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Spring 2006, Vol. 2, No. 1 | Index

Lillie building

The (Natural) World According to Ed

A conversation with Aquatic Resources Department superintendent Ed Enos about collecting marine organisms in winter, this year’s unseasonable weather, and how the ocean tells us when spring is really coming.

Q. Word is the Gemma was recently out collecting. Is that unusual for this time of year?

A. The boat was out off Gay Head during the second week in January collecting skate for a visiting scientist. We collect as needed and as much as we can, but we don’t just take the boat out for a ride because we want to go.

Q. Which crew members are willing to go out this time of year?

A. Captain Bill Klimm, Bill Grossman, and Jay Diamond.

Q. Now that Dan Barry has paved the way for them, do you think any of the Gemma crew might be interested in auditioning for the next season of the TV show Survivor?

A. I don’t know if any of them is wacky enough to be on it. But would they be good candidates? I’d say yes because most collectors and boat operators have to think on their feet. When you go out to a collecting site, you’re on your own. Sometimes you have to improvise even as you’re trying to accomplish your goals safely.

Q. Did the Gemma crew see anything on its recent trip that is unusual for this time of year?

A. An unexpected find was spiny dogfish and mackerel. Normally we wouldn’t see these species beyond the first few weeks of December.

Q. Does that mean we’ll have early spring?

A. It’s not a sign of spring; it’s a sign of a delayed winter. We think food and temperature conditions are causing these animals to stay around longer than they would. The water temperatures are warm (41° F) compared to this time last year (32° F) but if we have two weeks of windy cold weather, the water temperatures would go right down to where they usually are this time of year.

Q. What about if you don’t see your shadow on Groundhog Day, Ed? Would that predict an early spring?

A. No. I never make those predictions. It might depend more on whether my wife Joyce kisses me on the cheek as we’re leaving (for work) early in the morning that day.

Q. Speaking of spring, are there natural signs of spring that appear in and around the ocean?

A. Just as on land, a fisherman can see the changes. Around late February, we start to see are the early signs of moon jellies breaking off from the stalks they use to attach to substrates during their early development stages. When they break off, they look like little watch gears. As the water temperatures rise, they really start to develop. If you look down in Eel Pond or in any of the major estuaries on the Cape, you can see them in swarms. Sea worms swarm around late February, too. Look for seagulls gathering to feed on them along the shoreline from Nobska to Falmouth Beach.

You can also see red beard sponges that turn from brown to bright orange as they come alive in mid-March. Or the increased movement of mud snails and horseshoe crabs that have spent the winter burrowed into substrates. And the arrival of alewives. The Falmouth Enterprise used to have a contest to see who could catch the first alewife of the season and when.

Another point of interest is that when the dandelions bloom in spring and fall, the water temperature is usually about 50° F. In May that usually signifies the return of adult long-finned squid to Vineyard Sound. The tautogs follow, then striped bass.

Q. What else do you see on the water when you’re out in late winter or early spring? Fishing boats? Seals? Ivory-billed woodpeckers?

A. We do see a lot of seals. In fact, another sign of spring is when the seals leave Red Ledge, a strip of rocks off Woods Hole across the channel from the Coast Guard navigation light called The Spindle. Local lore says when the seals leave Red Ledge, winter’s back is broken. That’s usually in April.

As for ivory-billed woodpeckers, I doubt if we’d ever see one of those babies. We do see a lot of migrating birds in the spring and fall, though.

Q. Are the seas rough for boating this time of year?

A. Dramatic temperature changes and associated wind make the seas rough. Northeast winds don’t do much in Woods Hole Passage because with easterly winds, we are in the lee. It’s the southwest winds that can cause flooding here. Those winds make for long rolling waves over Vineyard Sound and they gain momentum. If the water rises and you get a big wave crashing on the shore, that’s where the destruction comes from.

Q. Any cures for seasickness you’d care to share?

A. It’s mind over matter. Eat an agreeable meal before going out. If you feel bad, stare at the horizon and keep occupied. Many people talk about ginger, candied ginger, or pressure bands. One more thing: if you’re sick over the side of the boat, don’t barf into the wind!

Q. What does the name Gemma mean, anyway?

A. We’ve named a lot of our boats, such as the Ciona and the Limulus, after marine species. Gemma gemma is the Latin name for the gem clam. When the boat was being built in 1980, it was a good name that could be easily pronounced and understood over the radio.

Q. You mentioned that long-finned squid, popular with MBL scientists, return in May, which is when you start collecting them. What about the other marine models MBL scientists use? When are those collected?

A. Because many MBL scientists study clam and sea urchin eggs, we have to collect those species when they are gravid (egg bearing). We generally find egg-filled clams starting in mid to late May. Sea urchins are gravid from about the second or third week of June until they spawn around the second week of July. To determine the dates more precisely, we look at Woods Hole water temperatures. That’s our guiding factor.

The New Collecting Net is an employee newsletter published by the Communications Office. Comments and suggestions are welcome. Call (508) 289-7423 or e-mail us at