A half hour ride away from our ship, our skiff beached itself on the coastline of a tiny island. Today we were going tide pooling, and one by one, we abandoned our vessel to begin our hunt for coastal aquatic life. The tide was out, and usually hidden treasures glistened under the early morning sun.
Intertwined with a carpet of kelp strewn along the shore, the exoskeletons of huddled masses of mussels, clams, and barnacles of all shapes and sizes met their demise beneath the soles of my tall, grey rubber boots. Crunchcrunchcrunchcrunchcrunch. Every crackle was a death knell to me. My Catholic guilt surged through my body, and then like liquid nitrogen, froze me in my tracks. I didn’t dare move anymore, knowing that I was marine life murderer.
Silently, I stood immobile. My group was leaving me behind, and I had to make the choice: stay put and see nothing more, or get moving and explore the wonders of the tide pools. Making the obvious choice, I tip-toed ahead as lightly as I could, trying to ignore the trail of broken shells I left behind.
There’s something so seductive about the swaying of the shallow water across a vast pasture of colorful sea life that draws you in—the way the water’s edge kisses the shore lovingly, longingly. Keeping your distance is an exercise in futility. The intimate spaces that sheltered these nautical plants and animals enticed you to bend down, come closer, and, if only for a moment, enter their world. And if you let your mind ebb like the water around you, you could start to see things in a whole new way. In sexy ways.
Rick chastised me jokingly, saying that I had a dirty mind—and perhaps I do. But I couldn’t help but see something more than just sea urchins, kelp pods and chitons.
Indulge your own naughty imagination and take a peek at this sea anemone. What do you see?
How about this droopy orb?
Or this chubby phallus sea cucumber?
Some things were more sexy and seductive and less pornographic, like this bathing beauty, poster girl of a starfish.
And some things, I just didn’t know what to make of, so my Catholic side took over again. We dubbed this the Christmas Anemone.
We combed these tide pools for the better part of the entire morning. Every which way you turned, you could find nature’s creations clinging steadfast to their protective shelters along the rocks, beneath the surface of the water, and catching a ride on the backs of their neighbors.
Wading through the pools and climbing over rocky mounds, we relied on our trusty guide Matt to help us identify what we were looking at. Every few minutes, you’d hear, “Hey, Matt! What’s this?” He’d come by, ready to spout out the common and scientific names of whatever had caught your eye.
His depth and breadth of knowledge of these creatures was impressive. He taught us about their eating habits, natural predators, and special physical features. He described their interdependent relationships with other species, their strengths and weaknesses, and how climatic and seasonal changes affected their behavior. When he wasn’t sure about a name or didn’t have a ready answer to our question, he relied on his handy Plants and Animals of the Pacific Northwest book.
As the heat of the late summer sun began to bake everything exposed above the water line, Matt reminded us how adaptable these organisms are. In the waters of southeast Alaska, one must be able withstand daily temperature changes as drastic as a 30-degree difference when the tide is in versus when the tide is out. As Matt reassured us of their hardiness, I still couldn’t help but feel guilty. Though these things had managed to survive drastic changes in their environment, I had inadvertently smooshed them with every step I took.
So once more, I stood still, this time listening to the life around me. The low tide lapped around my legs, and I could almost hear this small island breathe. Remnants of the sea percolated across the landmass, and bivalves spurted out aerial streams of water like statues in a fountain. This island was full of life. And I realized that guilt had no place here.
Nature can be luscious, sexy, and evocative. It is also practical, strong, and smart. This island, like the natural world itself, has endured more than we can know, and I know that long after I have left, life will continue to thrive and proliferate.