- The Ecology of Falling Whales
Visiting my twin sister Maya at Friday Harbor Labs on San Juan Island, Washington, July 2014
i.women in jeans record numbers
At the Ocean Acidification Lab they speak in tomorrows— when waves leech the shells
off of bivalves, and salmon no longer spawn. Plastic tubes tentacle to bubbling
coolers filled with coralline algae, oysters, and shrimp. Maya studies eelgrass, watery
meadows where new fish shelter and slugs do-si-do. In the beds in the bays, between tangled
tendrils, snails glue donuts— rubbery egg sacks—onto wide blades. This is the nursery
and the ocean here’s murky where tender fry dart and anemones flower. [End Page 159]
At a biology potluck, I put down my beer and point toward the sea—a puff of white water. “The spray from a blowhole?” I say to my sister. “Shallows,” she says. “Not whales, but waves.” All night, I sip and watch for the pods. Thousands swim by. I can’t see their shapes, just synchronized splashes. “Whitecaps,” says Maya. I shake my head no. I’m surrounded by skeptics. Science demands that. Writers, I say, are professional liars, gullible dreamers, fanciful prey.
1. How Clams Pee 2. Sexual Selection Among the Spineless 3. Tunicate Hearts 4. Sea Cucumbers Squirt Battery Acid 5. Eelgrass Wasting Disease 6. The Ecology of Falling Whales 7. De-extinction
Between the back flippers, a student saws blubber with serrated ivory. For mimicking predation, the girl’s only tool is the jaw of a shark. A TA takes photos. Below a gloved hand, intestines are nesting. Biomechanics is the study of triumph, how bones can break bones, how teeth puncture windpipes, how pressure cracks ribs. Carcharodoncarcharias—the great [End Page 160] white shark—has detachable chops, five rows of teeth— built-in replacements— and a throat made to swallow skeletons whole. Some fat from the seal drips through the dock. What hungers will gather beneath sneakered students. What schools will flash silver, splash tail, and snap—
v. friday at friday harbor labs
A morning PowerPoint describes the lifespan of larvae, which, through a scope, appear like small portraits: three-eyed men in ski caps with tassels.
Invitation: Stop by Lab Eight and pet a young shark.
Maya leans over and shows me her phone. Across the screen, a dozen fried eggs spin, bumper, and crash. Oyster spats set to Vivaldi. To run all her tests, she’ll need a cool thousand.
At TGIFHL, a rumor goes round about a transient orca. During dissection, they found in its belly the remains of a moose!
Rusted tanks hold peach-feathered fuzzies, ghost fish so thin we see grooves in their spines, blob fish disguised as piles of rocks. In a tall plastic tube, matchstick fish spiral. We glide through Lab 8, preparing ourselves, but the shark we have come for is no longer there.
So how did the orca swallow the moose?
On the docks after dark, students lower light bulbs into the sea. The glow attracts schools, young cod, [End Page 161] blinking jellies, a crooked flash and a hook for a tail, slithery bristles in purples and reds. A plastic bag bubbles. Anemones vogue as if cauliflowers.
Sea stars aren’t thriving. Their arms slither off, away from their bodies. A zombie pandemic, my sister’s friend whispers. Giant pink star and sun star. Leather star. Bat star. Blinked out by a virus. On a rented kayak in Griffin Bay, I float past a sunflower sucking a rock. Two weeks I look, and this one hungry burst, oozing with petals and an extruded stomach, is all I see. Across the black waters, eelgrass withers. Lesions break blades and blanch out the green. First go the seedlings and then go the beds. The finfish. The small fry. The dolphins. Chinook.
vii.at sea, the dead sink
In the black of deep ocean, there is no horizon. The moon does not visit, and creatures grow strange
as the drawings of children. Lamps leech from bones that curl over fins. Mouth suckers blink. The newly
deceased drift like leaves in an ongoing autumn...