Learn about Puget Sound’s marine life during a pier peer

Nathan Fontana gingerly dips his finger below the surface of a holding pool to touch a giant Sunflower star, during a Pier Peer Adventure night at the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma in 2011. Three South Sound organizations hold these events monthly.
Nathan Fontana gingerly dips his finger below the surface of a holding pool to touch a giant Sunflower star, during a Pier Peer Adventure night at the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma in 2011. Three South Sound organizations hold these events monthly. Staff file, 2011

Beneath the surface of Puget Sound’s deep, dark waters is an intricate ecosystem, teaming with life and full of mysteries.

Dip a cup deep down in the water on a moonlit evening, and you might be surprised by the life found in the liquid contents. That’s what happened one night to Brianna Charbonnel, Tacoma Nature Center education specialist, who caught what at first looked like several fat polychaetes, wriggly little swimmers commonly called bristle worms, sand worms or pile worms.

When she poured the critters into a larger bucket so others could see, the water began to cloud up and the worms appeared to shrink. What she and others at the Point Defiance Marina witnessed that night was the first stage of reproduction, something biologists call broadcast spawning. For children looking on, it was simultaneously “amazing and gross,” Charbonnel said.

It’s part of her mission to get adults and children to recognize the vitality and complexity of the marine ecosystem that is central to the identity of our community. Charbonnel studied environmental science in college, and for the past four or five years she has guided evening explorations on docks at the edge of Tacoma’s Commencement Bay.

One rainy evening recently, a crew of volunteers pulled up five or six extremely tiny jellies Charbonnel had never seen before. Their scientific name is Leukartiara. There’s no common name, but because of their shape, Charbonnel dubbed them rockets.

Go out at night and shine a light into the water, and you might be able to mimic moonlight and induce feeding activity. What you see is different than what you might find on a walk at low tide.

“You may actually see mini food chains or food webs right around the light,” Charbonnel said.

It’s not hard to find polychaetes in the Sound. The segmented predatory creatures are sometimes as long as earthworms, but if you look closely you’ll discover that many of the other creatures that underpin the Sound’s ecosystem are extremely tiny, some no broader than a thumbtack.

It’s common to see small, circling fish or tiny jellies languidly throbbing. There’s no danger in an encounter with these gelatinous, mostly transparent creatures. Their tentacles are sticky; they don’t sting.

What you see during nighttime excursions depends not only on the phases of the moon, but the tides, the season and the site. The Sound is vast, constantly changing and consequently full of surprises, Charbonnel said.

“Scientists don’t even know half of what’s in this water,” she said.

That’s why she’s regularly surprised by what emerges when people probe beneath the surface. Once, she and others dipped into the water and brought up hooded nudibranches, also called hooded sea slugs. When taken from the water, these unusual creatures emit a sweet smell, similar to watermelon.

Charbonnel recalls other dockside surprises. Once, nine hungry juvenile seals snapped up all the critters under the lights, turning the exploration into an unintended feeding frenzy. “Nobody put your hands in the water,” she recalled warning participants. Ordinarily, seals aren’t that bold; perhaps they were newly weaned and desperate to eat. “We definitely made life easier for them,” she said.

Now that it’s fall, the sun sets earlier, which means families with children don’t have to stay up late to probe the dark waters and see what resides beneath the surface.

One good way to make the most of nocturnal viewing is by following the lead of naturalists such as Charbonnel, who run programs such as Pier Peer. Originally the brainchild of People for Puget Sound, an environmental advocacy group that has since disbanded, Pier Peer events take place throughout the South Sound

In Tacoma, the outings typically take place monthly during fall and winter at one of two locations: the Point Defiance Marina and the Foss Waterway Seaport. In Olympia, the South Sound Estuary Association offers Pier Peer at Boston Harbor. In Gig Harbor, Harbor WildWatch presents a similar program called Pier into the Night.

“It’s the excitement of the participants that makes it really special,” Charbonnel said. “You never quite know what you’re going to see.”


GIG HARBOR: 3-6 p.m. Nov. 3, Jerisich Dock. Free. harborwildwatch.org.

OLYMPIA: 7 p.m. Nov. 6. $10 for 12 and older, free for children 6-11 with an adult. sseacenter.org/pier-peer.

TACOMA: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Foss Waterway Seaport. $8 for ages 8 and older. metroparkstacoma.org/pier-peer.