Unalaska Day 1

After a looong prop plane ride Elliot and Ian arrived in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where the team had previously performed work in April 2015. Back then we’d taken 80 samples to see if the candidate virus involved in the disease, SSaDV, was present. At the time there was no disease observed. The flight out was pretty incredible – lots of scenic volcanoes as we passed Unamak Island and the Alaska Peninsula.

IMG_3573 Stupidly beautiful scenery as we fly across the Alaska Peninsula

IMG_3576 Volcanoes on Unamak Island from 20K feet

After the usual hair-raising (albeit it was less so this time – light winds) landing at Unalaska Airport, we quickly checked into the hotel, and immediately went into the field in search of sea stars. It didn’t take long – a low tide revealed numerous very healthy looking Evasterias troscheli in waters adjacent to the hotel!

IMG_3577 View from the wharves near the hotel – always nice to confirm that you’ve traveled thousands of miles and are able to find what you’re looking for!

In addition, we could see very large numbers of small urchins – probably Loxechinus sp. – and in deeper waters could make out several large (~ 28″ diameter) Pycnopodia helianthoides – another target of our work.

Next, we went to a site called “Little South America”, named so because it resembles the south american continent on a map. We’d previously seen many sea stars in shallow waters off the boat ramp. This time, it was the same story – quite a few! However, we did notice three which were in rough shape – all three were very flat, one had its guts hanging out on it’s underside, and another seemed to be losing legs. All three were actually on the ramp itself, whereas all the others looked fine and happily eating bivalves. We also noticed a lot of chemical contaminants in the water – oily slicks from the boats. Given their location, we hypothesize that either the deflated ones had been run over, or that they were being affected by oils. We’re going to have a look at more stars that were reported by our colleagues out here near docks that appear disease.

IMG_3585 Elliot holding one of the ramp sea stars which appears to have some kind of distressed tissue.

From Little South America, we went for a drive to our furthest sampling site, Little Priest Rock, which is located about 3 miles outside of town. After a hunt we found a couple of sea stars, notably Leptasterias hexactis, the 6-armed star, and one Solaster stimpsonii, the rainbow star.

IMG_3588 Hunting for sea stars in the intertidal…

IMG_3589 The 6-armed sea star Leptasterias hexactis

IMG_3590 The orange sun star Solaster stimpsonii.

Sea stars are not common out at Little Priest Rock, since it’s higher energy than the other sites. Still, gratifying to see some sea stars here. One notable absence was the bloody henry star Henricia ornata, which was present in April when we were here last.

After a quick trip over a scenic peak south of Dutch Harbor (amazingly gorgeous views), we proceeded to our next site, Ballyhoo, where there had been some reports of wasting over the last couple of months.

IMG_3597 Coho or Chum salmon (not great with taxonomy) running in a creek near the town of Unalaska

IMG_3601 The salmon season is on right now, but these are in a protected area.

At Ballyhoo we saw numerous other sea stars, most of which were happily engorging themselves. Here also we saw a few stars with what looked to be physical injuries, and at least a couple with some white slime. A big challenge with this disease is distinguishing between the disease and either physical or chemical lesions. Since the vast majority of stars appear perfectly fine with only a couple showing any signs we think that these are not suffering from wasting disease, but we will take samples to confirm the presence/absence of SSaDV back in the lab.

IMG_3604 This looks like a physical injury on an Evasterias troscheli

IMG_3609 Some kind of lesion on an Evasterias troscheli

So today we are off with collaborators out here, Melissa and Josh Good, on a boat ride in the morning to see some far-off sites, and then in the afternoon the divers will be in the water to collect sea stars. With plentiful sea stars, we should meet our goals. One challenge will be to find small-ish stars – fitting a 36″ Pycnopodia in our shipping containers isn’t an option – but we will do what we can. Stay tuned for more adventures!

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