Laura James called it one of the saddest things she’s ever seen underwater.
Sea stars — iconic and ever present in Northwest coastal waters — suddenly becoming sick and dying before her eyes in numbers too great to count. The long time Puget Sound diver said she’s never seen anything like this in 20 years of diving.
James had heard recent reports from the Vancouver Aquarium, where diving biologists found sunflower sea stars in Vancouver Harbour and Howe Sound dying by the thousands.
James wondered how sea stars in Seattle’s Elliott Bay were faring. This past weekend, she took her underwater camera and dove off West Seattle’s shoreline at a place called Cove 1, a popular spot for both local divers and sea stars. The underwater pilings at Cove 1, James said, are normally covered with an army of brightly colored sea stars.
The first few minutes of James’ video, filmed a year ago, shows what this area normally looks like. The second half of the video, captures a very different scene.
Watch James’ video:
The once fat and brilliant sea stars have transformed into pale, decaying piles of mush. Stars that haven’t yet disintegrated appeared to be so weak, she said, that they are being torn apart by the weight of their own bodies.
These mass dying events have been coined Sea Star Wasting Syndrome and recent surveys along the West Coast have found evidence of die offs as far north as Whittier, Alaska and as far south as Laguna Beach in Orange County, Calif.
So far scientists have only guesses about what might be causing this underwater epidemic. The Vancouver Aquarium and the University of Santa Cruz are asking people to report any sightings sea stars dying. Both organizations are mapping their findings as well (Nationwide map).
You don’t have to be a diver to see evidence of sea stars dying. James shot the video below of dead sun stars that had washed up on shore at Brace Point in West Seattle. She works as communications coordinator for Puget Soundkeeper when she’s not diving with a video camera.
“I saw 100 dying sea stars in one area, and we’re getting reports of it all over Puget Sound,” James said. “It’s huge, and it’s frightening because nobody knows what’s going on.”