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Jellyfish mass in estuary waters

Biologist Dave Colwell believes the unusual appearance isn't a big concern



Howe Sound has given us so much to talk about in recent months and now it's jellyfish creating the latest buzz.

Dolphins are being spotted in large numbers around the sound, Orca sightings are on the rise, a humpback whale was spotted in May and a grey whale delighted visitors and residents for a few days in 2010. Sunflower sea stars are reportedly dying off at an alarming rate and news of a healthy population of glass sponges caused headlines earlier this year as well. The herring population in Howe Sound has also ballooned over the course of the last few years.

Now the discovery of jellyfish in a place where they are rarely seen has citizen scientists comparing notes. Breanna Wilson of Squamish spotted a massive bloom of the ghost-like white and purple translucent beings. She was out for a walk along the training dyke that separates the Squamish River from the Squamish Estuary at Howe Sound's northern extreme when an equipment operator working near the water pointed out a massive collection of jellyfish in the brackish estuary waters.

The sight inspired Wilson, who happens to be a photographer, to snap a bunch of photos that she later posted to Facebook. She wrote that she had never seen jellyfish in the estuary. Her pictures prompted an online discussion with other interested estuary observers. Nobody had ever heard of jellyfish gathering in the estuary in the numbers seen earlier this month.

"People like the jellyfish photos I took," said Wilson from her home in Squamish. "It has been a mixed reaction. There's been some people that have had fairly negative reactions to it and then others like my old biology teacher Dave Colwell."

According to Colwell, plankton abundance is a common cause of jellyfish congregations.

Colwell is a retired Howe Sound Secondary School teacher who also happens to be an avid diver and boater. He knows the Howe Sound waters well.

Based on what Colwell sees in Wilson's photos he concludes a common species known as moon jellyfish invaded the estuary to feed on unusually high amounts of plankton in the water.

"They're completely dependent on what is floating in the water that's edible," said Colwell following days of speculation by concerned Squamish residents who felt the appearance of the massive group of jellyfish was an ominous sign.

"My personal opinion on this in Howe Sound is that we had a very warm summer, the rivers were running off a lot of glacial till right the way through the summer, which is kind of unusual. Usually that stops in July," said Colwell.

"As we get these warm spells you're going to get extra minerals that come in the water from erosion."

Colwell believes the jellyfish simply found a place where there was lots of food.