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Ethereal in the Deep: Sea Angels of Oregon Coast / Washington Coast

Published 01/08/23 at 5:39 AM
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Ethereal in the Deep: Sea Angels of Oregon Coast / Washington Coast

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(Seaside, Oregon) – Every great once in awhile, there's something actually angelic that winds up on the beaches of the Oregon coast or Washington coast. They're known as sea angels. (Photos courtesy Seaside Aquarium / Tiffany Boothe)

In actuality, they're a kind of sea slug and they live in fairly deep ocean areas, and once they're stranded on land they're a mess. But in their natural habitat they truly look angelic.

They're also frequently known as “strange creatures” of the Oregon coast and Washington coastal waters. The scientific name is Clione limacina for these types pictured here, snapped by Seaside Aquarium.

The amazing part can come when some are still alive on the beach, and Seaside Aquarium's Tiffany Boothe happens to be the one to find them. In the past, she's scooped up those semi-lucky few still there, brought them back into the aquarium and – boom – they're alive again for awhile.

However, since the aquarium can't get hold of its usual food sources, the sea angels (or singular, as is often the case with these finds), don't live very long. That, and they don't live very long anyway, with a life span of one year or two years.

This type of find has been made a few times in the last 20 years on the north Oregon coast. On occasion, Boothe explained much about these beautiful little weirdos.

“Sea Angels are planktonic sea slugs which belong to the order Gymnosomata,” Boothe said. “They are known to be highly specialized predators consuming prey three times their own size. They have a pair of wing-like paddles which are used for swimming.”

Indeed, this particular breed of sea angel feeds almost exclusively on sea butterflies, which are also a form of sea slug. An interesting if not freaky sidenote about sea slugs: according to experts like the Monterey Aquarium in California, they and their favorite prey, sea butterflies, are both pteropods. They're literally relatives of the garden snails and slugs in our yards. But evolution has taken that foot of the land slug and turned it into those graceful, even ethereal flapping “wings” in the water.

Those wings are actually feet on the sea angel. Used for swimming in the ocean, it makes them stronger swimmers than others of their general family.

Sea angels don't have shells – though sea butterflies do. You'll notice the transparent body, which when lit from behind takes on a seriously otherworldly glow. Sometimes they show up as sheer, almost featureless white as well, which makes them look like something out of the early Outer Limits episodes.

Sea butterflies, on the other hand, have a shell, and they're a bit smaller than the sea angel. When feeding on the sea butterfly, the angel becomes something akin to the Alien in those sci-fi movies: a special appendage comes out and slowly cuts through the shell. This can take about 45 minutes.

Sea Angels are found in a wide range of environments, from just off the colder waters of the Oregon coast and Washington coast to extreme arctic seas – as well as all the way up to more tropical climates. Those in warmer waters tend to be smaller. They're anywhere from about 600 feet down to 2000 feet below the surface.

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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