Writers’ Weir: A window into the sea

A nonfiction story by Rodger Painter.

The little whirlpools among the logs under the float house caught my eye. I was amazed to find tiny egg casings swimming in circles around a brilliantly white nudibranch with a yellow “mane.” There were dozens of the nudibranchs clinging to the float logs.

When we started working on our oyster gear on the other side of our small bay we discovered thousands of the “sea slugs” had migrated into our protected waters. While we regularly had small neon nudibranchs in our gear, these invaders were new to us.

The egg cases were clear square boxes. They were propelled around the adult by a small juvenile inside the casing. A week after I first spotted them there was no sign of the adults or juveniles. We never saw another of the “lion” nudibranchs, as we nicknamed them.

My oyster crew once reported a most unusual sight: hundreds of large worms with a serpent-shaped head swimming like the Loch Ness monster in our bay. The next day they had disappeared.

So I wasn’t too surprised years later to get a phone call from my friend Ray, who worked for me on the oyster farm I was developing for a Native corporation in Yakutat, excitedly telling me the crew had discovered why our site was named Sea Monster Bay.

They had seen thousands of large worms swimming around like they were miniature Nessies. When I got to the farm site the next day the worms were all gone.

It was a beautiful, flat calm, sunny day and as I cruised the gear I spotted the one worm who failed to disappear. It was moving very slowly. When I go closer, it was clear why. A flounder was closely following the worm, taking bites out of it. A dark red liquid flowed like blood from the worm.

I recognized the worm as some I had dug from the mud when digging for clams. When I returned to Juneau, I contacted the resident marine creature expert at the National Marine Fisheries Service who told me blood worms emerge from the mud to mate once a year.

Our small bay on Prince of Wales Island was a natural nursery. We were able to catch juvenile king, Dungeness and tanner crabs, but never an adult. Our oyster nets used to be filled with a wide variety of marine creatures.

I have had my hands in the ocean most of my life. My first fishing experience came when I was about seven when I spent the summer on my great-uncle Victor Kelly’s fish trap near Clam Gulch. While I quit commercial salmon fishing when I was 18, the sea kept calling me back

I was delighted when my wife, now ex, bought me an aquarium with a cooler for Christmas. It took about three months to get the system ready to start receiving animals. The aquarium had to be closely monitored for water quality and took a lot of time, but the results made it worthwhile.

My home ocean soon had a wide variety of marine life: a small king salmon, a blenny eel, shrimp, a sea anemone, a hermit crab, weathervane scallops and oysters. The sea fans I obtained from a local diver did not survive in the aquarium.

I once dropped in two neon nudibranchs, which the blenny gulped down before they hit the sandy bottom.

I missed the most dramatic survival on the fittest. My son and wife witnessed the hermit crab and anemone battle over a dead shrimp for hours. The anemone stretched to latch on to one end of the shrimp and the crab tugged the carcass the other way. The struggle ended when the crab was halfway inside the anemone and barely managed to escape.

The aquarium experience provided me a special window to the sea and greater appreciation of the marine environment and the life it supports.

• Rodger Painter can trace his Alaska roots to 1798 when an Aleut woman married a Russian trader. A former journalist, Painter was president of the Alaskan Shellfish Growers Association for about 20 years and was involved with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute for 39 years. He now is retired and lives in Douglas. The Capital City Weekly accepts submissions of poetry, fiction and nonfiction for Writers’ Weir. To submit a piece for consideration, email us at editor@juneauempire.com.

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