Monday, July 25, 2011

Between Tides in Monterey

First, I would like to quote from Steinbeck's Cannery Row:

The tide goes out imperceptibly. The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble.

I recently read Cannery Row in preparation for my trip to Monterey. I read Of Mice and Men and The Pearl in high school, but perhaps due to my age, I did not appreciate how marvelously Steinbeck wrote. Now, as a biologist I revel in his accuracy and eloquence in describing intertidal marine life, not to mention his brilliant portrayal of human nature. Steinbeck was friends with Ed Ricketts, a great scientist and human being whose books Between Pacific Tides and Sea of Cortez remain ecological classics that are still relevant today. I was delighted to learn that Ricketts also influenced Joseph Campbell, mythologist and professor at Sarah Lawrence College, of whom I am a fan. Steinbeck-Ricketts-Campbell: Oh to be sitting amongst these men at dinner or drink! All great writers and philosophers, but one novelist, one biologist, and one mythologist. Three of my greatest interests!

But I digress, I simply wanted to endorse Cannery Row as a great American novel, superbly written, capturing a slice of life at Monterey at a time when the fishing industry ruled and a ma could make a living combing through the debris left by the tides. It was one of the most enjoyable reads I've had in recent memory.

Partly inspired by the accurate tidal pool descriptions in the novel, I wanted to once again relish in witnessing the life-or-death ecological struggles that are played out in the transient worlds of tidal pools. I made my way yesterday to The Great Tidepool, which is just beyond the Point Pinos Lighthouse on Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove. I made no spectacular finds, just the regular refuse of the surf, but still, for one unaccustomed to the watery rocky world "between Pacific tides," I felt as though I was treading on sacred ground. (I took my shoes off like Moses before the burning bush, more for fear that I would inadvertently squash some delicate creature than the sense of the sacred.)

I would like to share here the humble fruits of my exploring:

First thing you notice in the tidal pools (besides the giant blades of kelp) is the hundreds of still or slowly moving snail shells. Now it should be noted that not all snail shells host snails. As we well know, nothing is wasted in Mother Nature, and when a snail dies (or is eaten), the empty shell is often quickly inhabited by those funny creatures we know of as hermit crabs.

Now the type of snails and crabs that are present at Monterey, I am no expert. But to the best of my abilities, and with the use of a handy field guide, I am guessing that most of the snails (or snail shells) I photographed, belong to the Black Tegula, Tegula funebralis.

Photographing the crabs proved much more difficult. I saw hundreds of them, but they were always scattering just a few steps ahead of me. I am also one who is reluctant to turn over stones and disturb wildlife, unless it is for a scientific study. So I got excited when I got up close to one crab who wasn't moving, but then realized it was only the exoskeleton I was looking at. The crab had either died or molted. I think he was just a dead crab. Here I am holding up the carcass:

Thankfully, later to my delight, I was able to capture a living one on film. A photo is below:

I believe both the crabs, the dead photographed and the living on film, are purple shore crabs, Hemigrapsus nudus.

The dead, the living, scrambling atop one another. The living feed off the dead. One snails skeleton becomes a hermit crabs home. Beach fleas feast on the washed up kelp and algae, that dry out in the sun. Steinbeck said it best: "On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble."

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