Recapturing the Magic
by Mark McCaig
Swimming at night with friends, I experienced one of the Chesapeake’s enchanting treats: bioluminescence among a swarm of sea walnuts (Mnemiopsis leidyi). To recapture the magic, I tried to convince my nephew, Damon Leahy, to join me for a late night swim among the scores of harmless invertebrates we’d bumped into in the more familiar, sunlit water.
“I don’t know,” he wavered. “I’m pretty tired.”
“Come on, D. It’s amazing. Every time you touch one of them it glows! You can see in the dark underwater when they’re thick.”
He shuffled his feet, looking outside as a breeze stirred.
“I know it’s late, but you can sleep in, and really, how often do you get a chance to see something you’ll remember for the rest of your life?” I pushed.
“Come on Damon, just go. I would if I could,” said his younger sister, Lucy. I owe that girl, I thought. He had to go now.
Collecting bathing suits, towels and moxie only took two minutes. The wind turned over the silver maple’s leaves as we ducked under its dark hulk. I draped the towel over my shoulders against the chill.
The cool sand between our toes had long since released its sunlight, and perhaps we’d lost some of our senses. A nasty gale raced across the open Bay from the east, rocking the tethered boats. “Do you think …” began Damon.
Did I hesitate? A Chesapeake lifer, I fancy myself old school: bare feet in the water, not too liberal with sunscreen, crabbing at dawn. I find my nephew’s generation a bit softer. “We’ll be fine,” I said.
It may have been the choppy surf against our bodies or the inscrutable darkness of the water, perhaps even the warm glow of someone’s bonfire growing smaller behind us. Our bravado was descending into nervous laughter and self-deprecation. The ultimate downer? We had not seen one glowing sea walnut.
“I guess they got pulled out to deeper water with the receding tide,” I offered, ever the knowledgeable uncle.
“Wouldn’t this wind blasting our faces push them back this way?” asked Damon, who’s no dummy. “Wait, there’s something.” He pointed at a tiny, yellow pulsing in the black water.
“It’s a drowning firefly, still bioluminescent, though,” came my feeble attempt to counteract the growing ignominy of it all. We both guffawed, still heading away from shore.
“Whoa! I think I just stepped on a fish,” my nephew screeched. Something hard bumped my leg.
Still pontificating, I corrected him.
“No, I think it was a horseshoe crab.” Then I stepped on a slimy fish. It swum away, whipping me with its tail. I stepped in a hole. Uh-oh. In the middle of June, it could only be one thing. We’d found our swarm, all right, but they weren’t the benign, glowing creatures we’d expected.
These fish were cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus to scientists; skates to locals), up to 50 pounds of muscle and cartilage each, churning about us in the dark. We’d run into them in their nightly search for clams; they were slamming into us during our once-in-a-decade search for nocturnal sea walnuts.
Damon broke out his dog paddle, unwilling to risk stepping on another. We both sped for the shore, thumped by a few more rays en route. Perhaps they were as surprised as we were. I doubt they were as spooked.
We survived, emerging as heroes from the frothing Bay, warmed by adrenaline and laughter and unscathed by the rays’ poisonous barbs. As the wind dried us, we relived our adventure for the first and least embellished of many times.
An ecosystem like the Chesapeake tends to be predictable, with cyclic growth and decay, warming and cooling, high and low tides. Yet her unpredictability captivates us the epic manatee on the Eastern Shore, a sudden squall, even my sketchy skate encounter with Damon. We live for just these mesmerizing moments.
Longtime contributor Mark McCaig, of Fairhaven, is about to begin his master’s studies in creative writing at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont.