This week, a team of research scientists climbed into a small submarine and plunged to the bottom of the Salish Sea off San Juan Island, in search of the forage fish that are a staple of the chinook’s diet. They were looking for sand lance — a bottom-dwelling fish rich in fats and protein. Scientists know very little about its life and habitat in the Salish Sea. But they know it’s a critical link in the food chain. It dines on tiny organisms like copepods and zooplankton, transferring energy from organisms at the bottom of the food chain to animals at the top, like killer whales.
The sub’s scientists have also explored whether scientific trawling on the sea floor is causing any damage to the environment (so far, it looks like it is not). They also took a close look at the red sea urchins that live in Haro Strait, the deep channel west of San Juan Island’s Lime Kiln Point State Park, where orcas hunt for salmon — and where J50, the 3-year-old resident of J pod, was last seen alive.
"Here at the edge of the island, the bottom drops off precipitously. It’s an ideal habitat for red sea urchins, which can live up to 150 years. They move so little that “they’re kind of like an old growth forest,” said Alex Lowe, a UW graduate student studying biology.
On a dive this week, Lowe and Aaron Galloway, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon’s Institute of Marine Biology, spotted a red sea urchin at about 284 meters — more than double the known range of the urchin.
On Wednesday, four graduate students took a turn underwater in the sub to study the effects of trawling on the sea’s floor.
The students, all studying with UW professor Adam Summers, were beaming as they returned to one of the UW research boats, the Molly B, for the ride home.
How was it down there?
For a period of time, they turned off the lights in the sub and sat on the bottom. “You can’t imagine the blackest black,” said Kayla Hall. “You could see nothing.” Wednesday’s dive took her 360 feet below the surface, 330 feet beyond her lowest plunge to date.In a word: “Awesome!”
“And you build this picture in your head, and it’s kind of an abstraction from the real world, but you want it to be accurate,” said Lowe, the graduate student studying sea urchins.
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