Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sometimes, Nostalgia: Woods Hole

Years ago, before we were married, Damon had the good fortune to live and work in Woods Hole.  I was in Boston at the time, working at the New England Aquarium.  My department was undergoing some turmoil, and I was asked to be the interim Curator of Education during a time of hardship and change.  What I did, mostly, was prevent anyone from being laid off before our next curator could be hired.  I had a lot of responsibility, and no authority.  In short, it sucked, although I worked with some of the most amazing people I will ever know. Oh, and at the same time, I was starting a Master's degree at Harvard.  There was no rest for the weary.

But there was Woods Hole.  Every Friday evening, I'd hustle down to South Station and catch the commuter bus.  That was the moment I felt free and lighthearted.  I'd roll into Woods Hole at around seven, and for the next 48 hours, we'd cook great meals of cheap mussels, explore the Cape, and have beers at the Captain Kidd.  There were dances in the fire hall, and dinners with other young scientists, the dog parade, and the ferry horns waking us every morning.  We'd walk up to Nobska Light and watch the sunset.  Damon was working for the marine mammal acoustics lab, for Bill Watkins, one of the grandfathers of the field.  Bill was a great boss, and as Damon says, everything he learned about good bosses, he learned from Bill.  Damon took full advantage of all Woods Hole had to offer -- talks, and camaraderie, and the chance to stand on the shoulders of giants.

They were great years, and it was a fine time to be young and in love.  We got engaged and held our wedding on the Quisset campus of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution -- where they charged us a whopping $100 for renting the space.  But careers took us away from Boston and Woods Hole.  Damon was invited to pursue a PhD at Duke, and I finished my Masters in Math and Science Education, then decided it'd be fun to spend some time in the classroom.  We did what people do -- move on, to bigger and better things (mostly).  Deep in my heart though, I will always have a soft spot for Woods Hole.

Last weekend, we headed down to Woods Hole for the Organization of Biological Field Station conference.  We drove down with some colleagues, one of whom had worked in Woods Hole for quite a few years.  As we drove along Woods Hole Road from Falmouth, the three of us had a little nostalgia fest.  "Oh, there's the bike path!"  "That's where the Sea Education Association has it's headquarters!"  "Ah, we got married right there!"  "Oh, I used to eat at that restaurant all the time!"  We were glowing with happiness.  Our friend who'd never been to Woods Hole pretty much rolled his eyes at our sentimentalism, but asked me a great question -- what's so great about Woods Hole?

This is what's so great about Woods Hole:

Science.  BIG science.  This is a place where intellectual curiosity meets practical engineering, and Woods Hole has a critical mass of people, stuff, and money to ask some pretty amazing questions.  

We went on a field trip to the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, where the staff took us out to their study site where they are measuring how greenhouse gases interact with salt marshes.  That walkway might not look like much, but it's a clever way to minimize the impact of humans walking all over the study site, maximize the amount of sun reaching marsh plants on the path, and move really expensive pieces of equipment -- like $100,000 mass spectrometers -- out into the field.

History.  You can feel it, everywhere you turn.

Rachel Carson, amongst other greats, spent time here.  She still sits on the waterfront, and you can sit down and have a good think alongside her.  I recommend it.

Although I simply love Rachel, I can't forget good old Louis Agassiz.  Agassiz was one of the great scientists of the 1800's, with a passion for natural history.  He was a professor at Harvard, and the founder of its Museum of Comparative Zoology -- one of the premier science institutions of its time.  He also founded the precursor to the Marine Biological Laboratory, thus is considered on of the grandfathers of field study.  He had strong opinions about education and research, and was known to shut students into a room with specimens and not let them out until they had "discovered all the truths which the objects contained".  In short he was a formidable educator and scientist.

Now, I can't praise Agassiz for his brilliance without pointing out his flaws:  Agassiz resisted Darwin's work, and turned out to have a racist streak in him that was manifested in his belief in polygenism, the belief that the races were created separately.  Maybe he was simply a product of his time and class, but we can't forget Agassiz was wrong about many things.

This quote of the great man, hanging in the library of the Marine Biological Laboratory, has inspired generations of scientists, and is excellent advice even today:

A like-minded community.  

Where else would the bells of the Catholic Church be named after scientists? Thanks be to God, for sure.

The Eel Pond.

The heart of Woods Hole is the Eel Pond, surrounded by academic labs and old New England cottages, filled with sailboats and interesting sea life, and spanned by the drawbridge.

A sense of humor.

Even the graffiti is about science.  These are from courses at the Marine Biological Laboratory, and highlight "Neuro" -- note the neuron, "Embryo" -- with the cute little embryo, and CSS -- the Children's Science School, which turned 100 last year.

Classic old buildings and art.

Some really great food, shared with some really great people.

Alas, I am home now, a bit sad to drive away from Woods Hole once again.  I didn't cry for hours, as I did in 1997, nor do I have the radio stations of that area (WMVY) programmed on my car radio, refusing to take the preset off for a year.  (Of course, now I can listen to it online, and I recommend WMVY to you all.)  A little part of me wants those years back, though.

I tell you all -- get thee to Woods Hole.  Spend a day or a lifetime.  Let your curiosity take you where it will.  If you're like so many of us, it will take you to great places.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Tidepool Explorations: Where To

Maine offers hundreds of terrific spots to get your feet wet and explore tidepools.  Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites: 

Giant Steps, Harpswell

Giant Steps is one of my very favorite places to explore the intertidal ecosystem.  Looking out over the surf crashing on the ledges and islands of eastern Casco Bay, the site has it all -- a lovely walkway along the cliff, the spectacular "Giant Steps" themselves (a geologic wonder), and wave protected as well as wave exposed sites.  The wave protected site is particularly useful if you're working with students or children, and has some truly spectacular tidepools to explore at low tide.  The wave-exposed parts of Giant Steps should only be explored using great caution, on a very calm day.  These are excellent sites to observe intertidal zonation, however, which can be seen from the Giant Steps themselves. 

The one drawback to Giant Steps is the parking situation (you will notice a theme running through this post).  There is very limited parking, located at the tiny church on Washington Road (and none on Sunday mornings).  Visit in the off-season, or early in the morning or late evening.  Alternatively, park at Mackerel Cove and walk up to Giant Steps (~3/4 mile).  Do not attempt to park on the street.

BEST PLACE TO EAT AFTER EXPLORING:  Morse's Cribstone Grill, after a stop at Mackerel Cove for a photo shoot.  Make sure you check out the Cribstone Bridge too!

Park here -- at the church.

A very low tidepool.

What a spectacular ecosystem!

These are the Giant Steps.  Too bad I'm a not able to capture them with my inferior photographic skills.

The Steps, with distinct zonation below.
A little friend to find.

Potts Point, Harpswell

There's just so much to love about Potts Point.  At high tide, Potts Point is merely an island rising a few feet above the surface of Casco Bay.  At low tide, it offers tidepools, protected sand beaches, pocket marshes, wildflowers galore, and spectacular views of boats making their way through the cut between Merriconeag Sound and Potts Harbor.  One very interesting feature of this site is a shallow pool just to the east of the island with a very dense substrate, which is home to clams that can't burrow very deep.  You can easily observe their siphons, but you can't dig them out -- that's how hard the substrate is.  (I believe it's compacted detritus from an old salt marsh.  Very interesting.)  This is an outstanding place to explore with children, with minimal wave action but lots to see.

One of the charms of Potts Point is the walk from the parking area (near Dick's Crab and Lobster Company) to the preserve.  You'll pass traditional summer cottages, owned by generations of the same family.  In summer, kids will be racing around on land and sea, and "rusticators" will be enjoying their summer homes.  Again, there is limited parking.

BEST PLACE TO EAT AFTER EXPLORING:  I'm an absolute sucker for Dolphin Marina.  This family-run operation offers the best fish chowder in the state (aided by the huge blueberry muffin that comes with every serving). 

What a spot!  Wow.

An unusual chance to see clam siphons.

Sunset, anyone?

Amazing pocket marshes!

There are lots, and lots, of dog whelks.


Ocean Point, Boothbay

Last year, my students and I were doing some research at Ocean Point, when a woman from Germany started to chat with me.  She was on a month's holiday, and she'd been all over Maine, but she said after all that exploration, she wished she'd just stayed here the entire time.  I know exactly what she means.  This is a great place to walk along the shore, bring a lawn chair and sit for an afternoon, or enjoy the views of Monhegan and the other surrounding islands.  There is a public walk, maintained by the Ocean Point Association, and plentiful parking (miracle!).  This is another great spot to compare wave-protected sites to wave-exposed sites.  (In fact, that's exactly what my students do there every fall.)  At very low tide, there are some spectacular tidepools, full of seastars and crabs.  Use caution, of course, but enjoy the crashing surf on this peninsula. 

BEST PLACE TO EAT AFTER EXPLORING:  This is a tough one, as I've never eaten when visiting.  Any suggestions?

Ocean Point is an old summer colony.  The one percent "rusticate" here.
From the parking lot, walk to the east of the little cove.  Look for this sign.

Look at the distinct zonation apparent here.

A low tidepool.

Pemaquid Point, Pemaquid

This is one of the most spectacular, most photographed sites in the state.  The granite outcrops descending from the lighthouse are worthy of the cover of National Geographic.  But the tidepools are also a world-class resource.  Here you'll find tons of Littorina saxatilis, which thrive in the huge splash zone; tidepools full of pink coralline algae; and a variety of sea creatures.  In summer, there is a fee to park, but the lighthouse and museum are open, making it worth the price.  Bring a picnic and it'll be a fun-filled day.  This is a site where you should use extreme caution, as surf can be huge and impacts dangerous on this exposed peninsula.  If there are waves, come back another day.

BEST PLACE TO EAT AFTER EXPLORING:  Well, how could I resist the King Eider?  Their lentil burger is out of this world.

No wonder it's on our state quarter.

Barnacles and mussels dominate this pool.

Again, lots of zonation.  See the wide band of barnacles?

Rachel Carson Preserve, Edgecomb

Sometimes, there are heroes amongst us.  Rachel Carson was one of the great environmental heroes of the twentieth century, and like so many of us, she was inspired by Maine's spectacular coast.  Carson spent many a summer in nearby Boothbay Harbor, inspired by Maine's fog, waves, and sea creatures.  Her three books, Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea are classics, and well worth a visit to your local library for a check out.  The Rachel Carson Salt Pond Preserve, perched on the edge of Muscongus Bay, is the site where the great naturalist gathered material for the Edge of the Sea, and is today preserved in perpetuity by the Nature Conservancy of Maine (which, by the way, Carson helped found in the 1950's). 

The small tidepool at this site, merely a quarter acre, is the perfect place to introduce children to the wonders of the ocean.  At low tide, this is a site with virtually no waves, so is particularly safe.

BEST PLACE TO EAT AFTER EXPLORING:  If you've never explored New Harbor, just down the road, then a stop at Shaw's is a great idea.  New Harbor is working waterfront at its best, and lunch on the deck at Shaw's gives you a front row seat as lobstermen offload their day's catch. 

Park here.

The protected tide pool.

Schoodic Peninsula, Winter Harbor

Here's a little secret:  Acadia National Park is more than just Mt Desert Island.  So if you want to escape the crowds that flock to the island every summer, head on over to Winter Harbor, just east of Acadia.  There you'll find the Schoodic Peninsula -- still a part of the park, but much quieter.  From here you'll get a spectacular view of Mt Desert's summits across Frenchman Bay, and you can checkout some truly amazing tidepooling.  Three sites are worth a stop.  First, stop at West Pond, which is relatively protected from waves.  Here, you'll be able to find tons of crabs, seastars, urchins, and anything else your heart desires.  Schoodic Point is a spectacular stop -- but can be very dangerous.  As the National Park Service brochure tells us:  "The ocean views are spectacular, but the footing is dangerous -- people have died here.  Wet rocks are slippery, and waves can sweep you into the sea."  Let me reiterate:  PEOPLE HAVE DIED HERE.  So, don't be dumb.  Don't get too close to the edge and don't get near the shore if there are waves.  I don't want to read about you getting the next Darwin Award, got it?  A final stop for tidepooling is at Blueberry Hill.  Here, focus on the shallow sandy pool just west of the parking lot -- where you'll find sand dollars if you're lucky.  

At ALL these sites, watch the waves, and pay attention to the tides.  Go when the tide is going out, and skip the tidepools if the sea is angry.  Seriously.

A great place to find . . .


By the Blueberry Hill parking lot, you can find these guys in the big sandy pool.  Do NOT collect them, they are alive!