April brought buckets of rain, but the frequent downpours could not shake the feeling of being in a constant drought; I lost touch with the ocean. It lacked any sort of tangible presence in my world over the last few months. Without the sea, I started to feel out of touch with myself.
I found my way back on April 26th.
Early Friday morning, big, gray clouds rolled in over Henniker with promises of rain. I sat on my bright red duffle bag waiting on the Simon Center porch, slumped over and coffee deprived. A few minutes passed before the eyesore that is the NEC shuttle bus pulled up; doors fluttered open to a beaming Professor Geoff Cook and Professor Elizabeth Harper.
Students in Geoff Cook’s Introduction to Marine Biology course were in for a three-day trip to the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine. Over the next 72 hours, the class would live and work as marine scientists; our lives would be completely dictated by the lunar cycle as it ruled the tides over the course of the trip.
The Darling Marine Center is a three-hour bus ride from Henniker. The mini-road trip was not dull and consisted of Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5, Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off, and my number one guy, Dave Grohl. The shuttle bus cruised onto the Maine campus to Radiohead’s Weird Fishes; a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Within minutes of getting off the bus, everyone huddled in the parking lot and a wardrobe change ensued. We shrugged into raincoats and stepped into tall, clunky, forest green chest waders; a few students braved the thigh waders, which were referred to as leg condoms. No time was wasted before making a short walk down a grassy path to our first adventure. Blades of dewy green opened to a long stretch of mud upon Lowes Cove, known as the mudflats.
Low tide: 11:32 am (0.9 ft.).
The mudflats began with rocks, shells and boatloads of periwinkles. As I made my way further, I passed long, hair-like strands of algae peppered with kidney bean shaped air bladders before encountering full-fledged mud. Clomping through the mudflats was a street fight. The mud was thick, deep and wanted to eat everyone, everyone except Geoff and Elizabeth, who spent a lot of time saving unsuspecting undergraduates with heavy boots.
Despite gravity working against us, exploring the anoxic mudflats was exciting. Digging around with shovels and bare hands to collect specimen in big, white buckets was a level up from making mud pies as a kid. Time passed and the buckets grew populated with algae, hungry bloodworms, clamworms, swirling amphipods, friendly periwinkles and an assortment of shells. The more I collected, the more I found myself and the once forest green chest waders painted with layers upon layers of cakey, stinky mud.
High tide: 17:44 (8.2 ft.).
As the tide came in, we hauled our buckets of specimen back to flow-through saltwater tanks in the McAlice classroom. From there, we hosed leftover mud off waders, boots and raincoats before heading back to the classroom to examine the specimen we collected along with sediment and water samples taken from Lowes Cove. The class spent a lot of time in the lab getting up close and personal with microscopes, marine organisms and field guides. There was never a time where I wasn’t being beckoned over to the flow-through saltwater tank or shown a live marine organism under a dissecting scope. Barnacles waved through the ocular lens with outstretched cirri, copepods soared around glass dishes and sea stars tube feet seemed to move in slow motion in a mesmerizing fashion. The energy in the lab was contagious and the curiosity was endless.
After dinner, students presented their marine habitat presentations with a final burst of energy. Waves of exhaustion hit as presentations came to an end. Students shuffled back to their rooms to rest up before another early morning. I had trouble falling asleep, my mind still buzzing from the day.
High tide: 05:55 (8.7 ft.).
Saturday started at 7am and so did the rain. Breakfast was pancakes, hot cups of “Jamaican Me Crazy” coffee and discussions of what the day held. The morning was a blur, visiting the lab briefly to peek at microbial cultures. Around 9 am mud scarred boots boarded the NEC bus and snacked on day old, Boston creme donuts to travel a short way to Pemaquid Point, home to the rocky intertidal zone.
Before taking a seat, Pat Anderson, a senior majoring in Environmental Science said, “It’s a great day for a day.”
The rain let up and scattered blotches of blue sky blended out from the clouds. The ocean roared in, waves ripping through the rocky shoreline and crashing into big bursts of saltwater supernovas, a taste of what the marine organisms residing along the rocky intertidal endure constantly.
Rocks were showered with seawater. Lugging around a specimen collection bucket in one hand and a field guide in another, everyone mastered the art of balancing and exploring the saltwater splashed environment. Despite the harsh conditions inflicted on the rocky intertidal, marine organisms adapt. Thriving were big, blue mussels anchored tight to substrate with strong, silky fibers called byssal threads. Shy periwinkles clustered together, taking shelter in small pools of water between the indents of rocks. The same familiar algae seen in the mudflats gripped to the slippery rocky substrate by the holdfast. Barnacles clung to the shells of periwinkles or bonded alongside parts of the rocky intertidal. The waves kept rolling in as we rolled out with cold hands and seawater-soaked boots, traveling back to the Darling Marine Center with marine life riding shotgun.
Low tide: 12:28 (1.2 ft.).
Upon returning, we had free time to thaw out, freely explore the grounds of the Darling Marine Center, and spend time observing and identifying specimen we collected. I spent as much time as possible soaking in these experiences, careful not to miss out on anything. By 2:30 pm, it was pissing down rain and the wind picked up just in time to board the boat. Any chance of mascara surviving was slim to none.
Trudging out to a small shack near the river, Elizabeth passed out personal flotation devices (PFD’s). Zipping and buckling the unflattering, dingy orange PFD’s over raincoats and waders under the minimal coverage of tree branches and cold rain was a struggle. Captain Robbie bustled through our dysfunctional PFD party. Initially, Robbie seemed closed off and intimidating as he led us down to the dock. We stepped onto the R/V Ira C. research vessel, modeled after a traditional Maine lobster boat that is equipped for research and teaching opportunities.
As the boat took off, it became clear that Robbie was knowledgeable about the coastal areas of Maine. More importantly, he was willing to share his knowledge. The intimidating front seemed to dissolve the more Robbie interacted with us; he talked us through the surrounding environment, pointed out seals bobbing their heads behind the waves and shared binoculars to view an eagle’s nest. We cruised out toward The Narrows to perform a dredge and plankton tow; Robbie demonstrated how and we willingly lent him an ear.
The rain did not quit, yet many students braved the wind and rain on the deck. Sifting through marine organisms we collected from the dredge with numb hands was difficult but equally exciting, finding dozens of sea stars the size of quarters, pinching crustaceans and spending time staring into a bucket full of plankton and tiny, transparent moon jellies. Geoff took rounds of selfies to boost morale and was just as excited about every tube footed sea star and jelly sea anemone as we were. Although the weather was poor, we all made the best of it.
High tide: 18:42 (8.1 ft.)
The R/V Ira C. brought us back to the docks after a long trip and we brought our collections back to the classroom. The evening was full of more presentations; afterward the curiosity was still alive. A handful of students, including myself, ventured back to the classroom until well past 10 pm; it was like being in Disney World after hours. Killian Mills, an Environmental Studies major, joined the group saying, “It’s 11 pm and I chose to come to lab because I am having so much fun.”
We looked at water samples containing marine diatoms, plankton and copepods. They were all alive and soaring around microscope slides. Their energy matched ours.
Low tide: 13:25 (1.3 ft.)
Sunday afternoon, we all met up at the docks, choosing to spend our last bit of time as close to the water as we could get.
The sea is a long leap from NEC. A small piece of it lives in a 29-gallon tank in the lab on campus. Marine Biology students worked throughout the semester to build a saltwater aquarium with Geoff’s guidance. It is thriving with live rock and awaiting grazers.
While the tank is a small piece of the ocean, it is incomparable to the real thing.
Geoff noted, “Until you’re in the salty air, being sprayed by seawater, and hearing the bird screech, it doesn’t sink in.”
Our time at Darling weaved its way into my heart. The excitement, curiosity and happiness I felt on that trip was incomparable to any other experience I have had at NEC so far. I grew up with saltwater and sandy beaches, visiting the ocean and watching a strange magic unfold among strangers that has become a recurring pattern.
I relayed this to Geoff after the trip, expressing how much I already miss being close to the sea, and asked him what he took away from the trip.
“I wanted students to develop a deeper connection to the ocean in way that was real and meaningful. To spark curiosity and desire to explore. To get outside their comfort zone, because the rewards in doing so are remarkable. The trip reaffirmed the power that the ocean has in capturing the imagination and hearts of people.”
Geoff smiled and said, “It only took a weekend away.”