Editor's Note: William Gilly, a professor of cell and developmental biology and marine and organismal biology at Stanford University, is traveling with a group of students on board the Don José in the Sea of Cortez. The team is monitoring and tracking Humboldt squid and sperm whales in their watery habitats. This is the group's 10th and final blog post.
Gilly's Note: Our 2010 Holistic Biology field expedition has come to a close, and the class is now back at Hopkins Marine Station working up individual reports for a final symposium. But this is just academic formality, superficiality—our individual explorations have not ended. There is a deeper current that continues to flow after an experience like this, and this is the subject of our final post by Chris.
Some of us will pick up the blogging thread again starting next week, when Professor Gilly, two Holistic Biology students (Lauren B. and Liz) and a research technician (Ashley) will embark on a new expedition in the Gulf of California on the RV New Horizon where they will be studying jumbo squid as part of a collaborative study funded the National Science Foundation. Research teams led by Kelly Benoit-Bird (Oregon State University) and Brad Seibel (University of Rhode Island) will also be on board. Keep tuned.
SEA OF CORTEZ—Our class has disembarked from the Don José. Instead of dwelling on the meaning of nostalgic endings, I thought I would try a philosophical game inspired by one of Herman Melville's many can't-help-himself exclamations in Moby Dick.
After Ahab stares in reverie at the hanging head of a sperm whale, a symbol of his leviathan-haunted life, Melville writes, "O nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind." On reaching that point in the story, I looked up from my book and wondered. Could it be that everything in front of me was an analogy for what was going on inside me?
For the next week and a half in Monterey we will be analyzing data collected for our various projects. My game in this post is to find an analogy to the human experience in each of our projects.
Part of Krista's project on cetaceans in the Gulf involves correlating the location of sperm whales and squid-eating dolphins with evidence for El Niño-influenced changes in the physical properties of the Sea of Cortez… A vaguely understood atmospheric force, mythically named for a little boy, pushing massive mammals this way and that? Are there not ghosts and superstitions in our minds that emerge in certain seasons and push us out of the logical patterns of our lives?
Emilie and Molly are looking at the contents of squid stomachs. One of the main things they look for among the half-digested prey and bits of bone are the otoliths, or ear bones, of fish. From the structure of the otolith, they can identify the type of fish it came from... It might also be said that the most distinguishing characteristic of humans is their ears. How a man does or doesn't listen tells more about their character than any other piece of them could.
Luke and Becca's project on the feasibility of squid as a major food source in America takes into consideration the great range expansion of the Humboldt squid in the last two decades. Before the 1990's, you rarely found a jumbo squid off the coast of California; today they commonly range north to British Columbia and even southeast Alaska… John Steinbeck wrote in Sea of Cortez, "Men really need sea-monsters in their personal oceans," and like Humboldt squid in the Eastern Pacific, our own sea monsters move and spread and fluctuate through our thoughts. They are little understood, often boil up to the surface in nightmares, dreams, visions—and may be useful as mental food if we can just get over our fear of their taste and texture.
As a part of my project, I will be testing the pH (and ultimately metal contents) of soil samples from a decades-old acid-leeching field that was part of the copper mining operations in Santa Rosalia. The contents of the field were partially washed out to sea in a hurricane last fall. The acid-imbued tailings that resemble dried, lifeless mud, were strewn down through an arroyo to the edge of the Gulf, where they must have wreaked havoc on the marine life… How many of us have parts of our minds full of dirty secrets and poison, walled off and forgotten, that can suddenly flood out in a tempest of emotion?
Using our data from rocky-intertidal transects of invertebrates around southern Baja, Lauren L. hopes to see how see how species distributions have changed since previous Holistic Biology transects in 2006 and 2008—and how those compare to what Steinbeck and Ricketts saw at the same places in 1940. It was amazing how, after counting all the usual-suspect species in a half-meter square, we would lean closer and closer to the rocks and see more and more strange animals going about their lives… No matter what we look at—the cities around us, our families, ourselves—the longer we look the more we will see. It is impossible to see and understand everything.
Liz is looking at the aggressive behaviors of different color morphs of a clonal anemone, Anthopleura dowii. This connection promises to be straightforward. Beneath the main ring of tentacles—the ones used for pulling morsels of food into the mouth—lie the acrorhagi, or fighting tentacles, used only when attacking individuals of another clone...Do humans not also have, beneath their placid everyday faces, a row of acrorhagi ready to lash out at anyone who threatens or comes too close?
Lauren B. used the National Geographic Critter Cam to record interactions between coral-like zoanthids and brittle stars in a tide pool at Punta San Francisco. It seems that when food is in the water, the brittle stars will use their long, limber arms to block the open mouths of the less mobile, cuplike zoanthids… Will not humans also use any advantage they have to get what they want, even at the expense of others?
Lastly, by looking at CTD data from everywhere we went in the Sea of Cortez, Micki hopes to map the physical profile of the sea in what could be the beginnings of an El Niño year. Among other functions, the CTD device measures chlorophyll levels—indicative of the productivity of the water—by shining a small UV light into the dark water and measuring the fluorescence of chlorophyll molecules in phytoplankton… Even in the deepest, darkest places of the human experience, if we just look, we will find life all around. There is some flashlight part of us that seeks it out.
All interesting analogies; perhaps they are dark, but overwhelmingly the species we studied lived in a constant struggle for survival. But no matter what we draw out of our projects, we will do well to keep in mind the thoughts of John Steinbeck on the subject. In The Log from the Sea of Cortez, he writes:
"It is difficult, when watching the little beasts, not to trace human parallels. The greatest danger to a speculative biologist is analogy. It is a pitfall to be avoided—industry of the bee, the economics of the ant, the villainy of the snake, all in human terms have given us misconceptions of the animals. But parallels are amusing if they are not taken too seriously as regards the animal in question, and downright useful as regards humans."
Analogies between nature and human nature do not explain the things we look at; they explain us. This is what Melville and Steinbeck continually sought in their analogy-filled pilgrimages to the sea—connections to the normal logic of physical land were severed, replaced with a reflective voyage where science and the never-concrete logic of metaphysics meld.
When we journey, our scientific discoveries may expand the sphere of human knowledge, but our personal revelations are as deep as the currents that overturn the oceans.
Images courtesy of Chris Rurik