Padilla Bay newsletter

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

Padilla Bay welcomes new researchers

Although we haven’t been able to gather in-person as a research community, scientific endeavors continue in the Bay, and we are busy! This spring and summer, a cadre of new researchers are investigating Padilla Bay. Welcome to these newest researchers:

researcher kneeling in eelgrass with sample bottle mounted on pipe

Liz Elmstrom enjoying the eelgrass meadow at low tide

  • Elizabeth Elmstrom (Ph.D. student, University of Washington). Elizabeth was awarded the NOAA Margaret A. Davidson Fellowship in Autumn 2020. Her research focuses on factors that affect the ability of an estuary to act as a carbon sink or source. She is especially interested in connections in the watershed. As an estuary that was orphaned from the Skagit River, Padilla Bay may be very different from estuaries that have more freshwater inputs from rivers.

  • Hannah Hein (Master’s student, Western Washington University). Hannah was awarded Padilla Bay’s Borman grant in 2020 to develop methods for monitoring eelgrass distribution using aerial photos obtained from drones. With expansive meadows of native eelgrass (Zostera marina) intermixed with non-native dwarf eelgrass (Z. japonica), Padilla Bay poses an unusual challenge for monitoring.

Screen shot of Zoom meeting with faces in gallery view.

Bryan Ortiz updates Padilla Bay staff on his research project.

  • Bryan Briones Ortiz (Ph.D. student, University of Washington). Bryan is the 2021 recipient of the Padilla Bay Borman grant, and his research examines the genetic diversity, characteristics, and environmental conditions of native eelgrass. Genetic diversity has been found to be important for the resilience of eelgrass meadows, and Bryan’s findings will be relevant for eelgrass management and restoration.

  • Jessica Jurcek (undergraduate, University of Minnesota) and Anna Poston (undergraduate, North Carolina State University) each received the NOAA Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship and will be conducting their summer internship projects at Padilla Bay. Jess will investigate community stakeholder needs for water quality information. Anna’s project involves methods for monitoring eelgrass condition and the development of a live eelgrass tank for the Interpretive Center aquarium.

  • Nicole Reynolds (undergraduate, Everett Community College & University of Washington) is participating in the NOAA Hollings Prep Program and will be assisting the Stewardship team with summer field work and investigating the invasive mud snail, Batillaria attramentaria.

  • Audrey Malloy (undergraduate, Western Washington University) and Kaitlin Macaranas (undergraduate, California State University) are participating in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program through the Shannon Point Marine Center (SPMC, in Anacortes, WA). Through an exciting collaboration with Dr. Brian Bingham (SPMC), Audrey and Kaitlin will be conducting their summer research projects in Padilla Bay. Audrey will be studying the effect of rising temperatures on carbon sequestration in the Padilla Bay eelgrass meadows. Kaitlin will quantify the abundance and diversity of animal species living in the mud. This will give us a baseline of biodiversity prior to looming threats, such as European green crab invasion.

Left to right are Cameron, Ben, and Jake at a newly established eelgrass monitoring site near the Interpretive Center

Interns Jake Kuester, Ben Bierle, and Cameron Sokoloski (undergraduates, Western Washington University) have been gaining experience assisting Reserve staff with research, monitoring, and stewardship activities. Jake, Ben, and Cameron are monitoring for invasive European green crab and expanding eelgrass ecosystem monitoring to multiple sites across Padilla Bay.

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.

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

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.

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

Waves glowing bright blue from bioluminescent plankton.

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!