Padilla Bay newsletter

Our e-newsletter is published quarterly with current events, articles, and program information.

Surveying kelp by kayak along a Salish Sea shoreline.

Volunteers survey kelp by kayak

The local community science program to monitor bull kelp canopy area via kayak continued last summer despite 2020's many challenges. Over 40 volunteers got out on the water to paddle around kelp bulbs and contribute to the growing long-term data set created by this Northwest Straits Commission and Marine Resources Committee program. 

Volunteers surveyed 22 different bull kelp beds, documenting 416 acres of bull kelp forest. They paddled over 230 collective miles in six counties from Clallam to Snohomish and up to Whatcom. Data gathered in 2020 helps paint a picture of how our local bull kelp beds vary year to year. The data helps to reveal natural variability and emerging trends. 

The Northwest Straits Commission’s partnership with Padilla Bay allows GIS expert, Suzanne Shull to process and share the kelp data collected by volunteers. We've recently added the 2020 MRC kelp data to our Sound IQ web-map here: Our Work | SoundIQ | Mapping the Sound ( Take some time to dive in and explore some of your local bull kelp forests.

Vanessa Jimenez calibrates an instrument that measures chlorophyll and other water quality parameters.

Refining our techniques

This year, in collaboration with 12 other National Estuarine Research Reserves, we are embarking on a new project to improve our ability to monitor phytoplankton in Padilla Bay. Phytoplankton are the microscopic marine algae that function as the primary producers of the estuary’s food web. Similar to plants, phytoplankton use chlorophyll to convert sunlight to food energy through photosynthesis. Scientists can measure the amount of chlorophyll in a water sample to represent the abundance of phytoplankton.
As part of our water quality monitoring program at Padilla Bay, we measure chlorophyll concentration by collecting and filtering water samples once a month. However, the abundance of phytoplankton fluctuates from one day to the next, and even over the course of a day. So we started using sensor technology to measure chlorophyll in real-time, every 15 minutes.The goal of this project is to better understand environmental conditions, such as temperature and turbidity (cloudiness), which may affect the accuracy of the chlorophyll sensor. Being able to measure chlorophyll more frequently using sensor technology will help us better understand the dynamics of phytoplankton communities and even detect early signs of algal blooms in Padilla Bay.
This project is funded by a NERRS Science Collaborative Catalyst grant. You can read more about “Refining techniques for high-frequency monitoring of chlorophyll a in the NERRS” here

Waves glowing bright blue from bioluminescent plankton.

Glowing like aquatic fairy dust 

by Chandler Colahan

About, about, in reel and rout                             

The death fires danced at night

The water, like a witch’s oils,

Burnt green and blue and white.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Summer brings one of the most magical natural wonders in the world to Padilla Bay. As water temperatures warm and plankton become plentiful, a food chain reaction is set in motion. Large numbers of a tiny single celled organism called Noctiluca can be found floating around the Salish Sea when conditions are just right.  These microscopic plankton, commonly known as sea sparkle, are a type of dinoflagellate. By day, blooms of Noctiluca (from Latin meaning night light) appear red in color and can make the water look like tomato soup. (Red tides caused by Noctiluca are not harmful to humans.) But it’s at night when these blooms really shine!

If Noctiluca are disturbed in the water, they can produce and emit a non-thermal light called bioluminescence.  This occurs when a light-emitting molecule and an enzyme react with oxygen within the cell. The process can be compared to the reaction of fuel, oxygen, and a lit match. The resulting combustion creates a flash of blue-green light.                                          

Many marine species and certain terrestrial species have the ability to produce bioluminescence, including jellyfish, fireflies, and even some fungi. Scientists believe organisms use bioluminescence for many different reasons. Some organisms use it to attract mates or prey. Others use it for defense. It is an important tool for all kinds of communication. The beautiful glowing displays are a true miracle of nature. There is no guarantee when Noctiluca blooms will occur, but your best chance to see it is on a clear, calm moonless summer night.  Run your hand through the water, look for the glittering light, and prepare to be amazed! 

Relative humidity at the Padilla Bay weather station dropped from 90% to 23% over a three-hour period on April 11, 2020.

April's dry storm

The word "storm" may conjure up images of dark clouds and drenching rains, but Padilla Bay's April 2020 storm was something unusual. April was a strange month for many reasons, but something you may not have noticed was how dry it was compared to our normal showery spring. Until the second half of the month, we had an exceptionally dry April. (Hopefully you don’t have bad allergies, or you  really enjoy watering your freshly-planted garden every day!) On Saturday, April 11, Padilla Bay's weather station recorded an interesting low humidity event: a “dry storm."

The days with the lowest humidity in Western Washington are typically associated with cold, dry weather systems that happen during winter months.This April event was interesting because it was neither cold nor winter. High atmospheric pressure pushed low humidity air into the area from the east side of the Cascade mountain range. As explained by local atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass from the University of Washington, as this dry eastern air mass moved west and over the mountains, the (already dry) air “gets compressed and dries out even more as it sinks and flows down the slopes into Western Washington." The graph here shows that relative humidity dropped from around 90% to a low of 23% in a three hour period; pretty amazing, considering Padilla Bay is on the water.

Also interesting is that relative humidity on April 11 was a tie for the lowest RH recorded at Padilla Bay since 2006! Thankfully, we had an increase in rainfall during the second half of April, and due to a very wet January, we are still currently near or above average for precipitation and snowpack in Western Washington.

Are you interested in education and volunteer opportunities tracking precipitation in your area? Check out the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network website for more details of how to get involved. Also, you can track local weather and water quality conditions in Padilla Bay through our monitoring network data page.