorelines site.

Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana)
Our guide took us close to the shoreline of Burrows Island and pointed out some sealife. We saw a few Ochre Sea Stars (aka starfish) and he mentioned that lately they have been noticing more and more sea stars with what's called "wasting syndrome". They're not sure what causes it, but you can tell that a sea star is infected because it looks kind of squishy and has a hard time hanging onto the rocks like the one pictured below. The syndrome quickly leads to death.

Ochre Sea Star (Pisaster ochraceus)
There have been massive die-offs of sunflower sea stars and ochre sea stars since 2013 along the west coast and it has been documented all the way from Alaska to San Diego. A press release from UC Santa Cruz explains the impact - these species are major predators and also prey:

"Ecologists consider sunflower and ochre stars to be keystone species because they have a disproportionately large influence on the distribution and abundance of many other species. Scientists anticipate that such a large mortality event in keystone species could change the intertidal and subtidal seascapes. Scientists are working hard to understand the causes and consequences of the event. Previous examples of large-scale, mass mortality of individual marine species have resulted in dramatic ecosystem- wide changes."

This is one of those cases where citizen science is important so I'm going to report my observations of sea stars from this trip to contribute to the data set.

You can see a time-lapse map of the affected areas here.

During the day we saw a variety of birds including my first time seeing a Belted Kingfisher:

Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus)
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni)
Common Murre (Uria aalge)
Towards the end of our trip we hauled off onto a beach and ate some snacks we had brought with us. It was so peaceful out there I wanted to set up camp and stay for a while. Here are some more photos from the trip:

Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)
Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina)

Genus Polyorchis (a member of the Fire Corals so not a true jellyfish)
I'd definitely recommend Anacortes Kayak Tours full-day kayak. The pace was just right and there weren't large, loud boats interrupting the stillness. There's nothing better than spending the day out on the water with family and close friends. It was a really pleasant experience and one I'll definitely think back to when I need a break from the daily grind.

For more photos from my trip to Washington State see my Flickr set.