Introduction >>

There are some 300 species of sponges in BC. They are listed elsewhere on our web site  and we have color images for most of them.

This portion of our web site presently concentrates on one group of sponges popularly referred to as glass sponges because about 90% of their dry weight is glass or silica (e.g., Dayton et al 1974, Austin 1984).

Their scientific name is Hexactinellida (hex = 6; actine = ray) as many components of their skeleton referred to as spicules have 6 rays. These rays are aligned along 3 axes at right angles to each other. The number of rays may be reduced in some spicules

Mainframe skeleton and examples of spicules from the Cloud Sponge showing the basic 6 rayed form in some and a reduced number of rays in others

spic1b.jpg (4969 bytes) spic3b.gif (4724 bytes)
Portion of fused skeleton Pinnule
spic2b.gif (2274 bytes) spic4.bgif.gif (5864 bytes)
Scopule Spiny hexactine

Glass sponges are different from other sponges in a variety of other ways. For example, most of the cytoplasm is not divided into separate cells by walls but forms a syncytium or continuous
mass of cytoplasm with many nuclei (e.g., Reiswig and Mackie, 1983).

Like almost all sponges, the hexactinellids draw water in through a series of small pores by the whip like beating of a series of hairs or flagella in chambers which in this group line the sponge wall.


Diagram of flagellated bodies which line the sponge wall and working together pump water into the sponge (from Reiswig and Mackie, 1983)

Venus's Flower Basket

Hexactinellids are, typically, limited to the deep sea with the result that few people have seen them or studied them. An exception may be the “Venus’s Flower Basket” A pair of shrimp remain protected together inside. The sponge together with the imprisoned pair of shrimp is often given as a gift at weddings in Japan and the Philippines to signify a long relationship.


The shallow water occurrence of hexactinellids is rare world wide. In the Antarctic two species occur as shallow as 33 meters under the ice. In the Mediterranean one species occurs as shallow as 18 meters in a cave with deep water upwelling (Boury-Esnault & Vacelet (1994). Another species occurs in shallow water in a southern New Zealand fjord

Under ice community at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. Upper area at 15m depth, lower area with glass sponges at 33m depth (from Robilliard, Paine and Dayton. 1974)

Five species occur in depths of 15-35 meters in a range of locations in fjords and in the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia. The shallowest record was communicated to us by Neil McDaniel in 1978. This was a Cloud Sponge at a depth somewhere between 2 and 5.2 meters in depth in Seymour Narrows where current speeds reach 16 knots resulting in major vertical mixing of water. In November 2003 members of the Victoria Dive Club & other divers (Mike Miles, Carole Valkenier Pope and Ian Pope, Mike Kalina, James Dranchuk) surveyed some of the Seymour Narrows area. They found Cloud Sponges at several locations along the SW side of Quadra Island as well as in Seymour Narrows. The shallowest (found by Ian and Carole) was 2.0 meters corrected for tide height in Seymour Narrows. To the best of our knowledge 2 meters is the shallowest record for a hexactinellid sponge since the Cretaceous.

Most of the glass sponges in British Columbia reach sizes of ½ to 3 meters. In northern British Columbia they occur in particularly dense populations which suggested the name “sponge garden".

Sponge reef in Hecate Strait east of the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia.

To see a video clip taken from the Submersible DELTA in 1999 Click Here


These sponge reefs were discovered in 1987-1988 by the Geological Survey of Canada at depths of about 220 m. They form mounds up to 18 m high and beds several km in width. Some of these reefs are 8500 to 9000 years old based on core samples (Conway et al 1991). Glass sponge reefs were common during the “Age of Dinosaurs” (e.g. Krautter 1997) but were unknown since that time. Some were being destroyed by trawling. They have recently been designated as no trawling areas by Fisheries and Oceans Canada; but full Marine Protected Area status is needed to ensure that they remain intact.

Click here to see a web site describing these reefs in more detail.




Chart showing silicate concentrations in various seas and depths (click on graph to enlarge)

  Bill Austin has suggested (Austin 1984, 1996) that the shallow occurrence of glass sponges in British Columbia is related to the high concentration of glass in the water as silicates. The shallowest record (2m depth) is in Seymour Narrows where high silicate levels occur throughout the water column due to vertical mixing (Thomson et al. 1980 & unpublished info 2003. The highest silica concentration, near the surface, is in the Strait of Georgia (magenta line).





  Indeed, the deeper waters of the Strait have been known for 40 years to support large populations of Cloud Sponges. More recently, SCUBA divers have directly observed populations in the Strait and adjacent fjord. The graph to the right shows silica concentrations of 33 µM (green) throughout the year at the dotted line. This line represents the shallowest occurrence of glass sponges (15 m) in the area.  While the data were obtained in 1931, there is no reason to think that the levels have increased or decreased substantially since then.

 The other shallow water area with high silicates is the Antarctic. However Norwegian fjords, for example, have low silicate concentrations and have no shallow water glass sponges although many of the other species are identical or related to those occurring in British Columbia fjords (Bjørn Gulliksen pers. comm.)

The Complete Scuba diver (Doug Campbell).

Pisces Submersible


At this time our web site will concentrate on glass sponge communities in British Columbia fjords. Glass sponge communities in some 20 British Columbia fjords have been explored by submersible, remote operated vehicles, or scuba.

Most work on natural history and impacts has been in Saanich Inlet, a fjord in southern Vancouver Island, B.C. Known Sponge Gardens are in the areas marked in red.

The Cloud Sponge Aphrocallistes vastus

At this time our web site  concentrates on one species, the Cloud Sponge, Aphrocallistes vastus and on those populations occurring in the fjords of British Columbia.

The Boot sponge Rhabdocalyptus dawsoni

The boot sponge, Rhabdocalyptus dawsoni is another common species in British Columbia Early work on its natural history was carried out by Gary Silver, a graduate student at the University of Victoria, and Bill Austin at Khoyatan Marine Laboratory (e.g., Austin 1991). Sally Leys, also worked on this species as a graduate student at the Univ. of Victoria (e.g., Leys & Lauzon, 1998), as has Jeff Marliave, VP Marine Science, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre (Marliave 1992).