Journal Entries from Sara Grady, Who is Studying Horseshoe Crabs
on Cape Cod
Sara Grady is pursuing her doctorate at the Boston University Marine Program in Woods Hole, MA. For the past two years, she has studied horseshoe crabs on Cape Cod. This summer, Sara will be conducting surveys of two estuaries in the Cape Cod region — Barnstable Harbor and Stage Harbor — as well as a fecundity study in Pleasant Bay and the aforementioned estuaries. She will try to update this journal every week.
BY Sara Grady
Field work always requires much more preparation than you realize, usually because obstacles seem to arise with every effort. I spent most of this week preparing for the second part of my study, the surveys of Barnstable and Stage Harbors. The research plan involves gridding out the estuaries with points spaced evenly, 500 meters apart. At each point I stretch out a transect tape (essentially a huge measuring tape) and search one meter to either side for 100 meters. Then, I rake the same 2 meters by 100 meters swath to unbury any crabs that are hiding in the sediment. All crabs found are placed into the “crab basket,” which consists of a laundry basket that sits inside a life ring, which is attached to a rope that gets secured around my waist. By the end of the summer my legs get very strong from spending multiple days a week walking through waist-deep water dragging a tub full of crabs. The collected crabs are then measured along the widest part of their prosoma. Horseshoe crabs have three sections: the prosoma is in front and is curved like a horseshoe, hence the name; the triangular part in the back is called the opisthosoma; and, finally, the “tail” that frightens the uninformed is called the telson. As I regularly tell children on the beach, it’s not a stinger, and they’re certainly not trying to stab you in the foot.
Anyway, before the wading and measuring could happen, I had to get the aluminum boat back into shape. We call our three feeble but hardy boats “the aluminum boat,” “the skiff,” and “the Bluefin.” I wish my labmates were more creative with these sorts of things… isn’t it bad luck to leave a boat nameless? Anyway, I was assigned the aluminum boat because it is the only boat that can travel to other estuaries via trailer without upsetting anyone. The other two boats stay in a single estuary, Waquoit Bay, as an unspoken rule.
The aluminum boat was being kept under a tarp at the estuarine reserve, and nobody knew who had used it last, or even when it had been used last. It sat in a row of other boats under the trees, next to what I assume was some sort of garage. Kicking the trailer tires and finding them to be in good shape, I was feeling good about the boat, and it inspired images of myself at the stern, tan and smelling of sunscreen, cruising across sparkling bays. I sliced through the various pieces of twine and rope that had successfully held the tarp down through quite a few nor’easters and uncovered… carpet. The boat was carpeted. It wasn’t even the AstroTurf sort of carpeting one might put in a mud room, but some sort of small berber, the kind that tends to be found in people’s basements. Of course, it’s a boat, so it regularly gets wet, thus making carpet perhaps the stupidest thing to put inside it. The carpet was not only moldy and covered with some algae, it had plants growing in it — little clovers and grasses.
Truthfully, I wasn’t all that concerned about the carpet. Once enough salt water gets on it, all the plants will die, the sun will take care of the mold, and enough sand will be ground in to abrade it clean. What I cared about was having a functional boat. Quite a few spiders crawled out of the engine when I uncovered it, and I had no idea if it would run. It is water cooled, so it needs to at least be partially submerged. It would be a huge pain to put it in the estuary, and have it leak. Brendan, a fellow graduate student, and I dragged a trash can over to the engine, filled it with water, and hoped for the best. It didn’t sputter, cough, hack, or do anything that engines do before they miraculously spring to life. We tried over and over, pushing buttons that didn’t seem to do anything, pulling harder and harder on the cord. The flywheel spun with the pull cord, and that was pretty much it. There wasn’t much more we could do, so we dropped it off at “The Boat Guy” (the actual name of the boat repair place), and I prepared for the possibility that I might have to drive to beaches and marinas in order to access my sites. I need to buy myself a new street map, since the one I used last year is salt-encrusted and missing pages.
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