Thursday, May 30, 2013

Time and Tides

[Do you break in your brand-new shoes by soaking them in seawater twice in one day because you misjudged the waves? Me too!]

This past Memorial Day weekend marked the second year that the Limulus Gang—Annie, six of our friends, and I—traveled to Lewes, DE for a weekend of lounging, beach-combing, and spying on mating horseshoe crabs. Because Annie and I also brought along our new(ish) dog, Earnestine, who has some anxiety issues around people who aren’t us, our peaceful weekend was regularly punctuated by panicked barking directed at friends she had only met 17 or 20 times (sorry, guys).

Nevertheless, it was a pleasant and fruitful trip, and the weekend luckily coincided with the full moon—the time of highest high tides—and thus the optimal situation for horseshoe crabs to feel romantic.

As you—as everyone—should already know, each year in late spring horseshoe crabs come ashore with the evening high tides to mate: males clasp onto females, who burrow into the damp sand and release their eggs, which are then fertilized by the clasping male and, potentially, by “satellite males” that cluster around the mating pair. Delaware Bay hosts the largest concentration of these ancient-looking arthropods, and it just so happens that their peak spawning occurs near Memorial Day.

Friday was cold and blustery and full of rain, but Saturday night was clear and calm: the perfect weather for arthropod voyeurism.

Last year (our first year as marine peeping Toms) we had seen a decent number of horseshoe crabs dotting the beach. This year, they were everywhere. And, while last year some of them shied away from our flashlights, this year they were too taken with the thrill of their moment(s) of intimacy to pay us any attention.

They were present en masse, with some areas of the sand carpeted with huge groups of lustful invertebrates. In fact, it was rare to see a mating pair without a retinue of satellite hangers-on—and the arthropods were so intent upon their orgiastic activities that separate mating groups would sometimes plow into one another.

I took a good number of photos (say, 100 or so) of the animals while my fellow Limulus Gang members obligingly trained flashlights on the seething mass of mating merostomates—but we weren’t only oglers: we had a higher purpose.

Often horseshoe crabs coming to shore will be flipped over by the waves, and if they’re unable to right themselves, they’re doomed to be abandoned by the tides and left to die a desiccated death.

Like the heroes of old, we stepped in, turning over the struggling creatures to let them mate again another day. We even developed a streamlined technique for tilting them by their carapace (avoiding their fragile tails!) so that they sensed the movement and were able to smoothly finish the job themselves—thus giving them a sense of agency as well as a new lease on life.

The rest of the weekend was spent in typical beach-house fashion: eating potato salad and hot dogs, drinking, watching Barbarella, discussing the possible religious beliefs of dinosaurs’ intelligent descendants had the asteroid not hit, etc.

For me, though, there was a certain melancholy element to the weekend, even amidst the revelry. For one thing, vacation time always passes twice as quickly as normal time, so even as you enjoy it you know just how fleeting it is.

For another, one of the gang will be moving to Massachusetts this fall, and the knowledge of that move cast a shadow on the proceedings, a reminder that all things change. They have to, of course, and much as we’ll miss her, we’ll wish her the best, and hope to have her join us next year at the beach. But… it won’t be the same. What will?

That’s why I’m especially grateful that we were able to witness and document this ritual of renewal under the full moon, reminding us of what persists even as it alters. And as summer’s swelter gives way to fall, and the dark nights of winter, and the fresh sap of spring, I’ll be able to remember the part we played in the ritual, rescuing its participants so that they could return for another year, and another year, and another after that.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


biobabbler said...


Normally I don't like photographs of moving water and slow shutter speeds (I love the idea but my eyes are dying for something to focus on), but your last shot of the horseshoe crab works for me. Perhaps 'cause said crab is in focus. And I love the contrasting texture: foamy soft water, crusty immovable crab.

When I worked at a park in the Pacific NW a group of 4 of us totally clicked and had a great time, but because a major thing we had in common was that we were all gypsies, we knew it wouldn't last. And I was the first to leave. Bittersweet. At least parting is only difficult because your acquaintance has been sweet. =) xoxo

Marly Youmans said...

Rambled through a bunch of your pictures, Olivia, and much enjoyed them! Shall come back again.

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