There’s a new scientific method the Harbor Wildwatch team utilizes at the “Pier into the Night” event called “Belly Biology.” The steps are easy to follow: Lay on your belly and peer off the pier to see all the interesting marine life that comes out to feed when it’s dark.
At least once a month, Harbor WildWatch, a nonprofit organization, sponsors the evening program at the Jerisich Dock, 3211 Harborview Drive in downtown Gig Harbor. Naturalists put out lanterns on the dock and in the water for viewing while a volunteer SCUBA diver collects marine species around the area. The next one will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday.
“We have a number of programs in the spring and summer, but the winter months are when the water is cold and clear and there is a lot of marine life activity,” Harbor WildWatch naturalist Stephanie McCaffery said. “It gets darker earlier, and the animals come out to feed.
“There is something about seeing the animals at night that give it a mysterious, magical feeling,” she said. “We see so many new things that you don’t normally see during the day. Every event, there is something exciting.”
SCUBA instructor Tom Larson has volunteered the program for four years.
“I love the array of marine life here,” he said. “There’s a great satisfaction for me to show people what’s right here under the dock. They are always amazed.”
Typical marine life found for each event include squid, sea stars, shrimp, moon snails, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, crab and schools of herring and salmon.
Harbor WildWatch puts whatever the evening brings into touch tanks for visitors to see up close, ask questions about and touch what’s appropriate. All of the naturalists and volunteers can answer questions about the animals.
Last month, McCaffery found a nudibranch, something the crew hadn’t seen before.
“It looked like an alien creature floating around in the water,” she said. “We got really excited, and that, in turn, got the people around us excited when we were able to show it off and talk about it.
“It was so beautiful and amazing to see something new,” she said. “We never know what the divers will find. That’s half the fun. The lanterns on the dock and in the water make it so you can see and follow the divers and watch the marine life.”
Larson said he particularly enjoys diving at night because of the kids.
“They love the diver talking about diving and touching the equipment,” he said. “I get to entertain and educate. The night dive, you see things that are out that you don’t see during the day, like the rat fish. They aren’t attractive, but their eyes glow green. It’s really cool.”
Larson has made more than 120 dives in Puget Sound.
“Our water is alive,” he said. “The green, murky color is the algae and plankton that allows us to have huge marine life, like the giant squid and octopus. We have the ocean access here without the huge depths and big waves, so it’s accessible to divers. The Puget Sound was Jacque Cousteau’s second favorite place to dive because of all it offered. Second only to the Red Sea.”
For the pier night, naturalists collect plankton to put under a microscope for people to see up close.
“We want people to explore the smaller animals that are vital to the ecosystem,” McCaffery said.
“Pier into the Night” started in 2009, when a group from Olympia contacted Harbor WildWatch and encouraged the organization to hold an event similar to what it already had done. The first event led to requests for more, and eventually, the 250 people who attended the first few evenings turned into monthly events that have drawn more than 7,500 people with a program that keeps growing in popularity.
Harbor WildWatch recently was awarded a grant to incorporate a “Live Dive” series. The grant will fund an underwater camera that will attach to a diver and a screen above water for viewing. There will be a communication system for participants to ask the diver questions. It will enable guests to view marine life that can’t be brought to the surface.
The grant and equipment, from the Awesome Foundation, should be ready for 2014 pier events.
McCaffery said families should bundle up for the cold, bring hot cocoa and make an evening out of the free event that highlights Gig Harbor’s unique marine backyard.
Harbor WildWatch will hold another pier event during the holiday tree lighting ceremony on Dec. 7.
For more information, visit www.harborwildwatch.org.Kim Eibel is a freelance writer for the Gateway.