Saturday, December 17, 2011

A sad post

I've been putting off writing this post, procrastinating in the futile hope that it will go away. It never works, does it?

November 26, three weeks ago: In the aftermath of the storm system that blew over most of BC, we went down to White Rock beach to see what had blown in. Just logs and broken plastic, it seemed. I wrote about it here.

I collected some fresh seawater for my critters in the tank at home; only about one litre, since I'd forgotten my regular 2 litre bottle. The water was dirty, with bits of eelgrass, wood chips, sand and muck, all whipped up by the crashing waves. It didn't matter; at home, as I have done before, I filtered it well, then let it sit for a few days for the fine silt to settle out.

The next week, as usual, I replaced 2 l. of the old water in the tank with new, including the latest beach collection.

All seemed well for a day or two. Then one morning, I noticed that my female crab was having difficulties. She stood on her head, with the hind legs swaying in the water, spread out. It took her a long time to right herself, but then she seemed ok. Until the next time I checked on her, when I found her caught upside-down in some seaweed. Something was wrong. (And she was in berry after their recent mating!)

The other two crabs seemed fine. But the big anemone was writhing and contracting oddly, making himself into a series of balls, then flat, then one ball with a pin-head tip, then a wide tip balanced on a pointed base, never opening tentacles to feed. A smaller anemone had disappeared entirely; so had the eelgrass isopods. I couldn't see any limpets, nor any pairs of amphipods waiting to mate. And the snails, those indestructible nasas and mud snails, were lying about, half out of their shells.

I hurried to change as much of the water as I could for freshly-prepared artificial seawater, adjusted for just-right salinity and temperature.

The next day, the anemone was worse; only a few snails were moving. Three clams were holding their siphons well out of the sand, about an inch high. I've never seen them do that before. And the big male crab was lying paralyzed, with legs stretched out and up, towards the back. The female was upside-down more often than not. The little male had disappeared.

I did what I could; removed everything to a "hospital" container with fresh water and clean stones, twice; watched and hoped. For a while, it looked as though the male would recover, but no, he relapsed. The snails died.

When the little male (that I had raised from crab babyhood) floated belly-up, too, I gave up. I drained off the water and replaced it with alcohol. They died quickly.

The baby, with anemone, in happier days.

What had happened? I have gone over and over each step of those days; the only source of whatever killed my tank would have been the water from the White Rock beach, where I have always collected water. And the only difference there would have been the after-effects of the storm. Was it contaminated rainwater from the city on the hill above the beach? Or something brought in by the wind and waves? I don't know.

(My previous die-off, not as complete, was caused by local pollution, blown in from next door. There was no sign of that this time, and the symptoms and species attacked were different.)

We have seen, on occasion, areas of the beaches we visit where large numbers of dead animals lie half-buried in the sand. (May, 2008, baby sand dollars, for example.) There are spots where dying clams lie thick on stinking mud; patches where we find no live animals at all, no matter how many rocks I flip, or how much sand I filter through. Sure, the areas recover, often, at least in part. Or become hosts to new forms of life, like the invasive mud snails that now cover much of the Boundary Bay beach on the Tsawwassen side. Sometimes they don't; years ago, Mom used to tell me of a beach on Vancouver Island where she could not find anything alive. It seemed impossible, back then; now not so much.

I have emptied and cleaned the tank and all the equipment, and hidden them away. I moved the furniture around so that the gap where they were doesn't show. I dumped everything previously alive in the garbage; I would normally bury it in the garden, as fertilizer, but I can't take the risk of poisoning the many animals that live in my soil. The sand will be spread, well washed first, in the most gravelly, polluted area of the vacant lot.

In the spring, I'll probably have the courage to start again. For now, I'm grieving.

I originally started bringing home beach invertebrates to learn something from them. More than just how to identify them, I wanted to know how they lived, how they interacted with other animals. I was even privileged to learn something about how they think, to see them show a reciprocal curiosity, watching me through the glass, responding to what I was doing. What kills them, how they suffer and die (that anemone's tortured contortions still break my heart!) is also something I have unhappily begun to learn.

It has made me very aware of what I buy, what I use and discard; it all enters the environment; it has the potential to do much damage. We can't turn back the clock; we've fouled our nest already, but at least I can keep from adding more poison to it.


  1. So sorry to hear this. :-(

  2. Anonymous4:42 am

    It is always sad when this happens. I have lost complete populations in aquariums as well, usually due to faulty heaters. I have one 72 gal. that has sat unused for over a year because I haven't go the heart to go through the loss again.

  3. Sad indeed. I've enjoyed reading about the life and times of those creatures, it's so sad to fully realise how delicate and fragile life is. I hope you'll try again some time.

  4. Sorry, that is sad. As a child, both my uncle and I lost two entire aquariums due to a "feeder plant" that must have been contaminated. It truly is one of he most helpless feelings.

  5. My heart is breaking with yours. I admire you for your work with these creatures. To use a tragic event to remind us of how fragile life and our environment are ... it is a lesson I will remember.

    I too hope you will find the heart to try again.

  6. I am so sorry to hear about this loss. I loved your stories about their little world and the adventures and discoveries.

    I just assume that years old deep chemical pollutants were whipped up by the sea and brought home.

  7. Very sorry, what a sad story. Poor little creatures, so vulnerable.

  8. Anonymous8:39 am

    Please don't give up! we need people like you who look at the tiny things and give us all a perspective of the bigger picture. I have really enjoyed your look at tiny things I would never have seen, and enjoyed. Thank you for giving us this chance!

  9. So sad, so beautiful. Thank for taking the time to get to know your neighbors, and sharing it with us. It helps, it really does. I don't know if all of us loving on our respective neighborhoods is going to be enough, but it's a start.

  10. (meant to type, "thank YOU for...")

  11. Anonymous12:22 pm

    This is very sad news.

  12. Sorry to hear this! I've so enjoyed learning so many things here and do hope you'll get your aquarium back up and running and sharing with us again asap.

  13. The loss of your aquarium creatures is both sad and fascinating. I send you my sympathy.

    I hope you'll start over. Most of the creatures in your tank probably lived a longer life in your tank than they would have in the wild .... and our being part of their lives is such a wonderful learning tool.

  14. Thanks, all. Your comments are encouraging; I'll try again in the spring.

    Elva, you may have a point, at least for some of my animals. In some respects, the aquarium is a safer place; predators are not encouraged.

  15. I so enjoy your discussions about the lives you are studying, but your loss is simply heartbreaking! And not knowing the reason does not help...

  16. Hang in there! You help so many people appreciate these critters that maybe it's worth the heart break?? It's your love for these creatures that makes your blog so special.
    I also empathize with your procrastination over this dreadful news. I'm currently doing the same (re rhino poaching - yet another horror inflicted by humans).

  17. These creatures have given much more to humanity than most ever do. Their memories will live on.

  18. I am so sorry. I know how important they were in your life. - Margy


I'm having to moderate all comments because Blogger seems to have a problem notifying me. Sorry about that. I will review them several times daily, though, until this issue is fixed.

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