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Ethereal Sea Butterfly of Oregon / Washington Coast: Always There But Never Seen

Published 10/25/20 at 6:44 PM PDT - Updated 10/25/20 at 6:46 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Ethereal Sea Butterfly of Oregon / Washington Coast: Never Seen But Always There

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(Manzanita, Oregon) – They are stunningly graceful and even angelic in the water, and yet while they are ever-present off the Oregon coast and Washington coast we never get to see them. They shimmer and almost glow when light hits them, a look and ethereal vibe that makes them seem like something out of mythology. Then, to watch them glide in the water is like some hypnotizing dance in outer space. (Photos and video courtesy Seaside Aquarium / Tiffany Boothe)

You could find them anywhere in the bays or offshore in this region, Winchester Bay, Alsea Bay at Waldport, off Cannon Beach to around Westport or La Push – if you could see them, that is.

The sea butterfly is a curiosity of the Oregon / Washington coast that unfortunately we miss out on. While they may look like a kind of jellyfish, they’re technically a unique form of swimming snail that live entirely at sea. They actually have shells and are not really made of the gelatinous material jellyfish are, but the shells are so thin and transparent they give the impression of being akin to those species as well as being thoroughly see-through.

Seaside Aquarium’s Tiffany Boothe caught wind of some floating in Nehalem Bay recently, then went and grabbed a few out of the water to put them in the aquarium. The resulting photos and video are jaw-dropping.

Boothe said an aquarium employee was spending a day crabbing off the dock at Kelly’s Brighton Marina when she spotted “something swimming in the water that she had never seen before in person.”

“It was a sea butterfly,” Boothe said. “Sea butterflies are pelagic sea snails which use large wings to propel themselves through the water. They feed by setting out a mucus net up to 2 meters long and consuming whatever has the unfortunate fate of getting caught.”

They have a wingspan of about 6 cm, she said. She wasn’t positive, but it appears what they found was the sea butterfly species known as Gleba cordata.

“It may seem strange to get excited about these small little creatures but it is always exciting seeing something you've never seen before,” Boothe said. “These guys are not uncommon but because of their delicate and transparent nature it can be difficult to spot one.”

Sea Butterfly

Posted by Seaside Aquarium on Saturday, October 24, 2020

Another fascinating fact: those shells are calcareous – actually containing calcium, like our bones – in spite of being so thin and transparent. The sea butterfly’s shells can be various shapes as well, such as coiled, blob-like, a triangle shape or even needle-like. Moreover, the shells are only 1 cm.

The sad fact about the sea butterflies anywhere in the world is that they’re getting harmed by ocean acidification, which is caused by several man-made elements, especially global warming, along with some natural causes as well.

Numerous studies have shown this, including one high-profile study conducted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers in 2011, which looked at sea butterfly populations from California, Oregon and Washington. The shells of the animals are dissolving.

Researchers found that under an electron microscope there were areas of the tiny shells that were corroded and pock-marked, leaving the fragile shells even more at risk.

The sea butterfly plays an important role in the ocean ecosystem, including being a food source for many species such as whales.

On the more fun side, Boothe said numerous other ocean wonders were found that day in Nehalem Bay, including plenty of comb jellies, which create a distinctive light refraction (bending of light) that resembles bioluminescence, but often in a myriad of wild colors.

“The large in-coming tide had pushed these guys into the bay along with a few other gelatinous species like the red-eyed medusa and various species of salps,” Boothe said. More photos below:

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