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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#668: No Starry Night

A star is said to have played an important role this time of year more than 2,000 years ago. Wise men are believed to have followed it to the birthplace of the Christ child in Bethlehem. If only we had more wise men today! Of course many researchers believe that Christ was not born on December 25th, but during an entirely different time of year... possibly September. I went to the Internet and Googled Bethlehem birth records from that era, but apparently they haven't been digitized yet.

Whatever the truth is about this, the spirit of the season is one I truly enjoy. It brings back joyous memories of my family and friends. I think back to braving snowstorms to attend our little church in Chicago on Christmas Eve... and Dad having to change a flat tire in the freezing cold one year. I remember fondly shopping for gifts for my family and later for my nieces and nephews. This year I will spend it with my granddaughters, creating new memories. I try to live my life based on the Golden Rule, often attributed to Christ but actually common to many religions including Islam (despite what. Trump says). I wish good will towards all men... and (of course) to all ladies as well!

But sadly there is a place where the stars don't shine this year. It is a place I go often and one where I usually find my greatest peace. I'm referring to the waters of Planet Ocean, specifically those of the West Coast of North America. Over the past few months I've written about the many changes in our kelp forest ecosystems brought about by the unusually warm water of the past 20 months. One early and very sad event has been the disappearance of our local sea stars (although old geezers like myself still call them starfish).

The three large masses of warm water located in the Gulf of Alaska, off Washington and Oregon and down here in SoCal and northern Baja are believed to have helped set the stage for a terrible epidemic. In some ways it reminds me of the great flu pandemic of 1918 which may have resulted in the deaths of 40 million people. Of course the victims in this epidemic are all echinoderms rather than humans.

Starfish literally began disintegrating in the early fall of 2013 up in British Columbia. The disease soon spread and ended up affecting stars from Alaska to the Mexican border. At first the cause was unknown, but in 2014 researchers found that a pathogen now referred to as the sea star-associated densovirus (SSaDV) was to blame. A densovirus is any virus in the scientific genus Densovirus (of the parvovirus family) which often infect insects and other arthropods on land. This disease has devastated about 40 different species of starfish, members of the echinoderm phylum.

Initial symptoms of this disease include the appearance of white lesions on the body, which refer to any abnormality in the tissue due to injury or disease. These spread quickly and the tissue around them begins to deteriorate. Then the sea star becomes limp as its water vascular system, which maintains its rigidity, fails. Often the arms literally fall off the central disc and death usually occurs within a few days. What is left is a gruesome gooey glob of decayed white tissue.

The densovirus that causes this disease is not new to nature. It has been found in preserved museum specimens many decades old. Scientists believe there have even been previous outbreaks of the disease with the earliest in 1972. Back during the El Niño of 1978, ten species of sea stars in our Channel Islands region were affected along with three types of sea urchins, two of brittle stars and one sea cucumber. Perhaps the disease I believe I've observed in our sea cucumbers the past year represents yet another victim.

Scientists (including this one) believe that the unusual virulence of the recent epidemic is associated with the unusually warm water. Warm water favors the growth and spread of many pathogens, and is one reason I am careful when diving in the tropics. I've had pretty serious bacterial infections from cuts and bruises when on SCUBA in coral reef ecosystems. The presence of the three Blobs, followed by the el Niño have undoubtedly contributed to this serious invertebrate epidemic.

So when Santa asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I declined to list trips to all my favorite tropical dive destinations or even a lovely and intelligent dive buddy. All I want for Christmas is for the stars to return. I want to see them on my dives in the coming months. Oh, and I wish for a return of the heavenly stars that will lead men and women toward greater peace on this planet. Wishing all my readers a very Merry Christmas (and whatever other holidays you may celebrate).

© 2015 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Baby sea stars on kelp blade and the formerly common knobby starfish; a fragile rainbow star and a
victim of the wasting disease in the Pacific Northwest (courtesy of dive friend Bruce Bray from Seattle)

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2015 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia