Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes is not only home to up to to hundreds of boats, but also to literally thousands of sea creatures. Anne Curtis Bowman, the city’s eponym, bestowed the name on the east-of-it cape in 1877, “The headland reminded her of Cap-Santé (French for “Cape Health”), a rocky promontory overlooking the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada, where Anne spent much of her childhood.” The marina boasts nearly a thousand slips with rental fees that range from $231 and $1,334 per month, depending on the length of the vessel; Sea creatures may stay as long as they want…free of charge.
An encounter with any number of freeloaders is available to anyone willing to amble along the docks with their eyes peeled. Tube-footed, bright violet sea stars; white-lobed anemones; alien-shaped nudibranchs; and translucent, pulsing jellyfish are some of the more common creatures that explorers-of-the-dock are likely to find. Larger sea life, especially river otters and harbor seals, are easier to spot but tougher to track of because of their skittishness.
River otters are the raccoons of the docks, as delightful in appearance as they are detested for their bad behavior. They are known for seeking shelter in vacant boats and leaving piles of fragrant dung. Otter poo has been honored with a special name: spraint, “normally coarse and black, full of fish scales, shell fragments, fish and crayfish parts, and sometimes feathers or fur. As otter poo dries out, it becomes pale and crumbly. disgusting-scented shell-encrusted excrement.” Entire articles have been dedicated to odiferous otter odure, from which there is a lot to learn. Spraint sighting and scenting ain’t for the faint of heart. They could not care less about creating an enormous mess by plopping piles of poo everywhere, especially along the easternmost (Q) dock at the marina.
Harbor seals, “one of the most common marine mammals along the U.S. West and East Coasts,” can also be spotted relatively often there. Weighing in at 176 to 374 pounds they are easy to distinguish from river otters (which weigh 11 to 31 pounds). They live two to three times as long and are much less messy than their more reviled relatives. Like otters, they’ll slip from the dock into the water if you get too close, but they are a little less timid. Just this week, I walked carefully twice within two meters of one without sending it scurrying into the sea.
While mammal encounters at Cap Sante Marina are hit or miss, you are guaranteed to see, at a minimum, shellfish and anemones because they tend to stay put more than most other sea creatures species. The most common anemone seems to be the plumose, which “is white, brick red-orange, or brown…grows up to about 10 cm tall and has up to 100 slender tentacles.”
Slightly less common creatures include jellyfish and sea stars. Cap Sante Marina is the only place I’ve run into a swarm of red-eye jellyfish Polyorchis penicillatus, the most common I’ve seen there, but definitely not the only one. Others include Lion’s mane, Moon, and Fried-egg jellies. According to The Atlantic, “There may be as many as 4,800 different species of jellyfish. Walla Walla University’s Invertebrates of the Salish Sea site states that this body of water boasts less than two dozen species. Slightly less common are the sea slugs, including Melibe leonina and Opalescent nudibranch.
If you spend enough time down at the docks, you are bound to occasionally see something especially unusual. For me, one such thing was a bright Purple sea star (which “can also be orange, orange-ochre, yellow, reddish, or shades of brown” and “can live up to 20 years“) that seemed to be standing on its tippy tentacles while emitting some sort of white substance. It turns out that this is how they reproduce, “Ochre Sea Stars can breed at the age of five, and they spawn during the summer. The sexes are separate, even though indistinguishable externally. A large female can produce 40 million tiny eggs, which are fertilized by sperm released by males.” Although this species of sea star is conspicuous for its size and color, several others can be seen, including the Leather sea star (which prey on anemones) and the tiny Six-rayed sea star, which competes with its many times larger cousin, the Purple, for food. Although you can always see something at the docks, the best chance to see things is on calm, sunny days, preferably at low tide. The docks rise and fall with the tides but low tides expose more of the length of the pilings, which increase your chance of observing the awesomeness.
Italian author-illustrator Leo Lionni’s most beloved books, Swimmy involves a solitary fish that learns that being part of a group is safer than facing the world alone. Early this fall, during several trips to Q Dock, I couldn’t escape thoughts of this fish. Schools were ever-present. Often, slightly larger predators stalked the schools from several feet below, striking at, catching, and consuming the smaller ones, then returning to their place below the swarm.
In addition to the sea creatures and mammals that you can observe at Cap Sante, e-Bird includes nearby Cap Sante Park (less than half a mile away as the crow flies) as a hot spot and includes a list of 125 observed bird species.
Lastly, another awesome thing to do at the docks is walk. During the busy summer months, I’d simply that you stay away, but on a nice fall or spring day, you can add variety to your walk by making your way along every dock. Including only the primary docks, there’s a total of about 4.75 miles of dock. Completing the entire system at a leisurely pace will take about 90 minutes and burn off about 475 calories during which you’re likely see some really cool stuff.
What’s up, docks? Plenty. Encounter and observe sessile and motile sea creatures free of charge at the nearly five miles worth of dock length in Anacortes by choosing to show up. Walk. Surveil. Seems easy. It absolutely is.