Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Saturday Outing, or Inky Times

For over a month now I've been living in La Jolla, mere blocks from the beach, without having time to touch the ocean. Yesterday I finally got fed up with being too busy to swim, so I just threw on my swimsuit and board shorts and walked straight down the street and into the water. Joy!

After a swim, I took a little walk along the beach to dry off. As I approached the curve of the beach where wave action piles all of the flotsam--mostly kelp and seagrass--I spotted a small gathering of people pointing curiously at something. I went to find out what it was, and possibly offer my services as a marine biologist.

In fact, I had a sneaking suspicion it might be a Humboldt squid, since I'd heard that divers were starting to see them in the water, and I'd seen photos of one washed up on the beach last week. Lo and behold, it was!

I introduced myself: "It is a squid! Hi, I study these! Yes, I study this particular species, and yes, I will study this specific instantiation of it before your very eyes! Wonder and delight!"

Maybe I didn't say all that; I don't remember.

The first people I met were three fantastically friendly and enthusiastic older folk. The women were Ann and Carolyn, and I regret not getting the man's name. They wanted to know everything, and were interested in anything I had to say. They asked if I was going to take the whole squid, and I said no, probably not the whole thing, but I quickly realized I ought to take some samples, to serve both science and outreach. Ann apparently lives right on the beach--even closer than me--and very happily went home to fetch me a knife and some bags.

Meanwhile, I stood guard over the squid. I dragged it up higher so it wouldn't get washed away, and started an informal Q&A with the rest of the curious onlookers. They were mostly young families: kids dragging their parents (oh no johnny that's disgusting) or parents dragging their kids (eww mom that's gross). One kid looked at it and simply observed, "Wow, that's a lot of bait."

Another kid--one of my favorites, whose name I didn't get--wanted to see, touch, and know everything. He begged me to puncture the ink sac. He wanted to know if I had a website (I sent him to the lab's) and if I would post the results of my sample analysis. His mother called to him that it was time to go, and he hollered back, "Can I see the other one too? She's going to do the other one!"

Because there was more than one squid, oh yes indeed. At the second squid our motley troop acquired a new family: Chase, his sister, and his father. According to the father, Chase was something of a squid scientist already. This thrilled me beyond words.

I handed out sucker rings like candy, and extracted the buccal mass, complete with beak. Since there were two squid, I asked Chase and his sister if I could give the first one to Nameless Kid (who'd asked first) and could they share the second one? (They could.) Nameless, whose mother was getting insistent, took his beak and took off. But in just a few minutes he returned and handed it to Chase, with the sad news that he wasn't allowed to take it home. Then he disappeared.

Mother of Nameless is probably cranky now. She woke her son up this morning and discovered that his hands still smell like squid, despite how many times she's forced him to wash. She wishes I had stayed home, never gone to the beach, and never handed her child a smelly icky lump of squid mouth. I'm sorry, Mrs. Nameless! I didn't think it through!

The Chase family, though, were all equally and completely enthusiastic. I love that family. Wherever you are, Chase et al., you guys rock! They had heard there were more squid over in the rocky tidepools, so we headed that way. As we walked, Chase's sister told me, with a big smile, "I've never seen a real squid before, only on TV." Chase's father gallantly helped my loyal assistants, Ann and Carolyn, to navigate the rocks. The ladies were still smiling and enjoying themselves. They had stood back while I was playing with the kids, but seemed to be having a delightful time anyway. They'd already gotten their sucker rings, Carolyn for her grandchildren and Ann for "my baby sister, who's seventy-four going on four".

Chase found two squid sloshing back and forth in a deep pool. As I was trying to accurately gauge the depth of pool to figure out if I would drown while retrieving them, Chase's father simply plunged in to pull them out.

These were much better dissections. They weren't exactly fresh dead, but because they'd been in the water they were clean and less molested by birds. One of them even had a piece of meat (probably another squid) in its beak--its last meal! I love when that happens. More kids and families gathered around. Every single person was fabulous. Without exception. I could have happily talked to them forever. I pulled out a pen, punctured an ink sac, and handed the pen around so all the kids could draw. I popped the lens out of the one intact eye I could find. At Chase's insistence, I cut open a head so we could look at the brain.

The two beach squid and the first pool squid had all been immature females, but the last and smallest was a mature male. I actually squealed in scientific delight, and without really thinking about it, plunged into a full reproductive explanation to a bunch of 4-10 year old kids and their parents. And I mean full. "Here's the spermatophoric complex, where sperm is made. And here's the penis where it comes out. Look, these are spermatophores, little packets of sperm! See how they pop open in my hand? Isn't that cool?"

Kid: "What's sperm?"
Me: "Well, it's what mixes with eggs to make baby squid."

Um, yeah, that wasn't the most well-thought-out explanation, but it wasn't a question I was particularly prepared for. C'mon, how do you not know what sperm is? (That wasn't one of the four-year-olds, by the way.) Some parents seemed uncomfortable, or maybe just quiet, but no one got mad or ran away, and most of them nodded and looked on with interest.

The tidepool female may not have had nice ripe orange eggs for me to compare with the sperm, but she had her own new biology lesson: she was full of tapeworms! They were quite large enough to pull out and watch squirming in the palm of your hand--which many of the kids were delighted to do.

Around this time I happened to glance at my watch, and it was 5:30, a time at which I was supposed to be somewhere else, and preferably not dressed in a swimsuit and board shorts. Even more preferably not smelling like dead squid. Well, such is the life of a marine biologist, I thought philosophically. Fortunately the dissections were winding down, the audience was fading, and it seemed like the right time to wrap things up.

I couldn't thank Ann and Carolyn enough, but they insisted they'd had the better part of the bargain. Wherever you ladies are, I want you to know that you're the most awesome impromptu assistants I've ever had! Edit: Right after posting this, I got an e-mail from Carolyn, who had cleverly tracked down my address, as I was much too scatterbrained to provide it at the time. She sent all of the pictures that now appear in this entry, which deserves another huge thank-you!

On my way back, carrying my bag of goodies, I saw some people checking out one of the squid I'd already dissected. I stopped to chat with them, then reluctantly excused myself: "I have to go put my stomachs in the freezer."

Beach guy: "That's something you don't hear very often."
Me: "Well, if you're me, actually . . . you do."

Also, if you're me, it pays to keep using your squid-ink-stained clothing as everyday clothing, because every day could turn out to be a squid ink day. See, yesterday I was wearing my wonderful board shorts that I bought in NZ, then immediately took on a research cruise and stained with squid ink. This bummed me out for a while, so I kept them in the bottom of a drawer. Then I got used to it and just started wearing them again. Then I started to think I really should buy nice new board shorts for normal times, and keep the inky ones for, well, inky times. But it turns out to be good that I did not do that, because yesterday was a normal time, when I would have been wearing normal shorts, and then they would have gotten ink on them and I would have had two pairs of inky shorts. And who needs that kind of redundancy?

The moral: You never know when you might run into dead squid. Then you'll have to dissect them. And teach the whole beach about squid. And really, that is the reason you became a marine biologist.


  1. Awesome! That sounds like a really fun time :-)

  2. That sounded like a great afternoon! I so enjoy teaching about the sea myself. Usually, it's my husband who's my only student. Lucky you to teach to a whole beach! So impressed with you.

  3. Thank you! It's really the most fun part of my whole job, I think. I'm getting the impression that you can just go to the beach, pick up something curious (a crab or shell or kelp holdfast) and announce to anyone within range that you know about marine biology. Probably you will gather a crowd and a lot of cool, weird questions! If you give it a try, let me know how it works. =)


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