How I Became a Concubine of the Coast

May 31, 2024 | Adventures, Animals, Environment, Marine science, Nature, Ocean Life, Oceans, Outdoors

Blame it on the Lewis’ moon snail. From my first training session with the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, veteran tidepoolers regaled me with evocative descriptions of a luminous, majestic sea snail, famed for its architectural wonder of a shell–and named for the explorer Meriwether Lewis (as in Lewis and Clark). Guided by a biological blueprint encoded in its genes, the largest of moon snails constructs spiral upon spiral of calcium carbonate and other organic compounds.  At the center of these swirls, a dark apex gleams like an all-seeing eye.

On its  underside a muscular, inflatable foot grows, capable of expanding to four times the shell’s size. Mesmerized, I watched videos of this brown appendage plowing through mud in pursuit of  its hapless prey.  The voracious predator’s radula, a ribbon-shaped structure with rows of tiny sharp teeth, bores a hole in the shell of a succulent clam and scrapes its softy body into tasty morsels.

During a Spring tidepooling field trip, we came upon an ingenious creation of the Lewis’ moon snail: an egg collar shaped somewhat like a rubber toilet-bowl plunger.  The female of the species fashions this case from a gelatinous paste of mucous and sand, deposits her fertilized eggs, and covers them with a protective layer of mud—thereby concluding her maternal obligations.

For months I search in vain for an actual Lewis’ moon snail. One foggy June morning, trudging back to the parking lot after yet another fruitless quest, I spot an orange twine bag of discarded shells. Something — sand-smudged, seaweed-streaked, but still alluring — catches my eye. Tearing at the netting, I lift up a surprisingly heavy orb: a large, perfectly intact Lewis’ moon snail. Its  squishy foot slithers around my palm, pressing firmly into my flesh.

When I turn it over, the snail instantaneously retracts its  probing appendage, spraying my face with a gush of sea water.  Blinking, I stare at its protective operculum, a blue-gray membrane shielding its internal organs. Out of the water, the once-formidable predator looks vulnerable, defenseless.

Cradling the slippery shell, I walk into the shallows and carefully nestle the snail in the mud.  As I watch its foot extend and move away, I recall the story of a little girl who finds a bag of ochre sea stars dumped by beachcombers who must have had second thoughts about taking them home.  She begins carrying the stars, one by one, back to the ocean. A man’s voice rings out.

“Hey, girlie!  You know you can’t save them all!”

She pauses and then lifts a sea star high. “I can save this one,” she shouts.

I recount my story of saving a single Lewis’ moon snail to a friend, a dedicated environmentalist who has campaigned tirelessly to protect our ever-endangered shores.

“You’re becoming one of us,” she says with a smile.

“Which means?”

“We are concubines of the coast.  We share a common lover: the ocean. We would do anything to protect it, and this love unites us.”

Men might prefer to think of the sea as their mistress, demanding but irresistible.   I am happy to join any harem of passionate crusaders doing all we can to protect our beloved ocean—if only by saving one sea star or moon snail at a time.

Even concubines take vacations. I will be away for several weeks wondering on other frontiers. My regular posts will return in July. In the meantime, if you’re new to this blog, you can catch up with past posts in the archive. Happy wandering!

Dianne Hales, a New York Times best-selling author, serves as a docent and research volunteer at the University of California, Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and Reserve; a tide pool guide for the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods; and a monitor for the Seabird Protection Network.

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