The midsection of a sea whip’s body. The polyps use their tentacles to grab drifting food.

There’s an exhibit in the Treasures of the BC Coast gallery that isn’t like the others. A green filter casts an eerie glow on the strange-looking animals growing upwards from the sand: sea whips (Halipteris willemoesi). While each sea whip looks like an individual animal, like corals and sea pens, they are actually made up of thousands of tiny polyps.

resize thumbnail 2011-10-27 - Sea Pens - Meighan Makarchuk (1)

Sea pens also have bodies made of thousands of individual polyps.

Ruby Banwait, an Aquarium biologist, created this new exhibit with its natural habitat in mind. She attempted to recreate how they looked when she saw them while diving near Britannia Beach in Howe Sound. Ruby says, “It was like a field of wheat. I was struck at how uniform in height and distance they were with each other.”

Ruby points out that these animals are found in deep water, so she designed the exhibit to give it a feeling of depth. The green lighting mimics what happens when light penetrates the ocean – as you go deeper, colours are filtered out with reds disappearing first, then greens, then blues.

While this is not the first time that sea whips have been displayed at the Aquarium, Ruby says she still has some challenges ahead: figuring out their diet, she’s currently feeding them microscopic crabs and shrimps, and understanding where and how they grow once they reach the surface of the water.

Ruby uses a syringe to feed the sea whip by following the line of polyps up the stalk.

Ruby uses a syringe to feed a sea whip behind the scenes by following the line of polyps up the stalk.

In the meantime, there is much for her to discover as she watches them in the stillness of the green-tinged water.

Get a close-up look at the sea whips in our Defence Islands exhibit on your next visit to the Vancouver Aquarium.

Written by Karen Horak, writer-editor, content and digital experience at the Vancouver Aquarium.

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