Article and photos by ADM Chief Staff
Writer John Rawlings

My good friend and dive buddy Valerie Lyttle grinned at me as she perched on the gunwale of the skiff just opposite from me, camera at the ready. Being older and slower, I was not yet ready to roll over backward into the water, but she was way too polite to be impatient. A “critter-nut” like me, Valerie was pumped about the dive we were about to do – a site called “Lou’s Hole” in Slingsby Channel in British Columbia, located about half way between Tremble Rock (Nakwakto Rapids) and the open ocean. The site was discovered in the early 1980’s by an intrepid explorer, diver and underwater photographer from Vancouver named Lou Lehman who was exploring the area with friends on their 50 foot sailboat. This was our first dive at this site and our friend and skipper, John DeBoeck, had primed us with tales of vast gatherings here of an extremely unique animal. Both of us were excited and looking forward to documenting such a phenomenon, so our cameras were ready.

The “old man” was finally ready and I signaled her with a thumb up. Heaving myself backward over the side my final view was of Valerie’s fin-tips disappearing on the opposite side of the boat before a sudden cold surge of water engulfed me. Righting myself, I signaled John that everything was OK and he handed me my camera system, a Nikon SLR set-up in an Aquatica housing. Having our specific “quarry” in mind, I had chosen my Nikkor 60mm lens for the close-up work needed for this dive. Linking up with Valerie at the surface, after a quick check the two of us nodded to each other and then started to slowly sink beneath the surface, the cold water almost seeming to bite into my cheeks as it touched them. Descending further, we could hear the boat motor as it receded, John puttering away to maintain a “live-boat” presence until we surfaced.

Dropping downward into the emerald green depths, large shapes began to subtly materialize within our field of vision – large boulders left behind by receding ancient glaciers and rock formations gouged out by ice hundreds of thousands of years ago. Gazing intently beneath us, I also began to see blotches of white – not the huge swaths of billowy white affiliated with huge clusters of Plumose anemones, but small dots everywhere across the bottom and the rocks. I realize that we have found our quarry – Basket Stars – and not just a few, either….they numbered in their hundreds and were stretching off into the distance! As I slowly sank down next to one of the huge boulders covered with basket stars I peered through my viewfinder and began to create the shot in my mind. As I did so, I realized that it resembled a sight that I had seen months previously in mid-winter – a forest of leafless, pale and frozen trees. My camera “trigger-finger” began twitching and the shots began to accumulate…..

The Basket Star, Gorgonocephalus eucnemis, is a member of Gorgonocephalidae family of the Ophiuroidea class, (Brittle Stars). This species is entirely different from similar warm-water animals commonly called basket stars found in the Caribbean, (Astrophyton muricatum), and elsewhere. G. eucnemis has a set of five arms that then branch off again and again, seemingly without limit. The name eucnemis is from Greek words meaning “Good Leg”, an extremely apt name for a species with so many legs! Thriving in cold water, the Basket Star’s range extends along the West coast of North America from Northern Alaska down to California, from the Bering Sea to the Sea of Japan, and extending across the Arctic to Greenland down to Cape Cod. They have been found down to a depth of 6,000 FSW/1,850 MSW. Originally, it was thought that the Basket Stars found in the North Pacific and the North Atlantic were in fact separate species, but that has since been proven to be untrue.

The physical appearance of a Brittle Star always reminds me of the appearance of the creatures in the old Sci-Fi movie, “Alien”, with coils extending everywhere. Like all Brittle Stars, the Basket Star has a large disc – up to 5 _ inches across - at its center to which the arms are attached.
This disc, as well as the arms themselves, has what appears to be a thick texture – almost like naked calloused skin. The color of Basket Stars can vary tremendously, the most common being a light tan or white blotched with brown on the disc, but other specimens can be found with a maroon, pinkish or even an orange hue. Large plates, called radial shields, are paired up as protective covers where the arms are attached to the disc. The five arms extend from the disc and branch off repeatedly…..that branches sometimes in almost limitless numbers. Individual Basket Stars vary enormously, with some having only a few branches and smooth arms, while others will have so many branches that they appear to be almost “fuzzy”.

The arms of G. eucnemis have a series of up to five spines on their lateral plates, the number of spines decreasing on the smaller branches themselves. These spines have small hooks on them as well as teeth used to assist in collecting food from the water column. The mouth itself also possesses a series of spine-like teeth. The arms will coil at the tips much like springs or ringlets unless they are fully extended to feed. Adult Basket Stars will cling to a boulder, wall or even other species of invertebrates with some of their arms and extend the rest of their arms into the current to collect food. Bits of plankton swirling past in the currents are ensnared by the hooks on the arms and are then rolled up in mucus before being moved to the mouth for actual consumption. Prey species for the Basket Star are mostly the planktonic stages of crustaceans, worms, fish and jellies.

Studies of Basket Stars in the San Juan Islands of Washington State have shown that the male/female ratio of G. eucnemis is 1:1, with a small percentage of the population (2.6%) being hermaphrodites. Actual spawning takes place between October and February. The eggs are shed directly into the water column and the newly hatched larvae have no means of controlled locomotion whatsoever. Drifting with the currents, Basket Star larvae begin their development only once they have been snared by the feeding polyps of the Red Soft Coral, Gersemia rubiformis, commonly called the “Sea Strawberry” due to its delightful color and physical appearance. These two species have an extremely special relationship, for it is within the pharynx of the polyps of the Sea Strawberry that the larvae of the Basket Stars begin their growth to adulthood, feeding on food collected by the polyp until their disc is about 0.5 cm/0.2 inch across and they are large enough to fend for themselves. Both tiny juveniles and adult Basket Stars can commonly be found in abundance alongside the Sea Strawberry, making for wonderfully colorful photographs. Tiny juvenile Basket Stars can also be found clinging to the extended arms of adult specimens of their own species, being extended farther out into the current than they ever could on their own.

Gliding along slowly between the boulders and rocky clefts, both Valerie and I found ourselves mesmerized by the abundance and beauty of these fascinating creatures. My eyes glued almost constantly to my viewfinder, I was able to keep track of her location throughout the dive by the constant flash of her strobes, as I imagine she was also of me. Finally ascending slowly to the surface

from the wonders of “Lou’s Hole”, the card in my camera “bulging” with photos of the huge gathering of Basket Stars we had seen, my mind traveled back to previous dives in which we had found individual adult and juvenile Basket Stars alongside wonderfully colorful clusters of Sea Strawberries. Not only do such encounters provide for wonderfully colorful and intricate photographs, they enable us to ponder the many intricate and varied relationships that individual species have with each other. I will never again be able to look at a Basket star or a Sea Strawberry without instantly thinking of the unique link between the two species. This is just one more fascinating bit of biological trivia that can be found in my most treasured of places – the emerald green waters of the Pacific Northwest.

While Basket Stars can be found at various locations through the Pacific Northwest, some of the most remote and beautiful of those locations fall within the area covered by John deBoeck at the Browning Pass Hideaway -

Brittle Stars, Sea Urchins and Feather Stars of British Columbia, Southeast Alaska and Puget Sound

The author wishes to acknowledge that much of the scientific information contained in this article came from one of the best resources in my personal library, Brittle Stars, Sea Urchins and Feather Stars of British Columbia, Southeast Alaska and Puget Sound, by Philip Lambert and William C. Austin -