It's field work time!

Eyes Under Puget Sound

Sediment monitoring field season is underway! In fact, our crew is out sampling at this very moment and it's a perfect opportunity to talk about how we collect Puget Sound critters. Keep reading to learn how these little benthic organisms make the journey from the bottom of Puget Sound to under our microscopes!

Entire team of Ecology sampling crew, 11 people, on a research boat on a sunny day. Puget Sound is in the background.

Shakedown! The whole crew meets on the first day to make sure everything goes smoothly while sampling Budd Inlet, our closest station to home.


You might think to yourself, “What’s the big deal about collecting critters? Don’t you just go out on a boat and scoop up some mud?” Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. 

Many months of logistical planning go into every field season (read our new sampling plan). Federal, state, county, and tribal collecting permits need to be approved, supplies have to be ordered, and the boat and crew must be scheduled. Our sampling itinerary has to be flexible because unpredictable Washington spring weather can cause unexpected changes and delays.

double image: half has scientist inside boat with notebook and pencil, and on the right is a silver sampling rig hanging from 4 chains.

Left: Angela gets ready to sample at a new station by labeling jars and recording data. Right: Our double Van Veen grab emerges from the water, full of sediment.

Taking it outside

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! A typical field day starts with the unwelcome sound of an alarm clock at 4:45 a.m. The crew meets at the crack of dawn because field days can be long — sometimes 12+ hours. We need plenty of time to collect sediment from multiple locations throughout the Sound. Some of our stations are up to 230 meters deep. Plus, we have I-5 traffic on the way back to the lab. 
Before the boat hits the water on the first day, our team meets to go over safety protocols with the captain. Because our field work comes with a lot of hazards, it’s important that we stay informed and on our toes. Speaking of toes … steel-toed boots, hard hats, and life vests are standard while working on the back deck of the boat. You don’t want the 200 pound benthic grab falling on your unprotected head or foot! 
Scientist holds a sample grab that came from Puget Sound. She is smiling with a wide-open-mouthed grin.

Maggie celebrates the collection of a successful benthic grab.

Bottoms up

At each station, we use a powerful winch to lower our Van Veen grab to the bottom, where it snaps closed, trapping a sediment sample (hopefully full of critters) inside. Once on deck, we take a few measurements, then empty the entire contents of the grab sample into a sieving tray. The sample is gently rinsed to remove fine particles, retaining any critters living there. 
These samples will later be sorted and identified in the lab (that’s where we taxonomists come in).

Triptych: scientists holding samples and working on boat. They are smiling enthusiastically.

Top left: Our 2017-18 WCC intern, Juhi, shows off a large marine worm from a benthic sample. Bottom left: What’s left over after sieving? This sample from Commencement Bay contains a mixture of worm tubes, shell fragments, clay balls, and tiny critters that we need a microscope to see. Right: Angela and Valerie are all smiles while teaming up to help the sieving of a benthic sample go faster.

When we collect mud, we don’t just look at the animals. We also send mud samples to Ecology’s Manchester Environmental Laboratory to be analyzed for grain size, nutrients, and a suite of 80+ chemicals such as hydrocarbons, PCBs, and metals. These parameters help us understand how the condition of the habitat affects the benthic communities that live there, and gives us a more complete picture of Puget Sound sediment quality. We also provide samples for other research projects, including microplastics, harmful algal blooms, and even tinier benthic critters (foraminiferans, or “forams”) which give views into effects of hypoxia and ocean acidification.

scientists on boat with Puget Sound in the background. On the left, a scientist spoons mud into a jar, and two scientists grin in hardhats o

Left: Sandy carefully fills jars with mud to send off to Ecology’s Manchester Lab. Right: Angela and Dany only get out the lab a couple of weeks a year, and love every minute of the work.

The great outdoors

Although sampling can be exhausting, we love our field days because they remind us of the beautiful Puget Sound environment we are working to protect. Our favorite days are when the sun is out and we are sandwiched between the snowy Olympics on one side of the boat and the majestic Cascades on the other. It truly is a magical place to live and work!

Bow of research vessel: two sets of wader-clad legs extend towards the viewer. Barely visible lifejackets and hard hats show that the scient

Whew! Sampling is hard work, with little time for breaks. These early risers relax for a moment between stations to soak up a few fleeting rays of sunshine.

Eyes Under Puget Sound

Our benthic taxonomists, Dany and Angela, are scientists who identify and count the benthic (sediment-dwelling) organisms in our samples as part of our Marine Sediment Monitoring Program. We track the numbers and types of species we see in order to understand the health of Puget Sound and detect changes over time.

Can't get enough benthos? See photos from our Eyes Under Puget Sound collection on Flickr.