Noctiluca, Part One
It was the middle of the night, a few days after my 23rd birthday, and I’d just been woken up by a tap on my shoulder. I was aboard a wooden tall ship, the schooner Adventuress on the Puget Sound, and it was my turn for the “anchor watch” shift.
I grabbed my flashlight and new foul-weather gear and scrambled from my bunk. I checked the bilge water levels, then climbed the stairs to the deck and inspected the anchor chain; all was clear. For the next hour, it would be my job to watch over the safety of the ship.
To keep myself awake, I decided to look for noctiluca. I found a bucket on the deck, tethered it with a line to the railing as I’d been taught to do, then cast it over the side of the ship and leaned forward to watch. A constellation of sparkles ripped outward along the surface, glowing blue lights that flared and immediately went dark again. As usual, the noctiluca were awake, too.
Noctiluca scintillans is a species of dinoflagellate, a one-celled hunter that’s able to make light. These bioluminescent critters light up when disturbed, and they’re easily visible at night as a group. I pulled up and dropped the bucket in several more times, marveling at this secret world of tiny magic.
Days before, I hadn’t known that these creatures existed, and now that I’d seen them, I wanted to show everyone. My love for the natural world was partly why I was on the ship in the first place. But the experience, and the magic, have directly led to what I do today.
Adventures on Adventuress
Most days on the ship began by 7 am with the crew rising to eat and prepare the vessel for the Sound Studies school program that began at 9 am. We’d pick up the kids and teachers from the dock, motor out of the harbor as the first mate gave a safety talk, teach them a sea shanty, haul away on the sails, then rush to our assigned learning stations where we’d spend ninety minutes leading workshops that covered marine invertebrates, nautical skills, plankton, and the history of the ship. Afterward, we’d regroup on the deck, and a few crew members would do a skit about watersheds, then we’d lower the sails, head back into shore, and have the ship tied up at the dock by noon. Sometimes we hosted one group a day; sometimes we hosted two (or even three).
I was constantly exhausted from the demanding physical labor and all the learning. When I’d first volunteered as a deckhand/educator for Sound Experience, I’d known nothing about two-masted, gaff-rigged, wooden schooners, or even what exactly a schooner was. I swam like a rock, I hadn’t taken a single science class in college, I’d never lived in Seattle, and I most certainly didn’t know the difference between apparent, relative, and true wind, or why a beam reach is the best point of sail. But I’d always loved being in the ocean, teaching kids as a camp counselor, and learning through hands-on experiences. I’d also read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle so many times that the cover had fallen off (I still love that book), so I was determined to make it work. Before “lights out” on the first few nights, I tried to memorize the names of sails and ship parts from the diagrams in the back of my copy of Moby Dick (I still love that book, too).
But the newness of it all also made me a great teacher for the kids. So long as I could stay just one step ahead of them, showing and explaining everything to the kids helped me learn the information, too.
Noctiluca, Part Two
When school groups stayed overnight, the kids would fill every bunk, delighting and draining us for several days at a time. With nearly 40 people aboard a ship that was 101 feet long on deck, I’d get so desperate for personal space that I’d sneak into the engine room and close my eyes, pretending to be alone for just one minute.
But doing anchor watch with the students was one of the best parts, because there was time and silence to show them what was invisible in the day. Coaxing them from their sleeping bags wasn’t always easy, but rumpled and groggy they’d trudge through the cabin and up the stairs, mostly excited to be out on the deck at night. I’d get the bucket, teach them how to tether it to the railing, and then they’d launch it off the side and whisper “woah!” as it hit the water and the noctiluca did their tiny magic flash dance.
The intensity and wonder of my weeks on the Adventuress—the kids and the crew and ship and the water—have left a permanent mark on my life. Spending so much time in the elements, sleeping so close to water, and living in such tight quarters day after day leaves you feeling alive and connected, in tune with the gorgeous power of the natural world. How awesome to get to educate and inspire groups of kids in a way that might impact the adults they would become? And how could I act on what I’d learned there in the future? In some ways, my career as a picture book author started with that plankton on the Puget Sound, and exactly seven years later, a New York editor made an offer to acquire my shark book.
I stand in awe of the way things live and of all the magic to be witnessed, and I intend to continue chasing and learning about that magic. What ancient wonders can I share with the next generation of kids?
Neighborhood Sharks, my book debut, comes out in just seven weeks, and The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair comes out in just six! Both books are now available for pre-order online and in stores everywhere. Thank you for reading, and thanks for joining me on this adventure. May your week be full of magical things!
*Photo of the schooner Adventuress by Miso Beno (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons