Seaweed, birds, wells, tides and runoff, oh my!

Five years ago, Mary Jo Adams attended Sound Waters, a one-day program presented by Washington State University and the Island County Beachwatchers, focusing on Puget Sound’s natural world.

At this year’s Sound Waters, set for Jan. 31, she will be teaching a course “Look What Just Washed In.”

“Until I went to Sound Waters, for all I knew there were coral reefs out there,” she said gesturing at water off Libbey Beach Thursday.

During the annual program, billed as a “one-day university,” Adams became fascinated with life on, in and around Whidbey Island beaches. She signed up for training, became a Beachwatcher and is a stalwart in coordinating beach monitoring all over the island. Like any other Beachwatcher, Adams is enthusiastic in her study of all beach life.

“I find something interesting every time I go to a Whidbey Island beach,” Adams said.

No point on Whidbey Island is far from a beach, but Adams said each beach is unique and life on each beach varies. After just a few minutes on Libbey Beach off Partridge Point Wednesday, Adams had a collection of life: seaweeds, worm-eaten shipwood (actually created by a boring clam), limpet shells pecked open by shorebirds, predatory snails and something stinky, a quite dead gumshoe chiton.

This mollusk is the largest species of chiton in the world, Adams said. It can live up to 20 years and grow to 13 inches long. Winter’s punishing waves probably ripped the critter from its grasp on rocks. The animal’s carcass was deteriorating and the bony plates were showing from cracks in the skin. These bony plates will eventually be all that’s left on the beach: winged bits that look just like butterflies.

Adams also spotted a Turkish towel. The name comes from the seaweed’s rough, rippled texture and its high absorbing abilities. But this fairly common beach find resembles nothing close to towels in an Eddie Bauer catalog. All the indentations on the seaweed increase its surface area which allows it to absorb more nutrients.

An unassuming olive-green seaweed has a fascinating connection to Central Whidbey. The species was named after a teacher in Coupeville in the early 1900s, a Mr. Gardner, who wrote a seaweed expert describing a find. The expert named the species “gardneri” in the teacher’s honor. Adams said Gardner later became a respected seaweed expert himself.

On Friday, Adams explored a section of beach in Oak Harbor. On this beach, which is bound by concrete, Adams found plenty to exclaim over. More shipwood and long eelgrass, as well as periwinkles, bull kelp with patches showing its reproductive “psorae.”

Adams also found disturbing life on this beach: Spartina, an invasive grass,

which can choke out native eelgrass.

“Look at all these clumps,” she said pointing at winter-withered Spartina.

People who take Adams’ class are certain to find hours of interesting facts about life on Whidbey beaches.

Another class will explain some of the cut and dried facts about Whidbey’s water supply. Don Lee, Larry Bach and Sheilagh Byler will discuss the future of Whidbey’s ability to provide water to its human population.

Lee, a member of the county’s Water Resources Advisory Committee, can make the most dull details (state regulations, exempt wells, water catchment, salt-water intrusion) wildly interesting by explaining how population spread, island geography and topography and politics all affect attitudes about the island’s water supply.

“It’s a complex situation,” Lee said from his home on Race Lagoon Wednesday.

The retired engineer has always been fascinated by water. His 3.5-acre yard is landscaped primarily with natives which require little extra watering and he left frontage directly on Race Lagoon alone. He didn’t run lawn straight to the water’s edge. By not landscaping all the way to the water, Lee nurtures habitat while conserving water.

Lee said the island’s rainfall isn’t plentiful enough to supply large areas with lush green lawns in usually rainless August. He believes conservation is key maintaining water supplies for the future.

He said while everyone worries about single well owners, worrying that those unmetered users are wasting water, those are only about 7 percent of island water users. The other 93 percent are on water systems.

“On Whidbey Island, we use billions of gallons of drinking water per year. Conserving just a fraction of that would make a big difference,” Lee said.

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