It's 3:30 am on June 29th 2012 and I blearily step into the cold, grey dawn. The air smells of brine and is inundated with the night-time noises I generally sleep through. Strapped into my hip waders, rain gear and several shirts, I clamber into a small skiff owned by the USDA with my mentor, Brett Dumbauld and our team-member Jessica. My name is Misti Zerbin, we are in Ocean Park at Willapa Bay for a four day field excursion and it's week one as an intern at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.
The ocean splashes up against my glasses as we bump along the waves in our tiny boat toward our first sample collection site. Today and for the next four days we will be sampling bags of oyster shells that were placed in 25 separate locations to monitor the presence and length frequency of dungeness crabs.
We are at our first site as the tides run out and our disembark zone is a relatively sandy (with a little mud) intertidal zone replete with oyster beds. The bag sites are entered into a GPS device and after we have anchored the boat, we pull all our equipment out and start trudging across the tide flats to our first location. Among our equipment we have: two box sieves, two quadrats, two buckets, a small aquarium net, some Ziploc bags, labels, a pencil and some write in the rain paper. With three people carrying the load it is swift and painless and soon we reach our first site.
The procedure is simple but time consuming. Each loose weave rope bag is full of oyster shells and has been left staked in the muddy sand to collect whatever organisms may use it as habitat. I fling the quadrat down onto the mud with the bag square in the center and proceed to pull up the metal rods that hold the bag in place. The sediment is cool and squishy, permeated strongly with the smell of brine and algae as I squelch to my knees, displacing the mud to each side of my thighs as if parting the red sea. Sitting on my haunches I work methodically, pulling the bag up from the sediment and plunking it into a box sieve. From here, the bag is either untied or slit open with Brett's cherry red pocket knife emblazoned with the red-cross symbol and the contents are dumped unceremoniously into the box. I swiftly dispatch the rope bag and move the box sieve to an area with at least a small amount of water so that I may rinse each shell and check it carefully for crabs.
My first crab practically jumps out of the bag as I dump the shells and I scoop it up to be deposited in a gallon sized ziploc baggy. Each crab is somewhere between 6 and 25 mm approximately so they could be easily missed if I am not careful. Once all of the shells have been rinsed and removed from the box sieve, I sift through the remaining sediment for any ninja crabs before returning to where my team-mate, Jessica is working. Whilst I have been diligently searching through shelled opalescence, Jess has been sorting through about 2mm of quadrat sediment that she scooped up bare handed and with her fishing net. She has also found some crabs though not as many--they seem to prefer the shell for their habitat-- and she deposits them into our first specimen sample.
We move to our second site on the same tidal flat which is further from our now nearly moored boat as the tide continues to swiftly run away from it's resting place and begin the process again. By the end of the first tide we have collected a total of 8 samples and I am absolutely filthy. The next part of our day involves processing the crabs we have collected. We count them, measure their carapace with calipers, record the data and then release the crabs back onto the flats near our lab in Ocean Park. As we sift through the detritus and sediment, I realize that what I thought was just mud and eel grass, is full of organisms that have been accidentally caught up in our crab samples. Long, muddy brown fish known as gunnels with a black stripe down their eye flop erratically, polychaete worms with seemingly a zillion legs wriggle through the mud, tiny translucent shrimp barely visible, lie still in the corner of the sample tray, drills--predatory snails that drill through oyster shells and eat the soft organisms inside--with their tiny pink feet and even hermit crabs which immediately begin to scuttle away, have been captured along with our intended targets.
Once our crabs have been processed and released, our day is over and we each turn in for a few hours of napping before dinner and then blessed sleep overcomes us before a new day begins. Each day is similar in method but oh so different in experience. Some of our sites are more mud than sand and require extra time with each step as I drag myself one mud-sucking step at a time to the next bag location. The bouts of rest between each site aboard the sciff are welcome not only for my weary feet but also for the amazing opportunity to observe every ounce of movement in this cornucopia of natural wild-life.
It is during one of these rest periods that I spot my first flock of Cormorants. Shiny and brownish black, I hear them before I see them. A soft whistling approaches behind me and then suddenly an immense flapping. I spin in my sopping wet swivel seat aboard the boat to witness a shimmering halo of birds. There must be 7 flocks of them. Swooping in two or three rows, they flap tirelessly above the water and are heading straight for me. I watch, fascinated as they lift up enough to fly nearly directly over me in their quest for the north. I find the direction odd and make a note to look into it later only to be surprised by a massive influx of even more Cormorants. I watch as an innumerable amount fly by, hardly deigning to notice one tiny human bobbing on the water. When it is done I realize that this experience alone has made the trip worth every ounce of mud-slogging.
Cormorants are not the only organisms I am treated to observing over the four days in our small boat: Powerful bald eagles swoop to the surface of the water and fly off with their trophies of fish, blue-grey herons stalk the shallows gracefully only to swoop into the air with a harsh, nearly human scream when startled, harbour seals pop up from under the surface of the water and then seemingly teleport away just as swiftly, terns and gulls flit overhead, oysters spit water at passers-by, sea sponges, clams, fishes, algae, sea grasses, dead man's fingers; each organism holding me mesmerized by it's unique properties.
At the end of our trip, as we pack up to leave I am exhausted and grateful to be heading back toward Newport. I am already looking forward to my next excursion with anticipatory hopes of more observations to add to my internal research notes. I stare up at the pregnant grey-black clouds and through weary eyes find patterns and shapes resembling the organisms I've seen. With a smile, I lean back in the large white truck we are taking to Hatfield, raise my sand-ridden hand to wave goodbye to my first foray into the field and settle in for the long ride back into the great grey yonder.