Monday, May 23, 2016

Skywoman and World Turtle Day

Skywoman is a Native American creation myth appropriate for World Turtle Day because all the Earth is carried on a turtle's back.

Robin Wall Kimmerer said, "On one side of the world were people whose relationship with shaped by Skywoman, who created a garden for the well-being of all. On the other side was a woman with a garden and a tree. But for tasting its fruit, she was banished." I believe she is talking about my people.

The first time I saw a sea turtle laying eggs on the beach it was the at the cove at what was then my grandparents' farm on the Miles River of the Chesapeake Bay. It's no longer there.

It was a loggerhead. The miracle, I thought then, was being allow to stay up late. 

Of course I realize now it was to see the turtle.  I wish I could go back in time and see it again and save everything.  The farm was sold to developers.  It no longer exists as habitat for turtles. My grandparents have been dead a long time.

One-by-one ping-pong-sized eggs were deposited into a shallow nest made by the mother turtle by the phragmites. My uncle shone a flashlight. Her look was galactic. Prehistoric. I thought she might hiss like a dragon but she was quiet as stars. That I swam in the daytime in waters that she swam in! I thought about my exposed toes. I would ever after in the water wear beat-up sneakers.

Because I was scared of Mama Turtle.  She was Sky Woman's daemon. She was queen.  Holling Clancy Holling's Minn of the Mississippi: 

I was not worthy to share the water and hoped I would never see her again. Sometimes you get what you wish for, unfortunately. I've never seen another turtle laying eggs on a beach but that once and Skywoman.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dressing As A Science Writer

Since making the switch from mom blogging to writing about marine science, I have spent an inordinate amount of time wondering what to wear. Is it silly? Perhaps. But immediately I went to Target and got myself octopus-print pajamas -- to send a message to anyone who sees me (after 9 pm or before coffee in the morning) that I am serious about cephalopods. 

Are clothes an expression of self? And if they are an expression of self,  I should wear this:

the octopus is it a ring? is it a bracelet? Whoopi Goldberg wore to the 2016 Oscars

I consulted New York Magazine's 12 tips to find your own chic easy uniform.

I said out loud to my past self,  "All these momjeans must go. I am a science writer now with a focus on marine environmental issues," and I threw them into a pile along with the zippy colorful-print suburban scoop-necks.

"I can quit you," I said to them. Their loud florals replied, "We know you'll be back." "I don't think so," I said, shoving a pink chevon-print of daisies into a bag.

What I wear now is different. It's my attitude that's changed, too. My new fashion is "flowy neutrals that are soft, and remind me of sand and wetlands," "accessories that are white as the white caps of waves in the wind," and "when I want to be fancy, I accessorize with pearls which come from oysters, which are mollusks, which have no backbone."

Nobody has noticed. But I know. I'm finally dressed as myself.  So what if it's a thousand nuanced nubbly shades of brown because so is the Earth's entire geological record.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


Why the fish-frown, Atlantic silverside? 

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center published "Acidification increases sensitivity to hypoxia in important forage fishes," yesterday in the Marine Ecology Progress Series. This is the kind of lite reading I do for you.

What they concluded is that silversides are f%cked. (Not their words.) They're sitting Moby-ducks. (Also not their words.)

I'm going to keep the math simple (not for you, dear reader, but for me. I need math so simple a silverside or second-grader could rise to the occasion). Here's the simple math: as CO2 rises from our burning of fossil fuels, the ocean acidifies. (Bill Nye on Climate 101.)

As the ocean acidifies, oxygen is depleted and... duh. obvi., the silverside without oxygen dies. (Like us without oxygen.)

Why I care about a little fish: C'mon look at its cute little face! That wry downturned smile! Also because small species like sardines, anchovies and silversides are "essential food for birds, marine mammals, and other fish." They're the foundation of the marine food chain.  And the successful marine food chain is what brings ya yum yums like lobsters. And a non-stanky Baltimore inner harbor.

I got the quote (below) from Donovan Hohn's Moby-Duck: "the true story of 28,000 bath toys lost at sea, and of the beachcombers, oceanographers, environmentalists, and fools, including the author, who went in search of them." It's a great read.

Thoreau said,  "There are more consequences to a shipwreck than the underwriters notice."

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Why Okeanos Is So Great

"A sea coral garden on a carbonate platform."

Okeanos Explorer is so great.  I'm exploring the Marianas Trench from my living room. I'm seeing "a sea coral garden on a carbonate platform," and I only really understand one of those words and it's "platform." My college futon rested upon a platform.  Is how I would use it in a sentence.

Okeanos is so great because I am a wanna-be marine scientist, at least I used-to-be-a-wannabe-marine scientist. What I do now is I voluntarily count plankton, as citizen science for Plankton Portal.

My kids tell me I get really animated at the fish section at the Catonsville H-Mart. I'm all, "Look, kids! That's a sea squirt!" "They have a notochord."  "And while they may look like rubbery blobs, they are actually very advanced animals--close to humans on an evolutionary scale."

My kids are like, "Okay, Mom. It's a sea squirt with a notochord will you let us get Pockys now?" and I feel that I've had a great mothering moment; I've helped them understand our place the world in the great web of life.

Friday, May 6, 2016


Plankton are marine creatures that drift. Ocean drifters. I like them. A crab zoea is about the most Sesame Street thing in the sea.

So I've joined the citizen science project called Plankton Portal (which sounds so Sci-Fi, like through the wardrobe door) in which I mark "images of plankton taken by an underwater imaging system."

You can, dear reader, probably imagine how impossibly happy I am to perform this service.

I might be in body in suburban Baltimore in-the-captain's-chair in front of my computer where it's dreary (it's been raining for five days straight. I'm praying to the the ocean sunfish) but scientifically I'm in the Mediterranean, because that's where the underwater imaging system is imaging ctenophores, salps, larvacean houses, medusa, and solamaris. Oh, the names! My heart, the poetry!

I heart all you plankton, especially you medusa ephyrae and pteropods, with your "very opaque body with wing-like extensions of one end that can be more or less contracted, and a triangular-shaped shell on the other end" like this one:

The ocean sunfish, the biggest bony fish on Earth was once considered a plankton. That was before it was discovered that the ocean sunfish is a boss diver. 

In German it's English translation is swimming head.  Notjustaswimminghead, from larvae to adult it "increases in size 60 million times." BLAMMO. Plankton Hulksmash.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Giant Clams: Facts and Fun

The giantess of the giant clams is Tridacna gigas.  Lady Gigas, to you. 

You can just hear her saying, Velllcome, kittens. I am so glad to see you. If only I had eyes, mwahaha! 

But she's no killer queen. The claim that a clam can kill a man by clamping their lips closed has never been substantiated.    However, in folklore, there exists the shen, the Chinese clam-monster, "The shape-shifting shen is believed to cause a mirage or Fata Morgana. Shen synonyms meaning mirage include  shènlóu  (with "multi-storied building",  "clam castle" or "high house of the clam-monsters"), shènqì shènqìlóu hǎishì shènlóu 海市蜃樓, and shènjǐng ." 

A more recent shen is Man Clam, a  B-movie character:

I know what I'm being for Halloween -- Girl Man Clam -- but giant clams have a lifestyle far from horror and closer to coral. They photosynthesize. 

“What makes this system in the clam special is that the design can extract every last photon from sunlight,”

Giant clams are a Plant-Animal. Plantimal?  Symbiotic algae live within the clams' "fleshy mantle." I am not making this up.

"Fleshy mantle" is a phrase from a Shell Shocked-style low-budget horror-movie script and also science. So from now on I'm calling my muffin top fleshy mantle but then I also call my fanny pack my encircling purse. The vaguely scientific naming of  my shameful parts is totally my jam. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Marine Worm, or A Woman My Ex-Boyfriend Cheated On Me With?

SO EAGER TO PLEASE THEY CAN EVEN BE TRAINED! (False advertising! Maybe your sea monkeys could. Mine never could be trained because: Duh. They're brine shrimp. They scooted around their plastic-castle-in-a-bowl and then they died.)

As I was going through my field guide to the North Atlantic seashore as one does when, of a night, one does not sleep due to perimenopausal night sweats (women over 40, you know what I'm talking about) and reading about marine worms -- I was struck by how similar their common names were to the girlfriends of my crummy ex-boyfriend.

But don't take my word for it. See if you can tell the difference:

Rosy Magelonas
Rosie I-don't-know-her-last-name
Rosa (who spoke Portuguese)
Nina (she was adorable)
Naphtalia (she was from Israel)
Dumeril's Clam Worm
Donna (Srsly? Who sleeps with someone named Donna? And on my futon at Smith?)
Red-gilled Marphysa
'Lex, short for Alex, short for Alexandra, short for are you kidding me? Her, too? 
Opal Worm
Faye (who was a marine worm of the heart for a lot of people)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The One Trillion

The new Tree of Life. It's a fu0kton of a microbiome. 

I used to think $20 was a lot of money. I thought of it in terms of how many cherry cordials at Trifles candy shop in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh I could purchase for that amount. There were filled with a slight amount of alcohol. Mostly the hint of transgression.

Get ready for a really big number of small things.  It's so far beyond the amount of cherry cordials an eleven-year-old could eat, and the transgressions available in a puny human life span: It's one trillion.  (No one can transgress that much. Not even Casanova.)

It's the new estimate of the number of species on Earth. 

Researchers at Indiana University -- mathematicians, ecologists, microbiologists, big heads and algorithms -- crunched some big numbers and concluded that, "based on universal scaling laws applied to large datasets," there are an estimated one trillion species on Earth. 

Now here's where I must hold your horses. Be still, breath. Heartbeat, be slow and steady, heartbeat, do not freak and geek out with awe and enthusiasm because  -- wait for it --

drumroll, please:

only one one-thousandth of 1 percent of these species have been identified. 

Even with my rudimentary math (see: fractions make me scratch my head, unless it's the division of dessert), but even with my rudimentary math, I can tell you with certainty that the "analysis suggests" "99.999 percent of species" are "still unknown to us" and  "still left for use to find and classify" and "it seems pretty unlikely that we'll ever be able to catalogue them all."

With that, I fall to my fainting couch like the good Victorianesque natural history dabbler that I am -- collector of feathers and shells. The world! The world! Le sigh! 

I will require revival with a phial of smelling salts, because: the unknown. Magnum mysterium. It beckons.  Like so many round chocolate-enrobed small cherry cordials rubbing and rolling against each other in my pocket bulging with purpose. It is the sweetness of future delight. Bacteria. Microbes.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Studying Marine Science In My 40s

I love a black smoker. I love Marianas Trench, and the phrase "iron-magnesium crusts," and "sub seafloor microbial biosphere." I don't know about you but I want to have a reason to say microbial biosphere all the time and not just in polite conversation.

So I'm studying marine science in my 40s.

This video was recorded yesterday, at depth. It's footage from Okeanos, NOAA's deep sea submersible. It's happening now. It's science and exploration you can follow live, as an armchair Shackleton. It's like going to Mars.

They are discovering crabs unknown to science. (Love that phrase.)

I took out of the library a chemistry text of the hydrothermal vents. One of the diagrams was similar to the above. I looked at the page. I looked at it again.

On the third time, feeling obtuse, I saw (like a Rorschach inkblot)  the face of my high school chemistry teacher, a man who had hair like a bear growing out of the back of his neck.  He didn't like me; I was always trying to get away with making my conclusion sections of his gas labs into poems. It's a reaction when you're unsure what you concluded.

I began to sniffle: I love the sea so much, but don't get it.  All those arrows!  WTF even is "evolved seawater"? 

My teardrops fell on the page.  LIKE LITTLE OCEANS is what I told myself.  LIKE SMALL WET EVIDENCES of the EPIC of a LIFE. (Ever the writer.)

I went back to looking at photos of dolphins. The way they jump out of the ocean, and me, I just can't quit it; I really like the word, "basalt." I am and always have been warm diffuse flow.