Starless night: Newest starfish (sea stars) survey in West Seattle waters

Cove 1 Sick Sea Star Survey & Collection from Laura James on Vimeo.

Months after first word of starfish (sea stars) dying off in many areas – particularly here in Northwest waters – scientists still haven’t figured out why. British Columbia, one of the first places where it was noticed, remains perplexed. Californians have noticed. Here in West Seattle, eco-advocate “Diver Laura” James has been taking periodic surveys in “Cove 1” at Seacrest to survey the situation. As the video shows, still pretty bleak. But this dive was more than a survey, Laura explains:

Saturday night was a bit of a departure from our regular survey dives. A researcher up at the Port Townsend marine labs has 30 healthy stars and was ready to do an experiment to help understand the transmission of the disease, but was having a bit of a hard time getting some sick subjects. Pycnopodia (the sunflower star) like the ones that we helped collect up at Mukilteo all die too fast once they are infected. So it was up to us to find some either _very_ freshly sick pycnopodia (who could make it to the labs) or more likely some of the purple stars (pisaster) that we’ve been videoing at cove 1. Luckily I’ve learned to recognize the early stages of the illness in the Purple stars and also the Orange colored mottled stars. Each has its own subtlety and can only be seen when you have spent some time studying the healthy counterparts side by side with video of the sick.

My concern on this dive started early:

There were no sea stars in the shallows on the intertidal rocks (where I was expecting to be able to pick up a few easily) – only bacterial stains where they had once been. So far the intertidal had been showing lower mortality compared to the pilings and it was rather disarming to see them completely barren. I thought about all the tidepool walks that will be impacted, without the cheerful orange and purple constellations that we take for granted as quick and easy crowd pleasers.

As we swam to the pilings next to Salty’s, it was a veritable wasteland. Just months ago this same area was a teeming galaxy, sunflower stars all sizes scavenging, hungry morning sun stars chasing the occasional rose star, mottled stars, brittle stars, vermillion stars, blood stars, striped sun stars, with the occasional Red Spiny star and Leather star interspersed. We swim by them so many times that we take them for granted. It wasn’t until reviewing hours of footage (looking for healthy star images) that I realize just how unaware i’d become of their presence.

Arriving at the first set of pilings, it seems my concerns were justified. Two weeks ago there were clusters of purple pisasters, groups of 6-12 still hanging on the shallower sets of pilings, seemingly weathering the storm. On this night, those clusters were reduced to a single star here and there. Pilings that held 100’s of stars before the outbreak were now almost completely barren.

The remaining few were in various states of disease, from damaged arms to ‘protecting’ the lesions (when they are all twisted up) and the in-between stages of wasting, losing grip on the pilings, etc.. We were able to collect the requested 8 or so stars by visiting 3 sets of the pilings. It was quite poignant for me as I shot video and continued to document the pilings, because even though I _knew_ that the stars we were collecting would likely perish anyway and at least this way they could be helping us understand more about the process, it broke my heart a bit to see the pilings left empty or with only one star.

Joining us as we made our way back to the entry point were a pair of joyous and frisky harbor seals. The seals are always a welcome respite, as they never fail to lighten the mood and draw you into their world of fish chasing, curiosity. and what appears to be a slightly wicked sense of humor as they sneak up from behind and blast in out of nowhere, startling the divers (we know they are there, we just don’t know where they are coming from next!). leaving a cloud of silt and laughter in their wake.

Surfacing to a view of the city lights never gets old; it’s a reminder of how lucky we are to have dive sites so close. While we were taking off our fins and getting ready to head up the beach, we noticed a bobbing head several feet away, cruising around looking at us as if to say “Hey man, where are you going with my dinner lights! I was just getting warmed up!”

Following a long slippery slog up the rocky beach, I made a quick call to make sure we were still “on” for the delivery before packing up and hurrying over to the ferry dock. The hand-off went without a hitch, stars safely packed into coolers for their trip to the lab. Driving home, I felt a bit like we’d just done something clandestine, albeit a far cry from the normal ‘deals’ that the viaduct likely sees. Now we wait… Even though I know that we can’t ‘stop’ this disease, I look forward to hearing the root cause, as calling it the Zombie-sea-star Apocalypse, although an appropriate description, probably isn’t the most scientifically accurate.

Laura has been documenting local conditions since November. By the way, she’ll be at C & P Coffee Company (WSB sponsor) this Thursday for The Whale Trail‘s next Orca Talk (details here), on behalf of her water-pollution-fighting work with

ADDED EARLY MONDAY: Here’s how you can help – late addition from Laura:

Manual entry is now available at (in addition to the Instagram hashtag option, where you take a picture, #sickstarfish with brief description in the comment field and upload from the beach).

To use manual entry, locate your intended site on the map and then right click on your computer or long touch on the location on mobile to auto add the lat/long and open the manual entry field window!

HUGE SHOUT-OUT to my dive buddy Lamont for making this possible!

There is a text window for typing a brief description of what you observed, i.e. “Almost no purple stars left at cove 1, no sunflower stars, two leather stars” or “80% of the sunflower stars are sick or dead” we are mostly looking to map disease progression here.

Also, please post follow-up dives. If you go back and there are changes for the negative OR positive, “die-off seems to have stabilized” or “baby sunflower stars at Titlow” or “sick in the shallows, but healthy deeper than 130′.” We want YOUR anecdotal observations… Make a post for every time you visit the site, noting the changes.

Same for beach walking. For example, at cove 1, there are no more ochre or mottled stars in the intertidal zone pipeline rocks. This is a change from 2 weeks ago when we could go out on a low tide and count a 8-12. Things are still in flux and we still need to track what’s going on.

7 Replies to "Starless night: Newest starfish (sea stars) survey in West Seattle waters"

  • datamuse January 26, 2014 (10:41 pm)

    This is so sad. I hope the researchers at Port Townsend and elsewhere figure out what is going on soon. Thank you Diver Laura for contributing to the effort.

  • Ecomom January 27, 2014 (4:31 am)

    Thanks for that great dive story albeit a sad one. I’ve been meaning to get my 4-year-old son to the tidepools. It’s amazingly sad how many creatures will likely disappear in his lifetime.

  • Lindsey January 27, 2014 (9:08 am)

    thanks for your work on this issue!

  • Lura January 27, 2014 (10:43 am)

    Ecomom – yes, the sea star disease is sad. But it is way too early in the scientific research for anyone to predict that that sea stars will disappear in your son’s lifetime. If this disease is a virus – a sort of plague – then the disease may run its course and the sea star population would slowly recover, gradually spreading out from isolated pockets who survived the plague.
    In the meantime, there could be other effects. The mussel population might explode, which could be terrible for, say, the oyster industry. But what if a large mussel population allowed the sea otter population to expand back into Puget Sound? Sea star overpopulation has been a well-noted problem in some environments. (and may have created the conditions for the disease to develop)
    In the Vancouver area, where this wasting disease episode was first observed, divers are beginning to see baby sea stars in areas where big sea stars were wiped out, and they are observing a greater diversity of other species in the absence sea star predation.

  • Bryan January 27, 2014 (2:24 pm)

    I am with Lura on this one. Not to be a denier nor too conservative, we have seen this sort of dynamic many times. Ecology is a complex give and take….
    Let’s hope…and let’s observe and measure so that we may learn.

  • G January 27, 2014 (9:01 pm)

    Science is conservative by nature, and skepticism is the soul of science.

  • M January 27, 2014 (10:16 pm)

    Well said, G. : )

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