Night Viewing Of Underwater Creatures – South Sound Estuary Association’s Pier Peer

pier peer olympia
Boston Harbor Marina hosts the monthly Pier Peer evening program.


By Kate Scriven

priest point townhomesMost of us living near Puget Sound have visited a local beach or marina and experienced the joy of discovering a colorful sea star at low tide or seeing the vivid tentacles of an anemone attached to a dock piling.  While these things will never be commonplace, they do become part of the norm for those of us lucky enough to live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

pier peer olympia
The Boston Harbor Marina teems with sea life for the Pier Peer program offered by the South Sound Estuary Association.

The South Sound, in particular, is rich with a wide variety of sea life as our southern inlets and bays collect the nutrients that have migrated south from the entire Puget Sound estuary.  I live in Boston Harbor and feel particularly lucky that I can drive a few miles and see the wonders of the sound at Burfoot Park’s pebble beach, Priest Point Park’s muddy “pocket estuary,” or Boston Harbor Marina’s sea life covered docks.

However, viewing the underwater world of Puget Sound in the dark provides a whole new perspective on the mysterious and wondrous world that lies just below the surface.  Most of us wouldn’t think to lower a light into the sound at night to see what might swim by, but Gabby Byrne isn’t “most of us”.

Byrne works with the South Sound Estuary Association, based in Olympia, and has run their Pier Peer program at Boston Harbor Marina for the last five years.  Gabby conceived the program while working with People at Puget Sound.  When the group disbanded, she came to the SSEA and proposed a continuation of the program which enabled local residents to view and learn about the amazing aquatic life in Puget Sound through the use of submerged lights at night, attracting a host of interesting creatures not seen during the day.

boston harbor marina
The Boston Harbor Marina is a wonderful place to visit with your family. It’s also the site of the Pier Peer program on the first Saturday of each month.

And you WILL see creatures.  Attracted by the lights, held by divers, animals that might not normally be close enough to see from the dock are illuminated beautifully for viewers.  And once the animals begin to swarm close, other larger animals are in turn attracted by the smaller animals.   “You see the whole food chain in action,” shares Byrne.  “For example, a squid might come to the light and then a seal will come and eat the squid.  We get to see some pretty dramatic activity right in our own backyard.”  Local biologists will also be on site to explain to visitors what they are seeing.

What will you see?  In addition to the possible squid and seals, visitors will likely see polychaetes worms, anemones, sea stars, jellyfish, sea slugs, and fish.  And, one of the most odd and interesting creatures often seen is the Nudibranch, a soft-bodied gastropod known for its vivid colors and striking body shapes.  Check out videos of recent Pier Peers here.

The Pier Peer is held the first Friday of every month, year round.  The program initially ran only in summer months, but high interest in the night-viewings has prompted SSEA to run the program year round.  Be sure to double check the site, however, as low reservations may prompt a cancellation. With many Pier Peer attendees returning for multiple visits, this is good news.  The creatures seen vary from season to season and with tidal influence.  Byrne warns that night watching can “be addicting” so consider yourself warned!

Groups are limited to twenty people maximum, with a ten adult limit.  Adults and children over the age of 12 are $10 and children under twelve are free.  The program is not recommended for children under the age of five and each child ages six to eleven must  be accompanied by one adult.

pier peer olympia
A Nudibranch is one of the strange creatures you’ll likely see during a night time viewing of Puget Sound sea life.

Each participant is encouraged to bring their own flashlight, wear sturdy shoes, and dress for the weather.  Children should wear life-jackets and while the marina does have loaners, bringing your own is advised.   Pre-registration is required and you can register easily through the SSEA website.  Registration is currently open for July, August and September with summer programs starting at 9pm.

Program Coordinator at SSEA, Leihla Scharlau, explains that the Pier Peer, like the Beach Naturalist Program, is a tool that the association and its volunteers can use to deliver the message of the SSEA.   “Our goal is to increase residents and visitors of all ages, understanding and appreciation of South Puget Sound and willingness to make personal changes in behavior to protect our marine and estuary environments.”

In a continued effort to increase that understanding, the South Sound Estuary Association will be opening an “Estuarium” in July, located near the Olympia Farmer’s Market.   Stay tuned to ThurstonTalk to learn all about this amazing new resource for our community.

So, while the time spent “ohh-ing” and “ahh-ing” over the amazing sea life at Boston Harbor is fun and educational, the real goal is to increase the understanding of our own impact on the Puget Sound.  To begin to see how small changes we can make as individuals can have big impacts on this fragile ecosystem we call home.

To learn more and register for an upcoming Pier Peer, click here.

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