This tale started several days before a barnacle got involved. I had an interesting week. My mother-in-law was visiting, a monumental event in and of itself. My husband and I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for over eight years, and she is the first of anyone in his family to make the trip for a visit. Our plans were simple: Mount Rainier, Port Townsend, and Whidbey Island.
Even with the best laid plans, I knew it was going to be a challenge. As determined as I was to have a good time, it’s hard to be around my husband’s family. We are completely different in every way- socially, culturally, politically, and environmentally. I had hope though.
The warning flags should have gone up early in the visit. All week I struggled with my husband’s mother to leave things alone. In Mount Rainier National Park, I had to repeatedly tell her to not pick flowers. I eventually lost the “leave it alone” battle when we were shopping on the island. Mama had come across daisies, her favorite, in front of a vacant store front. In her mind, since there was no one to tell her to stop (besides me, because I obviously didn’t count), she could do whatever she wanted.
I turned a blind eye to her flower stealing antics as we traveled further up the island to a favorite tourist spot, Deception Pass. I thought her kleptomaniac tendencies were behind us. I was wrong. While on the beach, this seemingly innocent, sweet lady saw all the beautiful smooth stones. She picked one up exclaiming “I’m gonna keep this as a momento of my trip here.” I closed my eyes and prepared for battle. “Well, as awesome as that would be, you can’t,” I responded.
“Well, besides our location at a state park that prohibits the removal of anything, just imagine what the beach would look like if everyone took just one stone home with them. It would be bare and there wouldn’t be any beautiful stones to admire.”
“Oh, honestly! One rock isn’t going to hurt anything!”
I sighed. “Well, as I said, you still can’t take it from a state park. You have to put it back.”
Unfortunately, in my fifteen years experience dealing with the public in conservation and telling them something they weren’t particularly interested in hearing, I could see my mother-in-law’s gears turning. Could she sneak the rock without me noticing?
I really hate feeling like a cop on the beach. I am a trained beach naturalist, though, and I’ve had to tell people to put things back before. I’ve also had to watch these same people after telling them to put things back. So, I wasn’t naive to Mama’s ways. My vigilance kept her from stealing a rock from Deception Pass.
On our way back to the south island, we decided to stop by Double Bluff beach, a public beach with beautiful views of Mt.Rainier and usually plenty of dogs to get snuggles. I discovered an interesting moral from visiting Deception Pass and Double Bluff right after one another. While Mama was talking to a dachshund owner about her baby, my husband and I wandered down the beach to look for stones. While there were tons of beautifully polished stones littering the beach at Deception Pass, there were hardly any to be found at Double Bluff. Since it was not a state park, and there weren’t any rules preventing rock stealing from the south island beach, there weren’t many left to choose.
I decided to make peace with my mother-in-law with a small stone offering. I still didn’t like the idea of taking a rock, especially since I noticed the sparse supply of stones in the sand. But perhaps with a stone given by me to her, I could quell her desire to just take whatever she felt like taking.
When I returned to where she was sitting, she was no longer talking to the daschund owner. She was sitting on a log with several stones in her hand. All of the stones had beautiful clusters of barnacles on them.
“Aren’t they beautiful? They look like flowers. These will look amazing on my desk back home.”
I cringed. “You can’t take those! They’re living animals!”
“Oh, you’re just saying that.”
This comment took me a little by surprise. Why would I just make something up like that? It’s not like I wanted to ruin her vacation by not letting her take live animals back home with her. Yes, I did feel a little like a broken record at this point, but this was the most important principle I could impart. Living creatures deserved to stay alive, especially if killing them was for such an asinine purpose as a souvenir.
My husband walked away. He was going to have no part in this discussion. I couldn’t tell what was more frustrating. My mother-in-law, even if not blood family, was still family. And yet, here she was questioning me, in my element. I had fifteen years experience teaching the public about ocean conservation. If there was anyone on that beach who knew whether or not barnacles were living creatures, it was me. I was also just overwhelmed by the experience alone. I was remembering my long experience in the conservation education field, and the memories were not uplifting.
People looking at the animals I worked with and exclaiming “Oh, I want one, they are so cute.” This was even more frustrating when I worked in Florida, where pet licenses are really lax and people could have anything from a burmese python to a cougar to a chimpanzee as a pet.
I remembered a story of a beautiful park that had put up signs asking people to leave the rocks alone as they were being stolen. The sign didn’t cull the rock stealing activity, it actually made the behavior increase. People were afraid of missing out on their opportunity, they ignored the consequences of taking away from nature.
I remembered all the times I volunteered as a naturalist on refuges, beaches, parks, trails, and interpretive centers. I began to think the only people who believed the saying “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” were the volunteers themselves. The rest of the public certainly didn’t act as though they adhered to the adage.
I became almost distraught. This wasn’t about a stupid barnacle. This was about everything. Flowers, rocks, animals, feathers. Everything is connected, and instead of just taking it, we should respect it.
I sat in silence with my mother-in-law while my mind raced. I had to show her how wonderful the barnacles were. Only, I honestly didn’t know much about the animal. I couldn’t even remember if they were more closely related to crabs or clams. The only thing I could remember about barnacles was…oh god. How would this Christian southern raised woman react? I was at wits end, I had to try.
“Want to know something gross about barnacles?”
She turned to me, interested. “What?”
“They have the longest penis in proportion to body size in the entire animal kingdom.”
“Their penis is 30 times the length of their body.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No. It’s true.”
I went on to explain since barnacles couldn’t detach themselves from their rocks all willy-nilly, they had to try to reproduce from the rock they were attached to. So they shoot their penis out from their shell and hopefully hit a female and penetrate to reproduce. It’s all by chance, but having a long schlong helps increase their chances for success.
Somehow, I got her with this little tidbit of information. She wasn’t grossed out, she was absolutely fascinated. And somehow my ocean street cred went up a notch in her eye.
She sat there for a couple more minutes. I shared minimal information about tidepool ecosystems, not necessarily exclusive to barnacles, but definitely included their role in the tidepools.
She looked at me curiously. “You really think these barnacles are alive?”
I asked if I could take a look at them. She handed me the rock. I studied the barnacles
Intensely. I honestly couldn’t tell for certain. I rubbed my finger gently across their mouths. They gave a little and closed up again, a good enough sign for me. “Yeah, they’re alive.”
“But how? They were out of the water when I found them.”
This I could confidently answer. “Tidepool animals are amazingly resilient. Mussels, sea stars, barnacles, even anemone can stay out of the water when the tide goes out for 12-15 hours.”
She was quiet. Then she sighed. “I guess you need to put them back in the water so they can continue to live.”
I was flabbergasted. Did this actually work? Did I convince my mother-in-law to actually listen to me? I didn’t wait for her to change her mind. I walked to the edge of the water and carefully placed the rock of hopefully alive barnacles back where it belonged.
My husband approached me. “Nice job.”
I smiled weakly. “I’m not sure what I said to change her mind, but thanks.”
“You showed her how amazing barnacles are. Not just its connection to the tidepool, but the amazing thing about barnacles. Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“Barnacles have a penis 30 times the length of their body?”
“Get in the car. Let’s go home.”
- Edit- I found out while looking into the accuracy of my statements that barnacles do not have a penis 30 times the length of their bodies. It’s actually closer to 40-50 times the length of their bodies. I want to apologize for my grossly inaccurate statement, but I will not apologize for using the information to save a barnacle’s life.