SSEA’s South Sound Estuarium: Newly hatched this summer, it’s already starting to outgrow its tank
In the south Puget Sound, where rivers meet protected saltwater inlets and bays, and nutrients from both land and sea accumulate, a diverse set of marine life, shorebirds, and even some mammals thrive.
To celebrate our local estuary and educate the public about the estuary’s functions, the South Sound Estuary Association created a miniature version of the south Puget Sound at 608 Washington Street. Inside the South Sound Estuarium, one block south of the Farmers Market, visitors can see what lurks beneath the Puget Sound’s surface.
Just blocks from the estuarium, seals occasionally breach the surface of Budd Inlet for a look around. Inside the estuarium, however, visitors find a more concentrated sample of the animals in the Puget Sound. In the center of the modest room, surrounded by exhibits and posters, two 65 gallon saltwater aquarium tanks host an array of marine life.
Bay mussels, a graceful crab, hermit crabs, a mossy chiton, and many other creatures live and grow in the aquarium tanks. There’s even an anemone clinging to an old Pepsi can (it was already attached to the can when volunteers scooped it up and brought it to the estuarium). Many of the creatures have been in the saltwater tanks since July, when the estuarium opened. There are no fish yet, but bay pipefish, sculpin, and sticklebacks may all be coming soon. Fish require a separate permit that the association is working on getting, said Nate Bernitz, estuarium coordinator.
The animals in the tanks have a dedicated following of fans and volunteers who stop by to check on them, Bernitz said.
“People are totally engaged in the lives of these animals,” he said. “They’re really connecting with them. They come in and ask about the baby sea star, or check to see if the crab found a new shell.”
The estuary association collected the animals from private local beaches after obtaining a scientific collections permit from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Bernitz is one of two staff members that help run the estuarium. A dedicated crew of volunteers also help out during open hours, Bernitz said.
Exhibits surrounding the aquarium tanks range from underwater video from a local diver, to a hands-on demonstration about the web of life required to support orca whales. Posters explain what kinds of animals live in the Sound, and how changes to the landscape affect the health of the Sound.
Exhibits at the estuarium are constantly changing and improving, Bernitz said. The space recently got more shells that people can touch and identify. The estuarium’s collection of specimens preserved in jars is also growing all the time. The preserved specimens, which the estuarium gets from the Department of Ecology, include many species that live deep beneath the water’s surface and most people never see, Bernitz said.
One example of a seldom seen animal is the sea pens that the estuarium has in a jar. The colorful invertebrates grow in beds in the current at the bottom of estuaries where they eat plankton that float by.
“There are a ton of new exhibits,” Bernitz said. “From the summer to now, pretty much everything has changed.”
In search of a new space
The estuary association hopes to make the estuarium permanent. It began as a temporary project scheduled to last through the summer. The association managed to raise enough money – with help from the City of Olympia, a sponsorship in the form of cheap rent from the Port of Olympia, and many other local supporters - to keep the estuarium open a few months longer.
The Port of Olympia is allowing the estuarium to stay in its current space until March. In the meantime, the estuary association is looking for a larger space.
A larger space will help the association reach more people, Bernitz said. During the week, staff and volunteers at the estuarium give group tours to school children, boy scouts, and senior groups. The small space makes it challenging to crowd 20 children around individual exhibits and aquarium tanks.
A bigger space will also allow more room for hands on exhibits geared toward kids, like touch tanks where visitors can learn what sea stars, anemones, and other marine creatures feel like.
Bernitz said since opening the estuarium, the association has been able to reach out to and educate more people than with their other programs. Since forming in 2007, the association has been guiding beach walks and cruises, hosting lectures, and teaching kids in the classroom, among other things.
Bernitz, who is finishing his final quarter studying public policy and environmental policy at Evergreen, said this is a critical time for Puget Sound.
“Being able to reach people right now is crucial to the protection of the sound,” he said. “This facility offers us the ability to reach every type of person. The people we’re interacting with here are different people than the people we’re interacting with on the beaches.”
The South South Estuarium is currently open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends. Visiting the center costs $2 for adults, $1 for children 6 to 11, and it’s free for children 5 and under. ◙
Find more information at www.sseacenter.org.