I’m a girl that likes to know what she’s looking at.
I have a degree in biology, and I’ve spent the past few summers exploring Eastern North America, learning about the wildlife there. Those trips left me with an urge to identify every interesting plant, animal, or mineral I see, so that I can play the role of Madame Know-it-all the next time I see it.
When I’m on a hike, I want easy access to a field guide, or better yet, an expert naturalist—that way I don’t have to remember how to use those complicated identification keys in field guides
But last week, I found myself resource-less. I was on a poorly planned and hastily packed road trip down the West Coast of California. No National Geographic bird guide, no Peterson guide to trees, no National Audubon book of reptiles and amphibians
I braced myself for a lot of hikes, wandering clueless through the wild, with nary an opportunity to prove my biological superiority to my traveling companion.
For the first few days, I had it easy.
Those giant trees in Redwood National Park were giant redwoods (I guess). Interpretive signs on the beach at Monterey Bay helped me figure out the difference between the seals and sea lions out on the rocks.
Then came Santa Cruz, and the beach with thousands of little aberrations. No field guide. But at least I had a camera.
Even if I had a university library at my disposal, I wouldn’t know what field guide to look in. I was raised inland, and these coastal beasts were entirely outside of my frame of reference.
My first (extremely uneducated) guess was razor clams, something I’d never seen, but had heard lived on the West Coast. I assumed were named for their sharpness. That little flap sticking up from my mystery creature looked like a jagged piece of broken glass.
“Don’t take your shoes off on this beach!” I yelled to my companion. “There are razor clams everywhere!” I chose to disregard the fact that the tiny monster didn’t seem to have a shell, or resemble a clam in any way.
The razor clam theory was tossed after one touch. The flaps feel a lot like rubber, and nothing like razors. (Later, I’d discover that razor clams aren’t actually razor-sharp, they’re just shaped like old-fashioned straight razors. Whoops.)
Well then, I reasoned, what about that dark blue stuff along its edges? Looks a bit like ink, and the only thing I could think of that produces ink is a squid. Unfortunately, these little guys didn’t have any visible legs or tentacles. Lucky for me, I’d kept my mouth shut this time.
Though I was disheartened by my ignorance, I let it go. I knew the pictures I had taken would help me solve the mystery when I returned to Vancouver.
Once home, I rushed to crack open my bible—The Variety of Life by Colin Tudge, a book that surveys all things that have ever lived. The problem was that I couldn’t even guess where to begin.
I decided to flip through the 150 pages of invertebrates, hoping that something would catch my eye. Within seconds I found my answer, wedged between Hydra and box jellyfish.
The little creatures are called “by-the-wind sailors,” or Velella velella if you’re fancy. They belong to the phylum Cnidaria, which is better known for its corals and jellyfish.
I turned to a Velella-centric website by Dave Cowles at Walla Walla College in Washington. The flaps are made of chitin, and act as little sails, keeping the sailors moving at a 45-degree angle to the wind’s direction. Strong westerly winds can drive them to shore, like the ones that I saw.
They do have tiny tentacles and a mouth on their underside to catch and eat zooplankton. Rings of concentric gas-filled inner tubes keep them floating on the water’s surface, and the blue colour is caused by a pigment caused astaxanthin.
Ah, that wonderful feeling that comes with a new piece of knowledge. I want to drive back down to Santa Cruz, stand on the beach and yell, “This is Velella velella!” What a rush.