marine science

The Blobs: Fantasy vs. Fact

In The Blob, a 1958 horror movie, a gelatinous people-eating alien terrified  a small town as it devoured residents and grew bigger, redder and more voracious. The film became a drive-in favorite and a  sci-fi cult classic. More than half a century later the entire West Coast of North America faced a very real and even more dangerous Blob. In the winter of 2013/2014  a “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” of high pressure, as meteorologists described it, clamped over the north Pacific like a lid, stalling winds and blocking storms.  Warmer-than-normal waters spread,  eventually covering about 3.5 million square miles from Alaska to Mexico—an area larger than the contiguous United States.

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How I Became a Concubine of the Coast

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 famed 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.

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A Very Big Fish Story

A mile offshore from Bodega Head in 120 feet of water, the captain cuts the engine. The 65-foot chartered research vessel pitches from side to side in steep swells. Ten men, one young woman, and I take our stations at the railing.

“Lines down!” a voice booms.

Not until this moment do I realize that I probably should have considered my gender, age, size, and complete lack of fishing experience before volunteering as an angler for the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program. My life goals immediately winnow down to three:  Do not fall off the lurching boat.  Do not join the miserable retchers chumming the waves with their breakfasts.  And prove to be of some scientific value by catching at least one fish.

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The Indomitable Purple Sea Urchin

The purple sea urchin I’m holding doesn’t look like an environmental terrorist—more like a domed pincushion bristling with needle-sharp spikes. I can’t look this echinoderm (pronounced ee-KINE-o-derm), a cousin of sea stars and sea cucumbers,  in the eye. It doesn’t have any.  Nor does it have a brain, heart, backbone, or blood.  Yet urchins, among the most ancient animals, date back 450 million years and inhabit every ocean on earth.

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Sailing by the Wind

Years ago I learned to sail by the wind on a 26-foot sloop in San Francisco Bay. After the initial terror, I came to relish the exhilaration of skimming across the water, rocketed by gusts and tugged by currents. At times I’d imagine endlessly drifting on the open sea with the sun and the stars as my only companions.

Velella velella (from the Latin for “veil”), commonly known as “by-the-wind sailors,”  live this fantasy. Ancient mariners found in oceans around the world, they have no need for seaworthy vessels. They are shaped like exquisite toy sailboats.

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The Lab at the End of the Earth

What drew me to the Lab—what’s always drawn me to certain places—are its stories. From the day I first ventured onto the 616 protected acres owned, leased, or managed by the Reserve, I was intrigued.   Driving  past coastal prairies and dunes, I beheld what looks like a  space colony hunkered on the continent’s rim.

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Growing A New Brain

When you learn a language, a linguist once told me, you see with new eyes, listen with new ears, speak with a new tongue. In essence, you grow a new brain. As I began my coastal wonderings, waves of words—some entirely new, others familiar but with different meanings—washed over me.  I quickly realized that I would need a new vocabulary as well as a new brain.

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