It is one of the unexpected symmetries of nature that the tropics should spawn the zillions of exotic flowers and vines that are its trademark, but that the abundance of ocean life grows where the water is cold. Puget Sound is cold year round.
A short list. Puget Sound has: 50 species of sponge; 200 species of annelids; 20 species of anemone; 70 species of shrimp; 25 species of hermit crab; 20 species of seastars; 36 species of sculpin; 24 species of rockfish; 16 species of limpet; and four species of octopus, including the world’s largest at up to 20 feet across and over 100 lbs., the Octopus dofleini.
And the animals of the Sound are often as exotic and lurid as any humid liana or dripping orchid.
There is, for instance, the Ptilosarcus gurneyi, or seapen. This has nothing to do with the spiny bivalve of the East Coast. It is not even a bivalve. It is an aquatic plume with its nib in an inkwell, buried in the sandy bottom of the Sound. It is bright orange with a fringed plumage that stretches up to a foot long. It is luminescent and produces a bright green light when stroked.
Seapens belong to the same general group of Cnidarians as the sea anemones, but the fact that their polyps are small and organized into a featherlike colony obscures that relationship somewhat.
What binds most of the invertebrates of the Sound together is color. The richness of the colors on the seabed shame the peacock. There are the three sea urchins each a different lascivious hue. Stongylocentrotus purpuratus is dayglo purple; S. droebackiensis is forest green; and S. franciscanus is 6 to 8 inches across and bright red and purple. It is a basketball among urchins.
The white sea cucumber is white as milkglass with electric orange thorns along its length.
The starfish were manufactured by Binney and Smith. The Solaster stimsonii has 10 legs and each is striped with blue showing brightly against the field of ocher. The bloodstar is blood red; the rose star is pink; and Leptasterias hexactus has six legs and shows the color of a pomegranate.
The sunflower star has up to 24 fat legs and is a dull yellow with bright orange rays.
The sea lemon is a 7-inch long nudibranch that is lemon yellow — a translucent yellow back with amorphous scores of lacy tubefeet. Puget Sound has more kinds of echinoderms than anywhere else in the world.
There are lavander abelones; 8-inch-long gumboot chitons; light blue filaments on algaed rocks that are an annelid, Thelepus crispus; crimson anemones; giant barnacles (Balanus nubilus) that are over 3 inches across; red-tissued scallops with rock colored shells and dozens of black eyes peering through the feathery antennae around the seems of the shell; gordian-knotted basket stars; warty, transparent, hairy sea squirts and sea pork; a red and pink anemone that is 12 to 15 inches across its waving tentacles.
There is the edible pride of the Sound, the Panope generosa, or geoduck clam (pronounced as “gooey-duck.”) It is a bivalve that weighs up to 20 lbs. and, with its oversize siphon, looks like a bratwurst on a sliced kaiser roll. The meaty parts of the geoduck are so large that it cannot close its shell.
The other edible wonder is the sweet-meated Dungeness crab. Others may brag on their Alaskan king crab, but to those who have tasted the Dungeness, so much bragging on a thing merely because it is large is gauche, fit only for a Texan. The Dungeness makes the AKC seem like a can of tunafish.
So far, I have barely mentioned any fish. But they are as abundant and varied as the invertebrates. There are prickleback, gunnels, tubesnouts, pipefish, sea horses, sculpins, clingfish, and spiny lumpsuckers among the odder finny wonders.
The painted greenling has zebra-stripes of cobalt blue on a salmon field with random purple and white spots. The Gobiesox, a clingfish, is round and fat with a flat head and a sucker on his bottom and is tan, netted with purple and with white spots or freckles. One tubesnout, Aulorhynchus flavidus, is translucent and yellow-green. It is 3 or 4 inches long, but narrow as a drinking straw and one can see his organs twitching on his insides.
By far the best place to see these zoological delights is the Seattle Aquarium. It is the best aquarium I have ever seen, making even the Coney Island show look bush league.
And the most wonderful feature of the Seattle Aquarium is the dome.
Inside a huge tank of seawater, there is a many-windowed dome looking up and into the fish-filled water. The tank is decked out to look like the bottom of the Sound, one side complete with harbor pilings to gather barnacles, and the other strewn with rocks and sand. And swimming around are many of the aquadynamic shapes common to Puget Sound.
The sides of the tank scintillate with the wavering colors of sunlight broken up by the prisms of the waves on the tank surface. Through the spectrum swim trout, tomcod, salmon and catfish. The silvery salmon look like something manufactured by Boeing, like unpainted airplanes with scales for rivets. The glint of sun runs from nose to tail as the fish whips its body, propelling itself through the fluid.
The brown trout show an irridescent green when the sunlight hits.
Huge scrotal octopods, all valves, siphons and tentacles, are strangely graceful.
A lime-white seastar rests on the sandand over it a flounder, like some Arabian magic carpet, flies, wavering its Persian body.
There are tomcod with supernumerary fins and charcoal gray dogfish with white-limned fins.
Looking sleepy among the rocks is a wolf eel with its prizefighter’s prognathous face. He is metallic blue with black coindots in bands across his body. He slithers around the floor boulders prehistorically.
A sculpin stares straight at me from behind the glass with two Japanese fans for fins. A round, flattened seaperch floats slowly past the window. He has neon blue skin showing through rows of brown scales. Fom a distance he just looks brown, but up close, he is a vision.
Near me on one of the seats (church pews, I almost wrote) were four children, kicking their legs back and forth, ready to move on to whatever was next along the wall, and their shepherd, an older woman who must have been an aunt, asked almost of no one, but talking to the kids, “Isn’t it restful to watch them swim?”
But it is only restful to the adult, who has need of it. The children cannot yet understand the longing for such things.