A Few Days in Woods Hole

If you’re going to go to Woods Hole, do what we did and go in October. The weather is beautiful, the tourists are few, and the scientists are active.

During a recent three-day field trip to Woods Hole, I and my fellow fellows had a chance to hold a solid gold Nobel prize, talk to a dozen or so scientists about their work, cruise Buzzard’s Bay where we netted a variety of small oceanic creatures, eat fresh oysters and whole lobsters, peek at tanks of octopuses, squids, and toads, and tour the Neil Armstrong research vessel.

We started out our venture with a little beachside snack: fresh oysters.

As the author of several books about oysters, Rowan was able to produce a hefty bag of several dozen of the local variety. After picking up some beer and wine, it was time to shuck on the beach.

Rowan Jacobsen shows associate director David Corcoran how to shuck one without serious injury. (To the shucker that is; the oyster is, alas, fatally harmed.)

Shucking oysters isn’t for the faint of heart. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the knife slipping and plunging into the palm of your hand, slicing nerves and tendons along its merry way.

Rowan explained to us that oyster hearts still beat after shucking. I didn’t look closely enough to see.

One of the fellows brought avocados to our oyster fest. We decided that oyster shells are perfect for scooping out the avocado. So if it becomes a thing, you can thank us for it.

Rowan has a wonderful description of oysters in his book, “The Essential Oyster.” He says a good oyster smells like the sea breeze skipping over the shore. A bad oyster smells like a murder victim. These were good oysters.

We ended up not eating all of the oysters Rowan brought, so he quietly returned the extras to the sea. Have fun, lucky ones!

A sunset regatta breaks out on Buzzards Bay, between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard.

Once the tourists are gone, but before the winter winds pick up, it’s not hard to see the attraction of living here.

We stayed at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Institute, which is operated by the University of Chicago. (Of course.) The dorms sit right on the harbor.

Woods Hole is located right on the “elbow” of Cape Cod, making it a boater’s paradise, but also perfect for research, since the Gulf Stream passes nearby. This gives scientists all kinds of opportunities to study currents, climate change, and a wide variety of marine life.

In the morning, we loaded onto the research vessel, The Gemma, for a marine life tour of Buzzards Bay.

The harbor is penned in by a small drawbridge that raises according to a set schedule. Miss the window and you’ll just have to wait. Luckily, we made it out in time.

Fellows and KSJ staff brace for the chop.

The plan was to cruise the bay and trawl for some of the larger marine life on the sea floor. Because several people were getting seasick, we abandoned that plan.

A member of the crew has tossed out a net for the boat to drag through the water.

With the trawling plan abandoned, we switched to a mesh net that captured all many of small organisms.

Captured in the net is a small collection of the food that feeds giants: plankton.

After pouring out “catch” into a tub, our guide filled a small jar with the water and organisms we pulled out of the bay.

Hard to imagine whales are able to subsist on these tiny creatures. But, to paraphrase Tip O’Neill, a billion here and a billion there and soon you’re talking real food.

A blue whale eats about nearly four tons of plankton a day. That’s a lot of these jars.

The net even captures slightly larger creatures, like this small jellyfish.

Another predator for plankton, jellyfish, like this small fella.

Fellows Rowan and Wole look at the Neil Armstrong research vessel, which is used for a variety of missions, including launching and servicing ocean-monitoring buoys.

While we were out, the research vessel Neil Armstrong returned to port after being at sea for several months. As enormous as it is, it pulled up to the dock as easily as a self-parking Tesla.

Back on land, we toured labs and libraries. In this several-hundred-year-old book, the author draws creatures real and theorized.

Our time in Woods Hole consisted of a series of talks, tours and presentations. Among them was a stop in an old research library that contained books dating back nearly 1,000 years. This one, featuring beautiful woodcut drawings, exquisitely detailed fish and other animals voyagers had come across — and some they certainly had not.

We even got to hold a solid gold Nobel Prize.

Since 1980, the Nobels stopped being made out of 23 carat gold and are now 18 carat with 24 carat plating. The one dates from well before 1980.

Fellow Sujata takes aim at an octopus.

The Marine Biological Institute has an extensive lab devoted to cephalopods, which include octopuses, cuttlefish and squid.

It was almost as if the octopus wanted to pose for us.

Different tanks are outfitted with home-security cameras so that scientists — and the public — can keep watch on them 24/7, with the idea of monitoring their behavior. See for yourself.

A scientist selects octopus eggs to place in a basket in hopes to raising them to maturity.

The scientists are hoping to use octopuses as a standard research animal, much the way some mice or zebrafish are.

The transparent octopus eggs reveal tiny embryos that will soon hatch.

The research is currently focused on developing the best, more reliable process for mass-producing octopuses for research. That includes picking the right species.

Eventually, the hatched embryos will grow into these striped octopuses.

Octopuses are incredible creatures for lots of reasons. Among them: multiple hearts, they learn from each other, they use tools to hunt with, they can change color and shape, and they can regenerate limbs.

Being a cephalopod lab, there are also tanks of cuttlefish. As this one swam around the tank, its skin rapidly changed color to match the color and texture of the objects above and below it.

Still images don’t do these creatures justice. Watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgDE2DOICuc

Hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of tanks hold tens of thousands of Xenopus frogs used for research.

You might think a basement with hundreds of tanks containing thousands of frogs doesn’t smell great. You’d be right.

This is another “standard” research animal. Each tank holds dozens of these animals. They all float as in suspended animation.

It’s kid of eerie seeing these animals. They look dead the way they float. And then once in a while their legs suddenly twitch and they change position, only to settle back into what appears to be a catatonic state. It’s even more eerie with their glazed eyes and Cuckoo’s Nest grin.

Scientists give toads hormones to stimulate ovulation to create the next generation of research animals.

Because these are research animals, breeding is tightly controlled through hormonal injections. The Xenopus actually used to be the primary pregnancy test.

Frog eggs, as viewed through a microscope, can be studied and manipulated as research requires.

Through genetic engineering, the frogs can be used to study a wide variety of human diseases.

Woods Hole is home to multiple research centers. The Oceanographic Institute is working on ocean-monitoring buoys, which are deployed all around the world.

Climate change was a constant topic during our tours. Monitoring the oceans is a key part in understanding the change that is ongoing. Enormous buoys help make that possible.

Each buoy is enormous and enormously complicated. They are anchored to the sea floor, in many cases, but just in case one gets away and wanders off, it includes a “note” for anyone who finds it.

There are variety of buoys, depending on the situation, but these stand 30 feet tall or higher. The engineering required to keep them in place and functioning is nontrivial. Occasionally they break free — or, in some cases, are torn away from their moorings by passing ships.

The Neil Armstrong, bathed in evening light, goes out for months at a time.

Deploying and serving the buoys is the job of the Neil Armstrong. During our tour of the ship, I was delighted by seeming small details, like the fact that most of the decks have threaded holes every couple of feet in a grid pattern, allowing the crew to reconfigure and bolt down equipment as necessary. Crafty.

On the bridge of the Neil Armstrong, you gain an appreciation for the knowledge and skill (and teamwork) it must take to captain this massive machine.

The bridge stands several stories over the dock, and is filled with all manner of touch screens and navigation computers, as well as paper charts and brass instruments. History and technology working together.

You don’t often get a over-water sunset on the east coast. This counts, right?

We saw much more than I’m including here, such as presentations on kelp farming, 3D printing marine robots, and research on wetland protection. It’s striking the variety of science being done at Woods Hole, and encouraging that so many smart people are working on the problems we face. But at the same time, it’s somewhat depressing that there is such a need for the science to be so focused on mitigating the effects of humans on our planet.

Woods Hole isn’t so remote so as to make the night sky pop out, but it’s good enough to see the Milky Way.

Walking back from dinner, I noticed that as we got away from the small strip of street lights, the night sky emerged and the Milky Way just barely made its presence known. So I got into my car and found the darkest spot possible to tease out a little more of the night sky.

The fellows gather for the obligatory group shot.


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