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Did You Know the Starfish are Vanishing?

“Arms fall off and walk off on their own. The animal loses its ability to hold on to rocks or pilings. Its body falls apart in pieces, and finally dissolves. Within weeks, only a ghostly white print will remain, and then nothing at all.” – From the Seattle Times


For vacation, Mason and I traveled with our ten-week-old puppy Adriana three hundred and seventy miles along Route 101, starting in Astoria, Oregon and eventually turning around at the California Redwoods.

Mason and I have been traveling Route 101 between Seattle and San Francisco once every year or so since 2000, and every time we return from some stretch of that northwestern coastline, we both feel fundamentally different, as though we’ve gone on a journey to another planet and returned with some knowledge that we had to earn the right to learn.

Nothing about the coastline is easy; it’s rocky and remote, temperamental and demanding, a land of varying moods. During the week we spent there, the fog was the one consistent element, sabotaging sunshine for an entire day or arriving in waves, smoky fingers weaving through the treetops; the temperature never rose above seventy degrees and some nights were downright chilly.

As always, to my amateur Tennessee eyes, the coastline looked ferociously clean, both salt and fresh water surfaces gleaning in aqua and blue shades; litter was a rare sight, on the beach, in the woods, or on the roads.

But as I would learn, things were changing, and so rapidly that by 2015 one of the most enduring totems of our beloved coastline may vanish. Forever.

There isn’t a view on that coast that doesn’t include an exotic (at least to me) animal. In a week, we saw probably ten gray whales breach as they fished near Yachats, Oregon chowing down on the plentiful sea-grub, waiting for their pod to return from Alaska on their way to warmer lagoons in Baja, Mexico.

We spied a sea lion and her pup swimming down the Klamath River towards the Pacific Ocean, a herd of elk grazing in a ragweed field at the Prairie Creek Redwoods, and at the Camper’s Corral in Orick, CA, we watched a black bear run out of the woods to a fish cleaning station and snatch either salmon or steelhead remains from an aluminum bucket, like some clumsy thief that was too big to be inconspicuous.

Everywhere we stopped or hiked along the coast, we saw thousands of mussels, hundreds of swaying fringed sea anemones, black crows with sleek wings, crisp white seagulls, and plump starfish.

For the first six days of our trip, we had no reason to think that a land Mason and I have revered for fourteen years was any different than the first time we traveled there together.

Then on a Saturday morning, two days before we left, we sat outside the Green Salmon Coffee Shop in Yachats, Oregon, while Adriana, perched next to me on the bench, floppy ears hanging over her tiny snout, smelled the maw of a forty-pound brown mutt that wore an inquisitive frown as she sniffed the puppy.

After a few minutes, ten-week old Adriana mustered up enough courage, jumped off the bench and tentatively greeted her new friend, who was named after Princess Leia from Star Wars.

While the dogs smelled each other’s nether regions, I talked to Leia’s mom Alice, a red- headed student at Oregon State studying the disappearing sea stars a.k.a. starfish along the Pacific coast.

When I asked what exactly she meant by the “disappearing sea stars,” she explained that the animals are dying at an unprecedented rate due to a sickness called the sea star wasting syndrome.

Literally, it means starfish- creatures that most of us remember with a nostalgic fondness – ARE MELTING away. If the disease continues to spread at the current pace, by the end of 2014, these “ambassadors of the sea” could be gone from the Washington and Oregon Coast.

I found this little horror-flick image when I was researching the starfish disease:

“Arms fall off and walk off on their own. The animal loses its ability to hold on to rocks or pilings. Its body falls apart in pieces, and finally dissolves. Within weeks, only a ghostly white print will remain, and then nothing at all.” – Seattle Times

Unlike the scientists in the Times, Alice was more forthcoming with her opinions, saying she believes there is a correlation between coastal development, pollution, warmer water temperatures, and the alarming rate at which the sea stars are dying.

“We are really worried about what goes next,” she said, moving her feet so Ade and Leia, now best buds, could scoot after each other under her chair.

At some point in our conversation, a women sitting at another table, middle-aged, wearing a hat over her Heidi-like braids, asked Alice to repeat herself. “I’m sorry to interrupt. I feel like I need to hear this. The starfish are dying? Like forever?”

The marine biologist matter-of-factly reaffirmed that by the end of the year sea stars could completely disappear from the Northwestern coastline.

“Why don’t I know about this?” I asked.

“I don’t know why more people don’t care,” Alice said, shrugging her shoulders with the indifferent excitement of a scientist on the brink of an event they studied their whole life to witness.

That evening at low tide, Mason, Adriana, and I walked along our beloved Oregon coastline searching for starfish and taking pictures of every one we could find.

(Special shout out to Jason and Nora Pidgeon, who shared this magical trip with us. Friends. Always.)






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