Tide Pools, Pilings, and Mud Flats:
A Trip to Maine
by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
Nearly thirty years ago, I made the long journey from Laramie, Wyoming to the peninsula where Booth Bay Harbor, Maine is situated, but when I first arrived I drove straight on through the town out nearly to the end of the peninsula where our friends had a summer house just a few hundred yards from the ocean. I had been scheduled to spend a month with two wonderful friends, Anne and Keene Fleck. The day before I was to leave Laramie, Anne called to tell me that Keene had to have surgery for kidney stones, but would I please go up to the Maine house anyway, since there had been some vandalism in the region and they would feel much better if the house were occupied. I was, of course, delighted to oblige. Anne and Keene were about 30 years older than my wife and me, but they were among the youngest people we ever met. Anne wrote wonderful poetry and Keene was Acquisitions Librarian at Princeton University. They also owned and ran The Parnasus Bookshop in Princeton and had encountered in their shop, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Broch, among others. We met them in Laramie, Wyoming through one of their sons who was a professor in the English department here. They loved books, ideas, film, art, and music and we became friends almost instantly. We soon established a ritual of having dinner together once a week. They were lively, witty, and passionate conversationalists. They knew of my nearly fanatical love for studying marine invertebrates and that’s how I got the invitation to Maine. My wife was at that time co-owner of a gift shop here, so she couldn’t go with mesomewhat to her relief, I suspect, since she has a deep uneasiness about large bodies of water and a dread of large waves.
The house was two stories and the living room was filled with books and had a small, cozy fireplace. At the back of the house was a small screened-in porch with a bench and sink which was an ideal place to setup the stereo-dissecting microscope which I brought with me. I was exhausted from the drive. Laramie, Wyoming to Boston, to Booth Bay Harbor, Maine is a hellishly long trip. So, I unpacked, ate a tin of soup and went to bed. However, the next morning I was up bright and early marching down to the sea with dip nets and bottles. It was a glorious morning both in terms of weather and the anticipation of finding wee live beasties that I had never seen before or had only seen preserved. I had brought bottles of both formaldehyde and alcohol with me to take preserved specimens home to Laramie, once I had studied them in their living, active state. I also brought along a large box of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) to anesthetize contractile critters before preserving them. Epsom salts, wonderful stuff, so don’t leave home without it when collecting marine organisms. The ordinary stuff that you can buy at the drugstore or supermarket is inexpensive and works just as well as laboratory grades of magnesium sulfate. It’s easy to carry, largely benign, and effective on a wide variety of sensitive creatures.
At this moment, however, I was totally preoccupied with obtaining some live specimens. Here I was, a grown man, ostensibly an adult, filled with child-like glee at the prospect of dipping my net into the sea. I had forgotten how treacherous films of algae on the surface of shoreline rocks can be. Imagine a sort of elephantine ballet which resulted in a couple of mild falls onto the bruising and cutting edges of barnacles (Balanus, in case you’re interested). I slowed my pace, oblivious to the bruises and blood—that awareness would surface later in the day.
When I finally reached the edge, I was delighted to find fronds of algae and hydroids, small clusters of sponges, mussels (Mytilus edulis) with their golden strands anchoring them against the onslaught of the waves. Further on, I found a small tide pool with starfish, gastropods, and even a small sea cucumber. I have always been fascinated with echinoderms so, to me, this tide pool was a miniature Eden. I carefully collected just enough material to examine and preserve during the remainder of the day. That afternoon, two splendid creatures attracted my attention for a considerable time—some small white nudibranchs, in this case, dorids, and several caprellid shrimps, also known as “skeleton” shrimp. The latter are rather like micro-aquatic “stick insects” and camouflage themselves wonderfully amongst the hydroid stalks. The dorids feed on the hydroids and perform an extraordinary feat of prestidigitation. They are able to ingest the hydroids nematocysts or “stinging cells” without triggering them or digesting them. Rather they move them through layers of tissue to their dorsal surface where they use them for their own defense. Talk about clever! Also nudibranchs are among the most varied, colorful, and beautiful creatures of the sea—in splendor, they are rather like the reef fish surrounding corals. To get an idea of the beauty and variety of these remarkable organisms, go to The Slug Site—which is full of links to extraordinary images. Nudibranchs are sometimes referred to as “sea slugs,” but that description does them an injustice. Only months later, when I was back in my lab at home, did I discover that these little nudibranchs which as you have doubtless already figured out from their name, don’t have any shell or only a vestige thereof—have tiny calcareous plates just under the dorsal surface. These are mollusks that no longer depend upon the armor of a shell for protection.
The first week, I spent every morning wandering down the road that ran along the end of the peninsula looking for good collecting spots and I found several which became favorites, since I knew they would invariably offer interesting creatures to study.
At the beginning of the second week, I was beginning to be a bit low on food supplies, so I headed into the village/town a few miles down the peninsula, with, of course, my collecting gear in the trunk of the car. My first destination was the docks which fortunately had fairly wide walkways but, nonetheless, I looked for a secluded spot where I would be minimally obstructive. I have long been fascinated with “fouling communities” which can be found on the bottoms of boats, on anchors, on ropes, and especially pilings in piers. Thirty years ago, there were virtually no restrictions on collecting specimens and almost everyone tended to regard fouling communities as nuisances anyway. I found a good location, stretched out on the walkway, reached down and began to pull off marvelous clumps of organisms which I quickly deposited in my bucket of seawater—sea urchins, small starfish, the lovely little flower-like tunicate Botryllus, hydroids, mussels, and Ciona, the “sea vase” tunicate. To me, this was paradise; riches beyond my wildest dreams. While I was rapturously absorbed I had become oblivious to my surroundings on the dock, but then suddenly I noticed a large shadow over me and a strange noise of heavy breathing and I thought: “Uh oh! Fish and Game wardens, F.B.I., C.I.A., K.G.B. I looked up and there was an enormous black Newfoundland, panting and slobbering and persistently and insistently intent on giving me a friendly and wet welcome. I reached up and put my arms around his neck and he and I frolicked on the walkway for a couple of minutes before his owner shouted “Percy!” and he went galumphing off. I was sorry to see him go, but I also began to reflect on the ridiculously inappropriate names people give to their pets (and children). “Percy,” what a silly name for such a superbly large, rumbustious creature. The first year that my wife and I were married, we had a small apartment in an apartment complex near the university where I was doing graduate work. This was in that monstrous sprawl called Los Angles. One afternoon a beautiful, young, black and white cat with very large paws wandered in to visit us. He was very affectionate and hungry, so we gave him some scraps. It got later and later and he showed no inclination to leave and when we put him out, he made a yowling fuss, so we let him stay the night. The next day we bought cat food and placed an ad in the newspaper, since we were convinced that this elegant feline had to be someone’s pet. However, we decided that he needed a name befitting his stature, as we had discovered that his large paws were the consequence of having extra toes on each foot. We called him Khufu, whom the Greeks called Cheops, the pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid. Days passed with no one calling to claim him and, of course, we became more attached to him each day and began to hope. Then, after a bit more than a week, one evening we got a telephone call and the caller described Khufu accurately down to the extra toes. We were heartbroken, but made an appointment for his owners to reclaim him the next afternoon. The owners were a young married couple—yes, back in those days, even people in Los Angeles got married, and, as the wife entered our tiny apartment and saw the noble beast, she cried out “Johnny!” Johnny! what kind of name is that for such a proud being? I was tempted to throw them out and tell them that they had not earned the right to share lives with a great Egyptian god. Johnny! Ah, well, Johnny left and shortly thereafter we got a Siamese kitten. But back to Maine.
I continued to pull organisms off the pilings and then sorted out some to preserve immediately and transferred others to a second bucket of fresh sea water for the afternoon’s microscopic examination. When that was finished, I was beginning to feel a bit hungry. Naturally, I wanted seafood, what was the point of being right there on the coast and not taking advantage of fresh seafood? But where to eat? At that moment I had an epiphany and First Commandment for Selecting Seafood Restaurants came into being: Follow the fishermen. They congregated at a large, white wooden building near the docks. The interior was plain and simple, the food unpretentious and superb. I ordered a crab salad that looked like a miniature white volcano—I could barely finish it and I have a healthy appetite.
Back at the house that afternoon, I had the joy of observing marvels that I had only previously read about. For me, watching an up-side-down sea urchin extend its tube feet well out beyond its body, attach to the substrate (in this case a glass dish) and turn itself right-side-up, was mind boggling. There was an old comic book from Mystic comics which in 1940 introduced Rubber Man well, he had nothing on sea urchins.
I also set a couple of Ciona aside in separate dishes. They have a yellowish, glassy, semi-transparent character and one can see some of the internal structure. Like all ascidians, they have 2 siphons and if you give one of these tunicates a sharp poke, it will contract and squirt a stream of water out of its excurrent siphon, thereby giving it its other descriptive name“sea squirt.” Every amateur naturalist should try, at least once, to go collecting on a sea coast and examine a bucket of living critters. (Be sure to get the proper collecting permits.) If you can’t make it to the sea, buy a bucket of preserved sea beasties. It’s harder and more expensive to do that these days. Several companies that used to offer preserved marine specimens have either gone out of business or now supply only living specimens, which have to be sent air freight, which is quite costly. Thirty years ago, Gulf Specimen in Florida provided both living and preserved material. I used to be able to buy a 5 gallon bucket of “shrimp trawl trash” for $25 plus truck freight. For an amateur naturalist, opening such a bucket was like Christmas and birthday rolled into one. One never knew what to expect; there were sponges, exotic bryozoans, fish, octopi, squid, crabs, hydroids, mussels, sea urchins, sting rays, an electric ray, and once even a small hammerhead shark. Several specimens of mantis shrimp appeared in one bucket. These are formidable predators. They are not really shrimp, but stomatopods. They have modified front appendages of which there are 2 basic types: one is club-like and is reported to be able to strike with the force of a 22 caliber bullet; the other type of appendage is knife-like and is popularly known as the “finger slasher” as it can inflict serious and painful wounds. Also, in the buckets, I found scale worms, jellyfish, nereid worms, sabellids, flatworms, nemertines, ascidians, and sea porka colonial tunicate, chaetognaths, and even a couple of wonderfully grotesque batfish. But no more. Now Gulf Specimen sells only living organisms and those mostly to research institutions and universities. These buckets were absolute marvels and today would cost 10 times as much (or more) and yet one knows that shrimping still continues and that incredible numbers of potential specimens are brought up on deck shoved aside, later discarded, and most of them die. In the last two decades regulations have been tightened forcing the modification of equipment in an attempt to significantly reduce “trash” or “bycatch.” This was primarily directed at minimizing the incidental capture of finned fish, although the Norwegians came up with a design to reduce jellyfish capture as well. Nonetheless, many tons of invertebrates and small vertebrates, such as, sea horses are still taken in along with the shrimp.
With some aid from state and federal governments, substantial amounts of this material could be preserved and sold to individuals, high schools, universities, and even some research institutions at modest costs when sold unsorted and at higher prices for sorted material involving specific requests. This is by no means an ideal solution, but it’s better than simply discarding tons of maimed or dead creatures back into the seas, plus the shrimp fishermen and the naturalists would benefit from such an arrangement. An additional potential benefit would be to encourage more students to pursue careers in the marine sciences. However, it will probably take 327 committees, 5,221 reports, 180 international commissions, and 45 years to arrive at a preliminary plan to investigate the feasibility of such a commonsense idea and, by that time, we may have so polluted the oceans that it won’t be an issue anymore.
In the meantime, if you are fortunate enough to live in or near a coastal village or town, befriend some professional fishermen and see if you can negotiate a deal to obtain some specimens. If you don’t live in such a propitious location, then make up a list of all your friends who do, and start sending them instructions on the collecting and preserving of marine organisms emphasizing, of course, that you will pay the shipping costs. If they don’t take the hint, start suggesting that you and your wife, your eight children, your parents on both sides, and eleven cousins are all planning a trip out to visit them for two months to stay with them and collect specimens.
Well, back to Maine again. I spent several days observing and then preserving the material from the pilings. In the evenings, I sat by the fire and read Kierkegaard who had a certain contempt for microscopes and things “scientific.”
“If the natural sciences had been developed in Socrates' day as they are now, all the sophists would have been scientists. One would have hung a microscope outside his shop in order to attract customers, and then would have had a sign painted saying: "Learn and see through a giant microscope how a man thinks' (and on reading the advertisement Socrates would have said: "that is how men who do not think behave'). An excellent subject for an Aristophanes, particularly if he let Socrates look through a microscope.” [The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, edited and translated by Alexander Dru.]
One afternoon, a neighbor from across the road, who was a friend of Anne and Keene (the friends who owned the house I was staying in, in case you’ve forgotten), asked me if I would like to go out with him and his two sons to a small island where nesting birds’ eggs were beginning to hatch. I jumped at such a chance and agreed to be ready early the next morning. We went out in a dory, towing a dinghy, and with the tang of the salt air and the brisk eye-opening spray of saltwater, I felt quite nautical. After about a half hour, we approached the island and the dory was anchored out a ways because of hidden rocks and fairly heavy surf. This meant that the older son rowed us into the island one by one in the dinghy. I was given the privilege of being first. Definitely a mistake as it turned out. As we approached the rocky shore, I was instructed to turn myself in the bow, ready to step out onto the rocks as the surf ebbed. Well, I did the best I could for a Wyoming landlubber, but just as I prepared to step out, a second, unexpected swell rocked the dinghy making me lose my balance, flipping the dingy over, and tossing us both into the watervery cold water, I might add, for even in June the ocean in Maine is anything but warm. We dragged the dinghy toward the rocks and managed to lever ourselves so that we could tip it back over and get most of the water out. I struggled ashore with soggy, heavy, cold clothes and the young man returned to the dory to ferry his father and brother out to the island. Fortunately, there wasn’t much wind, the sky was clear and the sun was hot, so my clothes began quickly to steam and then dry. The island was glorious; filled with nesting sea birds and I was properly cautioned to watch where I walked so as not to inadvertently step on an egg or a chick or to disturb a parent bird. Clearly not too many people had ventured to this spot, because the birds largely ignored us. We watched several chicks complete their struggle to free themselves from their shells and both they and I dried in the warm sun. What made this island glorious for me was that it was a world apart, a reminder of all the creatures that existed long before we did, which were independent of us and indifferent to us, until we invaded their worlds. Our role should be that of caretakers on this unique and remarkable planet, but it is not one that we have fulfilled at all well.
The sun, the sea, the air, and the exertion had made me drowsy and I was glad to get back to the mainland, but it was a day’s adventure which I shall never forget. The next morning I decided that I needed a break from rocky coasts. I checked the tide tables and drove down the peninsula to an area where I had seen some mud flats. I had a pair of boots, a shovel and an inclination to explore a new sort of environment. I timed my arrival for low tide. The beach had natural zones; where the plant life stopped, there was a zone of water-polished stones and sand, followed by a predominately sandy area, and then a silty mud/sand/detritus mixture. Since this latter was the region where the water had retreated furthest, I headed for that area to begin poking around. As I walked I noticed a lone house sitting out on a point on the far side of this little bay. As I got to the water line, I began looking for holes indicating the presence of clams and worms, but it was primarily worms I was after. I found a likely spot, positioned my shovel and turned over a good quantity of muck and looked down just in time to see an 8 or 10 inch Nereis virens disappear back into the mud before I even moved toward it. I recognized immediately that if I was going to capture any worms I was going to have to move a lot faster and employ a different strategy. Have you ever tried holding a shovel and a long-handled net in your right hand while trying to dig and then hoped that you could drop the shovel quickly enough, lunge with the net, and capture a worm that moves like lightning? After my fourth or fifth failed try, I was wet, muddy, and irritable. As I was preparing for the next assault, I heard a voice ask: “Whatcha doing, mister?” I looked up to discover a boy of about 12 years of age standing a few feet away looking at me with a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment. I explained to him about the elusive worms and he began to get interested. Almost every boy loves creepy, squiggly things that his parents would find repulsive. I asked him where he had appeared from and he pointed to the house I mentioned earlier. He told me that his parents came here every summer and apparently no one his age lived nearby and he was clearly bored.
So, I thought to myself saved—an assistant! We made a game out of it with me doing the digging and him manning the net. We managed to capture several fine specimens of Nereis. The male worms are quite impressive. The body is a deep metallic blue color and the parapodia (the small foot-like projections) are a bright green. In addition, it’s skin is highly refractive which makes it iridescent and when the sun hits it at just the right angle, it looks as though it were encased in gold foil.
The other major find of the day was several 6 to 8 inch long specimens of Arenicola marina. This worm is distinctive because of its green color brightly contrasting a series of red tufted gills in its midsection. My young assistant and I were both quite pleased with our catch, but we were both tired and muddy and the tide was coming in fairly rapidly, so we said goodbye and trudged off in separate directions.
The next two days I spent examining the worms along with scrapings which I had taken from rocks as well as some mud and sand samples. In virtually every imaginable niche, one can find some kind of life form that has managed to adapt and survive, even thrive. In the detritus there were many small forms of life that I couldn’t examine adequately with my dissecting microscope and I cursed myself for not having brought along a compound microscope as well. I preserved some of the detritus but, of course, fixatives distort many organisms beyond recognition. I preserved the Nereis and Arenicola specimens as well, but their vivid colors soon faded and virtually no hint remained of their living glory. Nonetheless, they were valuable for studying morphology and dining habits by means of examining the contents of stomachs and intestines.
On the second afternoon of these investigations, I heard a knock at the front door. I found an elderly couple standing on the doorstep who said that they were friends of Anne and Keene and lived on a neighboring peninsula and had just dropped by for a visit. I introduced myself and explained why they weren’t there. The man introduced himself and his wife in a distinctive upperclass British accent. As it turned out, he was N.J. Berrill, a distinguished biologist, who had written one of the most important monographs to date on tunicates. Talk about serendipity! I had been absolutely fascinated with tunicates from the time I was in high school. Here was a golden opportunity and I told him that I had a copy of his monograph and that I referred to it frequently, since I had long been intrigued by tunicates and had recently been examining rather intensely a number of specimens of Styela plicata. When I paused, he waived his hand and said, “Oh, I’m working on polychaetes now.” With that remark, he launched into a mini-lecture on the morphology and ecology of the polychaete species found locally and it was clear that tunicates were, for him, a thing of the past. After a few minutes, Mrs. Berrill said to her husband: “Come, dear. You mustn’t bore this nice man with your worms.” Well, I would have loved to have been “bored” further about worms, but it had been decided that they were leaving. It was a pleasant but, from my point of view, all too brief encounter. After 4 wonderful weeks, I had to leave and Anne and Keene were to arrive two days after I left.
That month along the coast of Maine was a revelation for me in many ways; it was the single time in my life that I had an opportunity to spend so much time near the sea. I learned enormous respect for the power of the sea and that, at the same time, it could foster a kind of quiet reflection and sense of calm. This adventure gave me a new appreciation for the complexity and diversity of life and it changed irrevocably the way I look at the world.
I dedicate this essay to the memory of Anne and Keene
All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
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