mating ritual

It’s romantic, in a kind of Wuthering Heights, gothic way: dark figures, moving through the shadows.

Of course it’s also evolutionary: some say that it’s remarkable that after a few hundred million years they haven’t changed a lick, but they seem to have picked up a few tricks along the way.

Otherwise, I can’t imagine how it happens, how, in the darkness, in the rain, with the sand in their eyes, the ribbons of seaweed curtaining them off.

How do they find each other?

For over a year I didn’t see one, one pair, one male or one female, and that’s all I was there to do – find them.

My trick, my evolution, was realizing, accepting that they actually were there.

If you don’t believe it, you’re done from the start.

Their trick is survival.

What came first, I wonder: the belief, or an actual horseshoe crab?

I shouldn’t diminish their effort with my philosophizing, the effort it takes to scour the sea bottom, to find each other in the dark.

It’s romantic, yes, but mostly they are remarkable for the energy they display.

When you begin to see, to see them, the first thing you notice is that energy: for such an ungainly, disc-shaped, diminutive deep-sea dinosaur they can really move.

Again I am not sure how they do it?

Are they shooting water out their backside, jet propelled?

Are they paddling furiously with their multiple appendages?

And all the speed they generate is often demonstrated in tandem: male and female affixed to one another.

Have you ever run a hundred yards carrying a younger brother on your back?

They do, and move along quite nicely thank you, while contributing to the survival of their species: helping to stave off extinction at least, at least for now.

That’s why we’ve been out there too, at mid-day or midnight, at 2 in the morning, in the cold, in water that’s a few degrees colder, water up to our waist, sometimes a little deeper: we’re trying to stave off extinction too, both for the Horseshoe Crab and for those species – like the beautiful Red Knot which flies here non-step from the tip of South America – those species that depend on the Horseshoe Crab for food.

I am not sufficiently grounded in the interdependence of species, but I think that it’s probably possible to demonstrate a link between the crab, the bird, and the human out here in the dark wading through the water.

At the very, very least, the horseshoe crab gets me out of the house, and down to the beach, up Ryder Way, down to the harbor and into the water where, treading carefully over the uneven bottom which on Long Beach, varies from sand to stone to grassy ledge, I peer into the dark water, scan back and forth with my flashlight.

I am looking for a particular shape, for bubbles rising, for movement, for what appears at first to be an hourglass-shaped stone but is moving, moving rapidly, perpendicular to the rolling waves.

“Mating pair,” I excitedly proclaim and, when I return to the shore I take the other measuring staff from Sharl so she can more easily manipulate the clipboard she is carrying and enter the data on the survey form.

Until this past week I had never seen a live crab during one of my surveys. Over the years here, and along the coast of New England, I have seen plenty of discarded shells but never a live horseshoe crab in the water, let alone a mating pair.

The other night we counted 13 mating pairs, plus one solitary female scouring the sea-bottom.

It takes about three hours, all told, to get to the site, complete, the survey and make it home.

Last night we made it back to the house at 2:30 a.m.

That’s not the usual routine: it’s taking about 90 minutes longer this year because we have not been able to drive to the spot: we’ve had to park at Pilgrim Sands and walk to the survey area.

We’d prefer to drive but you know what, the walk is often bonus time: a slow walk down a long, dirt road, often in darkness with nothing but the water whispering to the rocky shore sounding in our ears.

In the water I have to fight a kind of snow-blindness: an hour of staring in the murky, moving water looking for shapes that aren’t actually rocks, can be hypnotizing.

But if I get it just right I am in a kind of perfect receptor-state: I hear the water, note the silver fish skimming the surface and somehow differentiate between a round stone underwater and the shell of the horseshoe crab.

Oftentimes the male ‘crab’ is wearing a nightshirt of seaweed. If the water is calm you might see an effusion of bubbles rising where, I am told, the female is depositing her eggs. But be quick, it seems they don’t like to make love in the light.

We all love the embrace of night, punctuated with stars.

We all drink deeply that perfect draught of air, that cordial of sun-ripened seawater.

Now they are feeding me as well, feeding my imagination, my affection for nature and my appreciation for this special place, for Plymouth.

At times, as I reach the full length of the cord – ten yards out – I pause and gaze across the water. There I can see and hear another world: Water Street, downtown Plymouth, just across the way, just out of reach.

Just minutes ago I realize with a start, I was on paved road, on a gas-lit street, and now here I am, sharing the surf with this 300-million year old arachnid.

Yes, it’s a sea-going spider.

They have blue blood that coagulates to seal them off from infections.

The have a remarkable ability to tolerate different levels of salinity (salt).

They’ve survived several world-wide extinction events.

And here we are, together.

Wuthering Heights, indeed.

Mating pair of horseshoe crabs off Long Beach, Plymouth MA (Photo by Dodie Frank)

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