“Solving the Mystery of Dying Starfish” wins Emmy for Laura James

The Underwater Marketing Company

Laura James, Puget Sound, Seastars, Solving the Mystery of Dying Starfish, Star Fish Wasting Syndrome, Meg Rebreather, GUE, Seattle, This Girl Can Dive, Sea Otters v. Climate Change, Rosemary E Lunn, Roz Lunn, The Underwater Marketing Company, scuba diving, female divers, sea hero, Cox Conservation Hero, Sustainable West Seattle, Laura James in her beloved Puget Sound

Talk to filmaker and underwater explorer Laura James for five minutes, and the name ‘Puget Sound’ will be mentioned in the conversation somewhere. You soon learn this is no coincidence. Laura’s self imposed mission is to share the undersea world of this Washington State Sound in such a way that people discover what is going on beneath the waves, and learn to love and protect the Sound as much as she does.

It does help that this self-effacing West Seattle advocate is a respected, Emmy award winning, accomplished recreational, technical and rebreather diver with north of 5,000 dives underneath her belt. Using the power of film and journalism she highlights pollution problems and other environmental factors that impact on this inlet of the Pacific Ocean.

In 2013 Laura James collaboratived on a report ‘Sea Otters v. Climate Change’ and won an Emmy Award for her photography in June 2014. The report was honoured…

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sorry, a bit of a rant..

I don’t usually rant about stuff like this, but oil trains irritate me, mostly because I am worried that one is going to get hit by a landslide, tip over and dump a few thousand gallons of mess into Puget Sound… so here goes… I know this article doesn’t mention them, but it mentions a danger on the same tracks.


I’m sure with the potential increase in oil trains carrying Bakken light crude that BNSF will be rather motivated to not have any accidents happen, especially not along the well populated and ecologically delicate shores of our beautiful Puget Sound…

BUT, if something does happen, the story this news article nicely sets up is that when it happens it won’t be BNSF’s fault, they are just an infrastructure company… it will be ‘shared blame’ on the shoulders of the land owners/homeowners. (AKA as much of the blame as can be shifted to the little guy) AND on the city/state/feds for obviously not doing everything possible to prevent it. We’ll all be on the hook for the clean-up, whether its just a spill or something more ominous.

Hello! BNSF! Don’t let people ship stuff that likes to explode in tank cars that are unfit for it! Its not the landowners fault what you allow to be shipped in your tank cars.

Now don’t get me wrong, I totally understand that transport by rail has its benefits, and is low impact in the big picture, say compared to truck or jumbo jet, but this is a volume issue….

Starless Night


Saturday night was a bit of a departure from our regular survey dives. A researcher up at the Port Townsend marine labs has 30 healthy stars and was ready to do an experiment to help understand the transmission of the disease, but was having a bit of a hard time getting some sick subjects. Pycnopodia (the sunflower star) like the ones that we helped collect up at Mukilteo all die too fast once they are infected. So it was up to us to find some either _very_ freshly sick pycnopodia (who could make it to the labs) or more likely some of the purple stars (pisaster) that we’ve been videoing at cove 1. Luckily I’ve learned to recognize the early stages of the illness in the Purple stars and also the Orange colored mottled stars. Each has its own subtlety and can only be seen when you have spent some time studying the healthy counterparts side by side with video of the sick.

My concern on this dive started early, there were no sea stars in the shallows on the intertidal rocks (where i was expecting to be able to pick up a few easily) only bacterial stains where they had once been. So far the intertidal had been showing lower mortality compared to the pilings and it was rather disarming to see them completely barren. I thought about all the tidepool walks that will be impacted, without the cheerful orange and purple constellations that we take for granted as quick and easy crowd pleasers.

As we swam to the pilings next to Salty’s, it was a veritable wasteland. Just months ago this same area was a teeming galaxy, sunflower stars all sizes scavenging, hungry morning sun stars chasing the occasional rose star, mottled stars, brittle stars, vermillion stars, blood stars, striped sun stars, with the occasional Red Spiny star and Leather star interspersed. We swim by them so many times that we take them for granted. It wasn’t until reviewing hours of footage (looking for healthy star images) that I realize just how unaware i’d become of their presence.

Arriving at the first set of pilings it seems my concerns were justified. Two weeks ago there were clusters of purple pisasters, groups of 6-12 still hanging on the shallower sets of pilings, seemingly weathering the storm. On this night, those clusters were reduced to a single star here and there. Pilings that held 100’s of stars before the outbreak were now almost completely barren. The remaining few were in various states of disease, from damaged arms to ‘protecting’ the lesions (when they are all twisted up) and the in-between stages of wasting, losing grip on the pilings, etc.. We were able to collect the requested 8 or so stars by visiting 3 sets of the pilings. It was quite poignant for me as I shot video and continued to document the pilings, because even though I _knew_ that the stars we were collecting would likely perish anyway and at least this way they could be helping us understand more about the process, it broke my heart a bit to see the pilings left empty or with only one star.

Joining us as we made our way back to the entry point were a pair of joyous and frisky harbor seals. The seals are always a welcome respite, as they never fail to lighten the mood and draw you into their world of fish chasing, curiosity and what appears to be a slightly wicked sense of humor as they sneak up from behind and blast in out of nowhere, startling the divers (we know they are there, we just don’t know where they are coming from next!) leaving a cloud of silt and laughter in their wake. Surfacing to a view of the city lights never gets old, its a reminder of how lucky we are to have dive sites so close. While we were taking off our fins and getting ready to head up the beach, we noticed a bobbing head several feet away, cruising around looking at us as if to say “Hey man, where are you going with my dinner lights! I was just getting warmed up!”. Following a long slippery slog up the rocky beach, I made a quick call to make sure we were still “on” for the delivery before packing up and hurrying over to the ferry dock. The hand-off went without a hitch, stars safely packed into coolers for their trip to the lab. Driving home, I felt a bit like a we’d just done something clandestine, albeit a far cry from the normal ‘deals’ that the viaduct likely sees. Now we wait… Even though I know that we can’t ‘stop’ this disease, I look forward to hearing the root cause, as calling it the Zombie-sea-star-apocolypse, although an appropriate description, probably isn’t the most scientifically accurate 🙂

Manual entry is now available at http://www.sickstarfish.com (in addition to the Instagram hashtag option, where you take a picture, #sickstarfish with brief descriptive in the comment field and upload from the beach)

To use manual entry, locate your intended site on the map and then right click on your computer or long touch on the location on mobile to auto add the lat/long and open the manual entry field window!!!

HUGE SHOUT OUT to my dive buddy Lamont for making this possible!!!!!!

There is a text window for typing a brief description of what you observed i.e. “Almost no purple stars left at cove 1, no sunflower stars, two leather stars” or “80% of the sunflower stars are sick or dead” we are mostly looking to map disease progression here.

Also, please post follow up dives. If you go back and there are changes for the negative OR positive, “die off seems to have stabilized” or “baby sunflower stars at Titlow” or “sick in the shallows, but healthy deeper than 130′”. We want YOUR anecdotal observations… Make a post for every time you visit the site, noting the changes.

Same for beach walking. For example, at cove 1, there are no more ochre or mottled stars in the intertidal zone pipeline rocks. This is a change from 2 weeks ago when we could go out on a low tide and count a 8-12. Things are still in flux and we still need to track whats going on.

Want it back…

I wrote this as a comment to the incredibly supportive readers from West Seattle Blog. I made a decision to start including more of why I do what I do in this blog, and what’s going on inside the black box so to speak…

Here is the link to original post and thread


First off, thanks for all the kind words and WSB for posting! You ALL are why I keep doing this! (and some perhaps misguided notion that if I keep sharing and you all keep caring and spreading the love for Puget Sound that together we can save this beautiful gift)

The song I used for this video is “Want it Back” by Amanda Palmer from her recent Album “Theater is Evil”. (HUGE thanks Amanda in case you happen to stumble on this video)

It is a great song with a fantastic beat, but it also felt somehow appropriately poignant for the video. Sad dying starfish in the background, lively seals playing in the foreground, Puget Sound the theater, and how much indescribable love I have for the subsurface world…

I have a tendency to incorporate my feelings from the dive and my feelings when I’m editing into the ‘art’ so to speak, on multiple levels. How a video is cut, how it mixes with the lyrics and beat…

I was editing this video and listening to the album and when the song started the thought crossed my mind that it echo’d well with my belief that if we don’t do everything we can to protect this delicate ecosystem that we’ll find ourselves looking back at a time (right now) when we were giving it away to big business and big industry who don’t mind externalizing the cost of doing business on the environment and by that token, we the people. And when we get to that point, that tipping point, that point of no return, no matter how badly we ‘want it back’ we’ve already given it away.

It was a vivid reminder how important it is that we, each and every one of usget involved and vote with our ballots, voices and dollars and support sustainable, cradle to cradle options that don’t fill our waterways with trash and pollutants, and use every opportunity to protect what we still have and as a community never ever just turn a blind eye and give it away again.


Here is a link to Amanda Palmers site where you can download the song (and donate if you like her music!)

and here it is… in all its pinneped golden fish hunting dying seastar glory..

Of Oil Trains and Spill Response in the Puget Sound Corridor

I would like to take a moment to say something about the influx of Oil trains through the Northwest. Quite simply, the risk is far too great.

All the global impacts aside, all the potential health impacts aside (from increased Diesel exhaust), Traffic, etc… My concern is this. We live in an area where landslides happen. Each year it seems we read about a train bumped off the tracks by a mudslide somewhere along the Puget Sound corridor (if you hadn’t noticed the train tracks pretty much line the Seattle side of the Sound). Sometimes its a passenger train, sometimes its tank cars full of chemicals and sometimes we get lucky and they are empty.

But this is a WHEN not if situation, a foregone conclusion. If we increase the volume of oil traveling by rail along the shores of Puget Sound, we will have a marked increase in the opportunities for derailing caused by landslide or otherwise (I tend to think of this as a higher possibility than a barge or ship accident – although that could be incorrect thinking on my part – please correct me if i’m wrong). Sooner or later a tank car WILL derail, and WILL rupture and leak oil into our waterways. An oil spill in Puget Sound would be crushing to the fragile ecosystem and devastating to the amazing creatures that call it home. Even if it doesn’t happen in Puget Sound proper and it happens further up north across the border (be it train, barge or ship incident), it WILL impact our waters, because, GET THIS, they are all connected! There is no magic boom that separates American and Canadian waters.

We are woefully unprepared from a spill response standpoint. Both from a resources that will be needed and fiscal standpoint. Being that its very likely the transport of oil through our State by both rail and on water will continue and increase, we need to prepare to mitigate the impacts in the case of disaster. Charge the shipping companies a fee that will buoy up our spill response and clean up fund, mandate stricter regulations on the type of tank cars (make sure they are more robust) that can travel across our state lines, educate the public about the hazards of a clean up (its not like it can be an “all hands” call because both the oil itself and the chemicals used for clean up are detrimental to our health. People will need training to deal with the aftermath, and starting once its already happened will be too late. Build and support a citizen action coalition, actively reach out and train groups and individuals, thousands of people ready to spring in to action WITH the appropriate training to support the agency and private organization with boots on the ground manpower, and then cross our fingers hope we never need them.

The Alaska Exxon Valdez oil spill happened long enough ago that it is an afterthought. Something that the 40-somethings vaguely remember being a big deal back in the late 80’s (it happened on March 24, 1989 for those who don’t remember) I was still in high school, so in all honesty it was even kind of abstract to me. We must learn from our past, so that we might imagine what it would look like to have oil coating the shoreline of our precious sound.

The future just got a lot smoother

Well, technically thats “future video i’ll be shooting”  🙂

What arrived on the porch today?  Something i’ve been dreaming of for a while now (to the tune of years) and finally made the first babysteps in that direction.  

Glidecam 4000!

What does this mean for you, my fabulous readers?  It means more topside footage to set up the story for my environmental videos!!!!!   It means MOAR SHOOTING!   It means I might be hitting some of you up to come be milling about extras looking pensively at stormdrains! 

It means…. MORE VIDEOS! 

Don’t worry, concurrently i’ll be working to shoot more creative underwater footage, so its not like this will cut into the diving videos.

I won’t bore you all here with the arrival, set up, balancing, etc..  the minutia can be read here:  The Continuing Adventures of DiverLaura


What is on my mind.  Oil.  Oil cars being hauled by trains to be exact.

Every time I hear of a train derailment in the Puget Sound Basin, I hurry to the computer, crossing my fingers and toes, hoping beyond hope that it is not an Oil Car that has derailed and is now leaking oil into my Sound.

There is the controversy about coal trains, and from a big picture standpoint I totally agree.    The widespread impacts of coal and a ‘fossil fuel’ highway are a horribly dear price to pay.    The damage to the tracks is far more immediate concern.

Of note: I am HUGELY proud of the Lummi Nation for standing up to SSA marine and sending their formal letter of disgust to the Army Corps of Engineers in the matter of the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

But it barely hits my radar in my constant fear for the health of Puget Sound.  Stormwater scares me, and makes me angry.  The potential tragedy that ONE oil car could do much less 3-5 (the number that generally seem to get pushed off the track by a landslide) leaves me trembling in my drysuit boots.

Puget Sound is a bathtub.  A brackish sea, teeming with life.  There are ledges, seen clearly on the bathymetric chart that restrict the flow of water, old water out and fresh water in.  These ledges are rather close to the surface (by Puget Sound standards, she’s 900′ deep in places) and mean that we keep diving in the same bathwater, dive after dive, day after day, year after year.

All it would take is one oil tank car and a too slow spill response and we will be looking down the barrel of a mess that will last decades.