“The father has to carry the babies! How’s that for fair!?”
“Oooh, I love that! It’s just like with seahorses. Yeah, the father carries the babies and gives birth. That’s the way it should be!”
“Is that a male or a female?”
“I don’t know how you can tell. Maybe it’s on the video.”
A grainy, stretched, and threadbare excuse for magnetic tape, scrapes itself through the heads of world’s last remaining VHS player; barely translating a repeating copy of “Pregnant Papas” into visible light for public viewing. It’s almost Father’s Day, and the video display that we placed on exhibit for Father’s Day of the previous year is still spurring the same comments from any women who have ever considered having a child. Twelve months of barely concealed female chauvinism have protracted on behalf of a sliver of an animal who, it turns out, is a female. An unrolled cousin of seahorses, the last pipefish occupying the tank isn’t even a papa who could celebrate the miracle of fish-birth with the other mom/dads in his support group. This last lady bobs between the blades of eelgrass, unblinking, alone. Relying heavily on camouflage, the Bay Pipefish (Syngnathus leptorhyncus) is a greenish pencil-thin fish who spends most of its day hiding and pretending not to be a fish.
As with seahorses, pipefish ladies court the males and deposit hundreds of eggs into a special pouch on his abdomen, where he nurtures the young until they hatch. When the babies are ready to brave the “big water”, the pregnant papa flushes his pouch with seawater and ejects their myriad tiny bodies into independence, like drifting pocket lint. As with any pregnancy, male pipefish are simply famished by the time they pop out a few hundred munchkins. The keen observer would occasionally notice that our featured papa in the video display makes a startling slurp, bringing an abrupt end to one of his spindly offspring. The not-so-keen observer would also tend to notice this culinary indiscretion, since I can’t help but boldly point out those few glorious seconds to anyone within eyeshot of the video.
Our decrepit VHS player clatters through another fitful rewind, asserting that even in the best of times, non-profit science education runs on a tiny budget. With another Father’s Day bearing down upon us, it is time to collect some actual male pipefish for the tank. At this point, Pregnant Pappas is an institutional reality. Turning off the video and putting a different animal in the tank is tantamount to changing our last names. Our Aquarium Curator Peter organizes a trip to Elkhorn Slough, and invites Jen (MFJ) and I to come along and assist. It is early in our science education, and we quickly jump at any opportunity for new experience in the field.
In the boat yard at the labs, we pack up a Boston Whaler and a trawl net, fill in the float plan, and wait as Peter meticulously ponders every possible scenario of any potential mechanical failure, natural disaster, radio malfunction, or communicable disease that may befall us while we are within a few yards of shore and easy walking distance from help. Check the axel grease, test the batteries, check the radio, leave a phone number for your shore contact, double check the trailer hitch, pack an extra life vest, make sure the antenna is down, count the flares, test the outboard motor, secure the coolers… I have had the same training and understand the necessity, but I am eager for adventure. I grit my teeth in anticipation, waiting for Peter to work through his repertoire in order to get on the damn road. His penchant for overanalyzing is exactly the reason we bicker in that way that makes our relationship so deeply satisfying. I have yet to find the motivation for thorough planning, or even playing by the rules. Our daily quibbles are a loving flavor of irreverent sibling rivalry. I routinely poke my toe over any lines he draws in the sand, and he doesn’t fire me. Peter never misses a step or forgets a detail. His habit of mulling over every last possibility causes conversations with his undergrad student aquarists to stretch on into advanced degrees. Peter’s attention to detail is exactly why our acrylic tank windows look brand new after six years. It is also the reason that nothing goes wrong. Despite myself, I have to let him sort this out. He is my boss after all. When he finally completes his assessment of our gear, we are sure that disaster on this collecting trip is impossible. Calamity could only come from human error or a true wild card.
It turns out that an Ichthyologist and professor from the marine lab will accompany us to the slough. Giacomo Bernardi is a French biologist who specializes in the genetic relationships between fish species. He is lean and balding with a thick accent and exactly the sense of humor one would expect from a French biologist. Sex and death are cause for hilarity. His complete disregard for using language that might not imply bizarre innuendo has earned him true honor in the minds of many undergraduate students. Each Ichthyology class is accompanied by a student keeping a running log of Giacomo-isms. Giacomo has a freakish knack for avoiding disaster while engaging in ridiculous behavior with boats. A true conservationist in the vein of Jacques Cousteau, he is fond of pointing out the astounding beauty of some of the world’s rare fishes.
“Eef you evar ghet to experience thees fish, you will see zat eet ees ze most beautiful animal. Eet ees jus a gorgeous creature. In fact, only ze most rotten individual would eat somsing like zees. Seriously, only a very very bad person, would try to keel zees fishes to eat zem. But, eef you did, you would find dat, eet ees so delicious. Eet’s really really good to eat.”
Giacomo studies relationships between surf perches (Embiotocidae) and is hoping to collect a few in the trawls we are conducting today. I asked his advice on medicating a rockfish just days earlier. I had naively hoped to garner sage advice from a renowned fish expert. “I don’t sink zat I am so good at keeping zees feeshes alive. I would have to say, jus keel eet.” Peter, Giacomo, Jen and I pack into the truck and head off; confident that something should go wrong.
Elkhorn Slough is a tidal slough and estuary which extends roughly seven miles inland of Moss Landing harbor. Its vast tidal salt marsh provides important habitat to hundreds of species of animals including over 300 species of birds, sharks, rays, a dearth of sea otters, and a hearty helping of adorable harbor seals. The slough flourishes with nature aficionados, scientists, and tourists engaged in everything from bird watching and kayaking, to tagging sting rays. We launch the whaler from the ramp next to the kayak shop, and idle past the unusually large raft of otters that haunts the small beach inside the harbor entrance. We turn under the bridge and motor up the north side of the main channel to trawl the eel grass beds (Zostera marina) which provide important habitat for a host of cryptic fishes and invertebrates. The murky waters of the slough snake off to the East between muddy banks and the red tinged pickleweed. The seawater in the slough is replaced roughly every five hours. Water moves so fast through the narrow mud channels in the back of the slough that a person in a thick, buoyant wetsuit can ride along at a good clip simply by hopping in.
We continue our trip up the main channel to a Zostera bed that is just shy of the sleeping spotted sausage harbor seals hauled out at Seal Bend. It’s time to catch some pipefish. Trawl nets are basically a long net-sock that drag the mud, and catch anything living within a few inches of the bottom. The whaler is too small to use a rear a-frame for trawling, so MFJ and I cleat the lines for the trawl net inside the gunwales of the boat. Giacomo doesn’t hesitate to stand in as entertainment. He hoists the bulk of the net over his head exclaiming, “I will be ze a-frame!” Our first few trawl sets yield a couple of pipefish, a deep forest-green Cabezon, and a rubber-lipped surf perch the size of my head. Giacomo takes some fin clippings from the perch before it goes into the cooler for transport. He will use the samples for genetic profiling. The water is thick with silt and we can only see the uppermost tips of the eelgrass. Along the sets, we continue to snag the occasional submerged branch or rock. In order to keep the contents of the net from escaping its mouth, Peter motors through, hoping to pull free of the snags. Each new underwater snare evokes an outcry of ill wishes toward charismatic mega fauna from Giacomo.
“Ooh, I ope eet’s a baby seal! Jus keep goeeng!”
“Zees time, I yam sure eet ees an endangered otter. Zey are so cute when zey are drowned een ze net.”
Shortly after we begin our fourth trawl, Peter notices that the cooling water that should be flowing from the side of the engine has stopped. Fearing that the engine may overheat without water flowing through it, he begins to slow the boat. Giacomo asks Peter what he is doing, “Jus keep goeeng!” We’ve moved into very shallow water, and it’s becoming clear that the water intake on the engine is probably clogged with the prolific bright green sea lettuce. With placid refrain, Peter explains to Giacomo that the engine is no longer peeing water and that it will overheat. This conversation unfolds just as we feel the propeller churn through gravel and mud.
“No, no! Jus keep goeeng, or we will loose ze net.”
Peter is a kind man. He meticulously explains again that the boat will overheat and we will be stuck in the slough. All we need to do is stop and remove any algae that may be stuck on the intake so that we can get out. With the grinding sound of rocks on metal blades, Peter thinks we are too shallow and damaging the propeller as well.
“No, no! Jus keep goeeng! We are scientists! Ozer people fix ze boat!”
Peter’s calm becomes statuesqe as his face flushes red. The little vein that is the harbinger of a murderous tirade of expletives peeks out from his forehead. Not a muscle in his face moves as he draws a long inhale. The whaler slows dramatically, and time with it as MFJ and I exchange a knowing glance. Our silent raised eyebrows practically scream, “Crap! We’re the help. We’re going to have to paddle this broken boat a mile and a half back out of the slough!” Giacomo becomes frustrated by the loss of our unseen catch from the trawl net. “No, no, no, zey are getting away!” Peter manages to keep his neck from rolling as he unleashes an unusually enunciated repeat of his previous explanation to a highly respected friend and scientist. Jen and I silently fold into the corners of the boat like abused children. We hate it when daddy and daddy fight.
Peter orders his employees to clear the engine intake in crisp tones. We hold our breath as we comply. It was just clogged with sea lettuce. A simple brush-off and we grind our way back out of the shallows toward the open channel. Another net set, and we find the extra pipefish papas we are hoping to collect. Father’s Day will be saved, and no actual baby seals were injured in the process!
We hardly speak on the drive home. We return the whaler to the boat yard and begin to unload our gear. Giacomo packs his perch and heads off into the super-scientist sunset, leaving Peter, Jen, and I to gaze embarrassed at the polished and gravel-grated propeller. Boat yard employees begin to notice the scratches and gather with a look of consternation at the poor shape in which we have returned the propeller.
Dave finally finds his way out of his office in the boat yard and asks if we couldn’t have avoided driving a floating vessel onto land.
“No, no. We’re scientists. Other people fix the boat.”