Sunday, March 13, 2016

Chocolate sauce and ice balls

B-B-Ching! My phone sounded its three-part tone to indicate a new text message. I checked the screen. It was my labmate, Caitlin.

"So we're keeping the original tidepooling plan" her text read, "South Cove at 7:30 am. If the weather looks too bad, we'll head back to the docks. The kitchen is serving French toast with raspberry jam and chocolate whipped cream and bacon for breakfast, and we are welcome to join them at 7 if we want. I would like breakfast if you're ok with that. Can you pick me up at 6:45?"

Dark skies, bright faces. Photo by Carly Salant.
Oh, Caitlin, dearest Caitlin, would I, your valiant and enthusiastic labmate, pick you up at 6:45 am for breakfast and tide pooling? Would I brave the gray morning with you for the sake of science education? Would I withstand the punishing wind, the dangerously high surf, for the sake of the intertidal? Would I even arrive early to partake of morning nourishment?

Let's just say you had me at "chocolate whipped cream."

A group of undergraduate students from a college in Connecticut spent this weekend at OIMB as part of their survey of North American coastlines. It's an annual trip, and OIMB grad students are always more than happy to show them our beloved intertidal, even when the weather disagrees with us.

Of course the outdoor conditions in Oregon this time of year are never exactly pleasant, but for some reason, today was particularly nasty. We arrived at Cape Arago's South Cove to find gray skies, high surf, and gusts of wind strong enough to make you lose your balance. But did it stop us? Of course not. We marched straight down the muddy, washed-out trail, scrambled our way over the slippery, barkless driftwood, and arrived at the beach. We split up into small groups to explore, and I've got to tell you guys, there was even a girl in my group with one foot in a walking cast. She won the Hardcore Award for the day.

Gumboot chiton. Photo by Carly Salant.
One neat thing about the high surf is that it drew a number of organisms into the low intertidal that are usually only found at subtidal depths. We found a number of Henricia, a skinny-armed orange sea star, that I've only ever seen below the water line. I'm guessing they crawled up on the rocks at high tide, not knowing where they were because the surf was so high.

Another cool organism we found today was a gumboot chiton, Cryptochiton sp. They're in the same phylum as snails and clams, and you can see the large muscular foot on their under-side (the orange part in the middle, see photo). Chitons usually have hard plates on their backs, but in Cryptochiton, the hard plates are grown over by thick, leathery skin (the red  part).

It was all going just fine until the rain started, but even that wasn't such a big deal. This is Oregon, after all - rain is par for the course. But then came the hail. Then came bigger hail. And even bigger hail. In the end, we were being pelted with ice-balls a good 3/4" (1.5 cm) across, and let me tell you, those puppies sting! We all turned our backs to the wind and tried to withstand the pain. The hail cloud eventually passed, leaving us to happily explore in the sunshine again, but it was obvious from the sky that a second wave of ice-balls was coming our way.

It was time to give in, retreat towards the cliff trail, and seek shelter. When we finally made it back to the cars, I was surprised to find we had been out there for a whole two hours - I guess time flies when you're exploring biodiversity. Just for fun, check out the video below, made by two OIMB grad students, Carly and Caitlin, at the height of the hail storm. The sea star in the instructor's hand is Henricia.

Oh yeah, it was a great morning.

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