Mysterious little creatures charm a seaside town
It was a time to remember, the time the blobs came to Gloucester. The paper ran a front-page story headlined “The Blobs,” describing local shores “carpeted with mysterious masses.” A picture of a big hand showed something like a crystalline caterpillar creeping across the palm.
Gloucester is an old sea town on the north shore of Massachusetts. It was explored by Champlain, settled by Puritans, fished out of by generations of seafarers. But the blobs were a new experience for Gloucester, according to the Gloucester Daily Times. As one fisherman said, no one had ever seen anything like them.
They’d come silently upon the waves. Little jellylike creatures the size of your fingertip—some of them quite independent, others curiously stuck together in chains six inches long, or six feet, or maybe even sixteen feet. Clear as spring water, each little blob, with a thread of bluish purple winding deep within. What were they, everyone wanted to know. “Squid eggs,” declared some. “Alien spawn,” asserted others. Might they be poisonous? Dangerous? There were reports of boat engine intakes being clogged by them. People thought of birds flying into the engines of jet planes and wondered what toll the blobs might take. Harvard had been contacted, ditto the New England Aquarium, the National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeastern University. The top minds of a nation were homing in on the blobs of Gloucester.
Meanwhile, locals headed for the beach to experience the blobs personally. A brilliant morning revealed the creatures lying in long, snaky lines at the edge of the water, some rolling back and forth in the wash of the waves, others just lazing there on the beach, shining in the sun. And so many of them. Indeed, as the paper had reported, you could not walk along the water’s edge without stepping on dozens of them.
But people at the beach were not stepping on the blobs. They were walking near them, touching them with the toes of their shoes, poking them gently, leaning down to peer at them. Some (the bolder) picked up a sampling to study it more closely; they stood still with heads bowed over open palms, like people reading their own fortunes. Strangers talked to one another, shaking their heads, testifying to the mysteriousness of it all.
No one knew what the blobs were, but one thing was certain: Everyone liked them. Couldn’t help it. They were simultaneously cute and strange, like babies from outer space. Familiar in a way but refusing to divulge their name, at once individuals and masses, very little and (those hooked together) pretty big, maybe plants, but could be animals: The blobs tapped into a deep human curiosity that is indistinguishable from delight. They made the humans smile, the blobs did. Shake their heads and smile.
Those little blobs had a powerful effect, it cannot be denied. They puzzled the people on the beach, charmed them, tickled them, seduced them, lured them sweetly out of their personal selves and into the mystery surrounding them. If anything offers hope amid the dark complexities of our history-laden times, it is the enduring connection between us and the natural world, the way it calls to us and the way we answer it, the way we go on answering it, as helpless against its appeal, as unthinking, as weak in the knees as lovers. Enthralled by the blobs, the people on the beach in Gloucester lifted their gaze from the glistening sand and stared out across the blue-and-white sea with the waves collapsing so delicately and gave themselves over, for a moment, to the larger reality that sang to them.
A week or two later, the blobs were gone, washed back into the sea. They resurfaced briefly in the local paper, when the experts revealed them to be advanced invertebrates. It turned out that our little half-teaspoons of jelly had muscles, nerves, pharynxes that were notably large, and hearts that had long fascinated science with their ability to pump in both directions. Some had green blood! People were naturally pleased to learn all of this, and pleased, too, to discover that the scientific name of the blobs was Thalia, which is also the name of the muse of comic poetry.
The blobs had struck a lot of us as both comical and poetic, so light they seemed, and so finely put together. The word thalia means blooming, which felt just as right, for the blobs had certainly bloomed upon our beaches—bloomed and faded, and disappeared like the blossoms of spring and the generations that had stood and wondered on the beach before us. It all fit. Except the common name, the name we were supposed to call the blobs, which is salps.
Salps? No. No one in Gloucester is ever going to call the blobs salps. It’s just not a name that covers the experience of encountering them on the beach, lying and lolling and rolling in the surf, clean and bright and friendly as bubbles, and shining like the first day of creation. When the blobs returned for a visit this fall, a fisherman who spotted them called the Times and said, “Those frog eggs are back.” You could tell he was pleased.
From Orion (Winter 1999). Subscriptions: $25/yr. (4 issues) from The Orion Society, 195 Main St., Great Barrington, MA 01230.