California Stichopus Cucumber of the Sea

The Squishy Stichopus

Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the California sea cucumber. Cristina has given me free reign to write about things that I’m passionate about, and as previous guests, or indeed anyone I’ve been around this summer, can attest, nothing makes me more excited than these adorable slimy sea balloons.

In our Little Corner of Paradise

In our little corner of the Okisollo Channel the California sea cucumber also goes by ‘squishipuss’, a bastardisation of its proper Latin designation apostichopus californicus. They’re funny creatures, rigid to the touch and then fully limp as a sign to leave them alone, which is why I got confused in my first couple of weeks on Maurelle and assumed that ‘squish’ had to be part of their name somehow. They’re found up and down the west coast of North America, and look like slugs or sausages wiggling around under the sea, except that they’re covered with soft fat red or orange spines and can grow to be over a foot and a half long. They get to this incredible size by gently shuffling around the sea bed on the rows of tube feet that run the length of their bodies, grazing on little bits of organic matter they sift from the sea floor with the tentacles which surround their mouths. Sometimes they just sit still and trap food as it floats past, which I think we can all agree is a lifestyle to aspire to.

My Love of the Sea Cucumber

The thing that first enamoured me of the noble California sea cucumber was their unique self-defence technique. I spent a lot of time before the season started getting to know the local wildlife. Our beautiful cabana is fully stocked with books about the flora and fauna of the area, and it was pretty satisfying to get up, make my obligatory cup of tea, and wander up there before anyone else was awake to read about all the life that calls the Discovery Islands home, from starfish to humpback whales. Amongst these incredible creatures was a page on apostichopus californicus. That page happily informed me that California sea cucumbers are so scared of starfish, their biggest predator, that just the scent of one will induce a cucumber-panic attack, causing them to regurgitate their own intestines. They leave a little pile of internal organs floating about as a distracting snack for the starfish, and shuffle away to some dark corner to hide and, presumably, regrow a digestive tract.
It’s amazing to me that such complex and seemingly ridiculous interactions between creatures go on under the water. There’s just so much life down there, life that is strange and different to what we understand of life on land. When I’m on the water, I’m thinking about one big body of ocean that I’m paddling through, balancing on, surfing in. All the while beneath the surface, a whole ecosystem is thriving; hundreds and thousands of creatures hunting, eating, mating, and throwing up their intestines.

The Discovery Islands Ecosystem

Each tour, we take our guests into White Rock Passage, a narrow channel between Maurelle Island and neighbouring Read Island. A guest once described our paddle there as ‘better than snorkelling’ because we spend an hour floating just above a sea bed teeming with life. It’s such a privilege to get to experience this breadth of life from a kayak; you can see so much without disturbing the daily workings of the ecosystem beneath you. The waters around Maurelle are special; we’re surrounded on three sides by notable tidal rapids, and this means that four times every twenty four hours, a huge volume of water moves at great speed past our base camp. Some fun kayak guide math ensures we’re only ever on the water in the calm ‘slack’ periods, but in between this tumult of water dredges up and constantly refreshes the supply of tiny food particles that smaller sea life thrive on. At Go With The Flow we are well placed to observe all the complexities this unique environment has to offer. Sea urchins filtering food, starfish munching sea urchins, spider crabs grazing on glittering iridescent kelp. And of course, the majestic California sea cucumber, slowly nibbling in the sand.

Written By: Kat Osei-Mensah