Celebrating The Human Side Of Sea Creatures
Sabrina Imbler’s book traces their life through the stories of ten sea creatures.
The following is an excerpt from How Far The Light Reaches: A Life In Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler.
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How Far The Light Reaches: A Life In Ten Sea Creatures
Two Aprils ago, a humpback whale stranded on Jacob Riis Beach in New York and died belly-up: white fins splayed in the sand like a snow angel, grooved throat mounded as if still holding a gulp of air. Its death made the local papers. The 28-foot-long whale was the year’s first reported stranding in the area. Its body appeared pristine, at least as far as dead whales go. A week later, the whale was buried, and its beachfront burial also made the local papers.
When I read the whale’s brief obituary, I squinted at the photo, trying to figure out where on Jacob Riis it had stranded. I go to Riis Beach often, and I wanted to place the whale somewhere on that landscape. I wanted to know if it had died somewhere I had walked, or, in the future, I wanted to walk across the stretch of sand where it had died. But the picture was placeless, the whale a blip on a stretch of empty sand whose only landmarks were a few distant dunes and a weathered skyline of wood pilings.
I have seen many creatures stranded on Riis Beach that were not large or notable enough to garner press coverage. I remember the holographic sheen of a still-inflated man-of-war, shining like a bubble on the sand. The hollow, chestnut husk of a horseshoe crab, a chunk missing from its side and a pristinely reticulated tail that shuddered when I picked it up. A motionless mole crab with a belly full of tiny, sherbet-colored eggs. These animals died as the whale did—carried too close to shore by warm waters or riotous currents—but their strandings would only make the news if they occurred en masse: a parade of men-of-war in the surf, hordes of overturned horseshoe crabs, a mountain of molted mole crab shells gently lapped by waves. In the headlines, these creatures never “stranded”; rather, they “washed up.” Why was that? Perhaps stranding suggested the creature was worth noticing, was worth saving.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA—the governing body of matters like these—has a dedicated network that observes the strandings of marine mammals and sea turtles. There is a bureaucratic system for people to report strandings, people and agencies to call as if they were next of kin. There is even an app for whales and dolphins. There is no stranding network for smaller creatures without faces, like mole crabs or men-of-war, whose bodies erase themselves by washing away or dissolving back into sand.
Several years ago in September, I saw shimmering heaps of gelatinous blobs strand on the shores of Riis Beach. Every- one who went near the water that day noticed the blobs, including my friends, my crush, my crush’s crush (who, sadly, was not me). But they were reluctant to inspect the blobs, which had amassed in nubbly, sparkling dunes. “Is it alive?” someone asked. “I don’t want to get stung,” another replied, and they walked away from the water to spread their towels and single, battered umbrella far away from the lapping waves.
“They don’t sting!” someone in a flame-licked Speedo shouted at us from the breaking point of the waves, just before diving in. I followed their voice, the slimy pebbles slapping my stomach with each new wave before I plunged my whole body into the water. The ocean felt strangely viscous, almost sticky, and each time I surfaced I saw glassy orbs the size of boba drip off my arms. I could feel them as I treaded water, my hands parting the creatures like a beaded curtain, only for the blobs to reform in their watery swarm. I paddled near the person in the Speedo, whose friends were speculating on the possible identity of the goo balls.
“I bet it’s baby jellyfish,” said someone in a green bucket hat.
“But they don’t sting,” Flaming Speedo countered, intent on defending the nameless creatures.
“I think it’s fish eggs,” said another, the ocean obscuring any swimwear they might have had on and occasionally splashing into an open cup of rosé they held, precariously, above the surf. We continued spitballing together, pausing only to jump with or dive under the largest waves or shout reassurance to would-be swimmers on the shore, who prodded the blobs with sticks and tentative toes.
“They don’t sting!” we chorused, having no formal expertise aside from our shared sensation, our bodies touch- ing blobs, touching bodies, none of us hurt. We twirled in the slick, batting the gummy blobs back and forth like children in a pool. They were so numerous they seemed even to dilute the crashing force of the waves, leveling the peaks of the afternoon swell into something almost lan- guid. It was strange to swim this way, held afloat by a cloud of creatures so densely clustered it felt impossible to sink.
I touched down in the sand and picked up a handful of the orbs to examine them. They didn’t look like jellyfish, at least not in the conventional sense of a bell-headed medusa with trailing tentacles. They seemed too big to be fish eggs, too symmetrical to be tatters of men-of-war or any other larger thing I’d seen wash up before on Riis. They looked like raindrops, or tears, water in a state of falling. I couldn’t tell if they were dead or alive. I held one up to the sky and its dimpled gelatin muddled light like a prism, turning sunbeams into deliriously electric blues, cherry-blossom pinks, kelpy greens. I threw handfuls of the blobs in the air above me and the droplets filled the sky, shredding sunlight into rainbows.
Days after I left the beach, the blobs had taken over my mind. I Googled hopelessly: “small translucent circles stranded on beach” and “clear gelatinous lumps on beach no sting” and “what is this goop I found on the beach” and “what do baby jellyfish look like” and “weird stuff washed up Rockaway?!!” But I found no record of the blobs’ presence outside my memory. No one had written about them or even guessed at what they might have been or where they came from. Perhaps this was the fault of the blobs (too benign and formless to make a good local news story) or the fault of where they had stranded (a beach infamous for its queer visitors, not wildlife sightings).
I thought about the blobs every so often for several years, until I decided to email a park ranger named Dave—supporting my ongoing theory that all park rangers are named Dave—to ask if he knew what the blobs I saw years ago might have been. I had no concrete evidence of the blobs, no better description for them than blobs. I almost felt stupid for asking—who would remember something so inconsequential and amorphous from so long ago?
Ranger Dave asked for a photo, but I hadn’t taken one. I told him they were firm yet gelatinous, ovoid and transparent, and he said many things that lived in the ocean looked like clear orbs of goo. I asked Ranger Dave if the blobs might have been a kind of salp, a colonial animal that spends part of its life surrounded by clones of itself. He said it was a good guess, but without a photo, the blobs’ true identity may remain forever unknowable to us. But he would be happy, he added, to speak to me about the 28-foot whale that had washed up in April—had I seen it in the papers? Perhaps I would never learn what the blobs were, or even what they could have been, but I wanted to have a name for them, because they mattered to me. So I gave myself permission to remember them as salps.
Despite their dour name (no one ever looked at something beautiful and named it salp), salps are fantastical creatures. If you dive deep enough, some salps even glow. On shore, they look like beads of clear Jell-O. But in water, they exist in pulsating chains that can curve like a snake or coil like a snail’s shell. These chains are made up of hundreds of identical salps joined hip to jiggly hip. Each clone is a distinct, barrel-shaped individual, yet all together the colony of clones makes up a single salp, attached and moving as one. Many chains can grow as long as 20 feet, drifting through the ocean like giant quartzite bracelets. This is to say that individual identity is confusing for a salp, creatures for whom the notion of selfhood exists in the plural. For a salp, home is the rest of its salp.
Although salps have no limbs, no discernable muscles, and no clear agenda, they still manage to move their bodies from one part of the ocean to another. Salps move by jet propulsion, each individual sucking in water at one end of their body tube and clenching that body to shoot the water out the other end. A salp chain does not move in one great coordinated effort, with each individual salp synchronizing its jets. It may seem surprising; surely a winding chain of individuals would move more efficiently if they sucked and clenched and spurted in perfect timing. After all, this is how a jellyfish moves, in rhythmic bursts of speed and stillness, waiting for the rest of its body to catch up. But salps allow each individual to jet at its own pace in the same general direction. It is not as fast as coordinated strokes, but it’s more sustainable long-term, each individual sucking and spurting as it pleases. Slow and steady, say the salps. It doesn’t matter how fast we go, only that we all get there in the end. We may all move at different paces, but we will only reach the horizon together.
Much of the time, salps keep to themselves, out of sight. They lurk in the deep where the water is cold and rich in nutrients, thousands of feet below the surface. There are no boats here, no nets or wrecks, so the salps can jet around in peace, gulping in particles of food that get caught in their mucous net. Some species of salp migrate up to the surface at night to feed on phytoplankton, to encounter other salps and multiply and breed. When the sun inches into the sky, the salps return to the deep before the glassy walls of their body shimmer in the rays and attract a predator.
Sometimes, when the currents generated by the wind and rotation of Earth lift deep, cold water to the surface of the ocean, salps rise in swarms. These cold plumes act like fertilizer and can feed enormous populations of phytoplankton, which feed hordes of salps breeding so rapidly that they form blooms, billowing salp clouds. These blooms are ephemeral and dizzying. They rise and swarm in the billions, cloning themselves until they cover huge swaths of ocean in a glossy haze. In 1975, one swarm of thumb-sized salps covered 38,600 square miles of waters off New England. The salps lingered for months, eating the microscopic plants that drifted in the water and excreting fluffy squares of poop that sank, quickly, away from the light.
Every June in New York, we swarm. We come from all around, on trains from other boroughs and cars from upstate and bikes over bridges that seem to quake, throttled every few minutes by subway cars careening into open air. However we come, we always recognize one another, limbs stuffed in mesh and netting and leather, teeth bared, nipples out. Our shirts, if we wear them, are emblazoned with the conditions of a world we would rather live in: without TERFs, without ICE, without imperialism. We hold cardboard signs that often prioritize the specificity of our message over easy legibility, and we crane our necks to read the message in full, because we know it will be worth it: sex work is work airbrushed onto a crinkly pink dress and eating ass is the only ethical form of consumption under capitalism in bubbly letters on black card- stock. We meet in a part of Manhattan many of us have no business in, a patch of green surrounded by glass-fronted stores and metallic offices, and once there, we grow larger, friends finding friends and water-getters winding their way through an obstacle course of bodies. We swarm because we are full of the joy of being together, full of anger at the systems that exclude or endanger us, full of hope for the possibilities of the future. There are no metal barricades to keep us from unspooling onto sidewalks, brushing up against luxury soap stores that have steeled themselves against our arrival.
The next day, the city will erect barricades and garlands of cops to oversee the capital-P parade, the one first named after liberation and then later rebranded as Pride, the one sponsored by the city and Bank of America and Amazon and other institutions that do not care about us unless we become something to monetize. The next day, cops will roll in on side streets in terrible white cars with rainbow- striped decals of the NYPD logo to escort a behemoth of a float from Gilead, a pharmaceutical company that manufactures Truvada, a daily pill to prevent HIV, and charges $1,500 to $2,000 for a monthly dose that costs $6 to make. But it is not Sunday yet. It is Saturday, the day of the Dyke March, which any of us will remind you is a protest, not a parade. The Dyke March has no official permit, no corporate sponsors, and no invited police presence. There are no steel barricades dividing the marchers at intersections, just volunteers interlocking hands across one avenue in Manhattan to allow our ecstatic masses to march down the gray grid of Midtown in one great, unbroken chain. At some point—we are usually on time, though always welcoming of latecomers—we spill into the street and start moving downtown. We pound pavement, albeit softly, walk- ing at the pace of our slowest companions, stopping when we need to tie a shoelace or say hello to an ex or ask a friend if that person in the leather harness—no, the other person in the leather harness—is the same person we kissed by the coat check at the lesbian party at the bar decorated like a subterranean cave, where stalactites dangled phallically from the ceiling.
One year, we swarm into a Panera Bread, me and a handful of people I have just met, jetting without hesitation toward the back of the store. We erupt in the bath- room, shedding pants before we’ve closed stall doors, and when we hear a manager shouting that we must leave, we offer to buy water and muffins. When he says no, that the bathroom is closed to everyone, we shout that this is actually not some sacrosanct hall but a Panera Bread, that we have no other way to pee, and we barricade ourselves in the bathroom until every last one of us has peed, has fixed our hair or makeup or washed smeared glitter off our cheeks, and, with one great breath, we open the door, and for a second I meet the eyes of the person working the register, their face blank, and I know we have made their day more difficult so I mouth, “We’re sorry!” as we scramble out of the Panera and back into the street.
Unlike Pride, there is no strict demarcation between marchers and spectators; we move fluidly on and off the streets. The few permanent spectators are often men who’ve come to protest, holding banners saying something about Christ and sin and the promise of our eternal damnation, but there is always a group of us surrounding the man like a bubble, holding signs of our own: this guy needs a hobby! Half the joy comes from watching our own, turning around to see everyone who walks behind us. Many look like someone I might know or see at a party — young- ish dykes in bowling shirts — but my eyes always drift to those I might not have encountered were it not for this day: silver-haired couples in matching blue Hawaiian shirts, steel-spiked butches on motorcycles, dykes carrying babies in slings and in strollers. One year, I see an older woman, short white hair, holding a sign. It is ok to live a life others don’t understand. She drifts at her own pace, slow and steady, as younger marchers weave around her. I feel overcome by the urge to go up and thank her. I want to march in service to her. I think about what she must have sacrificed to make it this far. But my group of friends are marching quickly, to keep up with the drummers, and so I turn around and run ahead.
Though our swarm looks different every year, familiar faces in new outfits and new relationships and situation- ships, old marchers moved to new cities and new marchers fresh out of NYU, we always end the same way, the crescendo of our shouts passing under the triumphal stone arch in Washington Square Park and our bodies streaming across the cobblestones of the courtyard as we watch some of us—the brave, the hams, the unusually germ resistant—take off our shirts and jump into the waters of the fountain, so ecstatic we have to cool down. There, in the water, we splash one another, kiss one another, hold one another, all our soft parts jiggling as we pulse together in one final swarm before trickling off to go our separate ways.
Salps do not spend their entire lives in gigantic chains or spiraling colonies, surrounded by clones of themselves. The creatures alternate between colonial and solitary stages that look entirely different. A solitary salp, unlike the colony I encountered at Riis, resembles a hollow tube, made visible only by the golden peppercorn of its gut. Solitary salps grow their future colonial selves inside their bodies, creating a chain of genetically identical clones strung together like pearls on a necklace. As the single salp grows, so does its internal chain of clones, until the chain is long enough and big enough to break away from the original body.
Once liberated, the chain of clones tumbles into the ocean, where they swim as one, bending and wavering like a liquefied spine. Within the chain, each clone has a single egg that, when fertilized by gametes from a nearby salp, the clone will carry until its young embryo is old enough to swim away and start life as a singleton. Once its embryo is gone, the clone will grow testes that spurt out plumes of sperm, which scatter in the water to fertilize the eggs of other clones. This is how salps swarm, one chain producing hundreds of new chains, how they overtake vast patches of ocean in a way that upends the ecosystem. When an ocean teems with chains and helixes and whorls of salps, it is said to be blooming.
Always alternating between life stages that barely resemble one another, salps long eluded scientists. Salps were first described in 1756, by men who did not understand how they lived or how they reproduced. Not that they—or many scientists who came after them—tried very hard to understand. With no head, no brain, and a body that slips easily out of a hand, salps were hard to track down and harder to study, appearing in enormous, unpredictable clouds and disintegrating quickly. Many zooplankton ecologists try to avoid salps in their sampling because of their messy abundance, their mysterious and complicated taxonomy, the way their glassy bodies shatter in nets. When salps moved alone, they went unnoticed. When they moved in swarms, they posed no great threat, it seemed, only inconvenience. For centuries, only one thing seemed clear: the salps, wherever they went, were unwanted.
So there is almost no long-term historical record of the salps in any ocean. Few data sets go back more than twenty years, and the ones that do record salps only in these ephemeral explosions of abundance. Scientists only took notice of them when they gathered in such great masses that they made themselves impossible to ignore. Perhaps you would not see salps if they did not form blooms. Many scientists consider salps a nuisance species, because, in swarms, they can take down a fishing net or stop a ship. In 2012, a swarm of salps clogged the water intake system of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, the last in California. It is amazing what salps can do in community.
In recent years, some scientists have deemed salps and other forms of gelatinous zooplankton—creatures whose body is more than 95 percent water—an unwanted sentinel of ecological disturbance, a future ravaged by climate change. Sightings abound of this surge in swarms and the trouble they cause: deluging fishing nets and invading the cooling pipes of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. It is true that scientists have recorded an enormous number of blooms of salps and jellies in the past two centuries. But a group of research scientists argue that this “perceived increase in the number of jellyfish blooms may be a case of shifting baselines,” as they write in a paper published in the journal BioScience. “The public perception is shaped in the absence of a historical baseline and through a lack of continuity in the collective memory.”
The day after the Dyke March, meaning the day of Pride, when swaths of Manhattan become untraversable, I go to Riis. The beach was originally named after Jacob Riis, a muckraker who photographed New York immigrants in cramped and squalid tenement houses, exposing the cruel living conditions at the turn of the twentieth century. Riis died in 1914, the same year this beach became his namesake. He never lived to see the far eastern end of his beach become a haven for queer and trans people, which is perhaps for the best. Riis did worlds of good for the poor and destitute, but he did describe “Orientals” as sinister and Italians as unsanitary, so one can only imagine his stance on the homosexuals.
We swarm on the gay stretch of Riis, umbrellas standing neck-to-neck, towels overlapping, microclimates of speakers blasting Mariah and techno in a thudding, electronic din. The beach is not squalid, but it is far from pristine. The tides seem to funnel all the trash from the mile-long beach to the gay end of Riis, where plastic bags bob like crinkled jellyfish. Beyond the sand, the trash cans overflow, releasing the metallic wings of torn chip bags and
their confetti crumbs into the dunes, a banquet for seagulls. And behind it all, pressed up against the throngs of queers and our wafting flotsam, sits the abandoned sanatorium for children with tuberculosis, enrobed in chain-link fencing and garlanded in barbed wire. It seems hardly coincidental that the least scenic stretch of Riis Beach came to belong to queers. The straight people apparently did not want to spread their towels near the rockiest end of the strip, did not want to sun under the drab brick of the sanatorium, and so now it is ours.
Riis on Pride is the opposite of a parade sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. Riis is where I can see everyone I love, or at least everyone I love who is queer and lives in New York, which is a great portion of the people I love. On Sunday, at Riis, I see Olu, who tells me about her crush—she has a new one every month—and CV, who most likely drove my partner, T, and me there, who always manages to get sunscreen in at least one eye, along with Caroline and Indigo, if Indigo wakes up in time, and in the distance I see my ex, whom I sit with as T talks to their ex, and inevitably Natalie wanders by, always cruising, platonically speaking, crisscrossing the sand in search of scattered friends, and I see Kiyana and Rachel in their silky ivory tent by the hamburger stand, and I see Shirley and Lila, the cutest best friends, and I see Joey and Mads and Mer piled up under a red umbrella and Lisa starfished in her recliner, and I see my old barber Alana, her salt-slicked hair always perfect, and I see the ice-cream scooper I matched with on Tinder sitting with someone I met just yesterday on the street at the Dyke March and then again on the subway home, our meetings like bookends of a perfect day, and I see the couple I met at the march the year before when they were first falling in love and I was falling out of it, and I see Marion flinging herself into the waves, hours after the water stole her sunglasses, and I see Riis’s regulars, the older person in the black thong and the inflatable bull and the person who always sits fenced in by Barbies in drag and my favorite DJ and my favorite DJ’s favorite DJ and the lesbian potter who lives in my neighborhood and the group of friends I met at a launch for a novel about a lesbian taxidermist and I can’t remember all of their names but I know their faces and I wave and they wave and then, inside the swarm, I spy an empty patch of sand, and I run to it. I roll out my towel. I take off my shirt, my body hair crunching with salt, and I kiss T, who insists we put on sunscreen before we break out the paddleball, and I close my eyes as they coat my back in cool white slime, and I feel safe. It feels like pride, sure, but it also feels like liberation.
At Riis, we pass the speaker. We lend an umbrella. We share a six-pack, rosé, SPF 30, SPF 70, aloe vera for the pale or carefree. Goggles, a hat, a shirt when the clouds slip over the sun. A beer, the rest of a sandwich. Paddle- ball, a deck of cards, a phone number. We put our lips on the mouth of the inner tube and we blow. We swim out to the sandbar, hold hands, and dig our feet in so when a wave comes we are ready. When the sun disappears behind a cloud and the sky grows somber, we unfurl our umbrellas in a murmuring crackle. When the sun emerges again, we cheer. It is sunny again, for now.
For now, of course for now. Soon the sky will darken, the rain may come, and then winter. Some of us may move away, to another borough, to another state. Some of us may realize we are too old to schlep a cooler two hours on a bus to sit among shouting twenty-somethings. Some newcomers will step off the Q35 and see all of rainbow Riis for the first time and fall in love like we did and keep coming back. We are not forever. Riis may outlast us, but it will eventually disappear too, swallowed up by rising seas. But for now we are here. Now is the best day of our lives, until we come back. Now we soak up all this love until it rolls down our backs in salt and we jump, screaming, into the water. Right now we are so in love with one another that we need to cool down, to submerge until everything disappears so that when we surface and open our eyes, we are newly amazed. That it is all still here. That we are all still here.
When I learned that the eastern end of Riis had been a gay haven as early as the ’40s, or even the ’30s, I was stunned by the longevity of the site, and of what we had inherited. I’d imagined it dating back mere decades, not the better part of a century. The people who first frequented the beach were white gay men, of course. Lesbians (white) came in the 1950s, and in the 1960s queer Black and Latinx people staked a claim to the beach too.
Queer archivists and historians have maintained their own history of the beach, comprised of grainy gray photos with unidentified, smiling beachgoers and fliers for parties that took place in the 1960s. The more official record—histories collected by the government and mainstream media—memorialized Riis in reports of police raids on public sex in bathhouses and vague sociological observations of the beach’s queer demographics. In 1974, the New York Times announced eleven men had been arrested for engaging in sodomy in Jacob Riis Park. In 1991, the paper described the eastern end of the beach as “filled mostly with homosexuals.”
There are also the lovingly taken but anonymous photographs. A group of pasty-to-tanned men standing in a circle, a more pristine brick building behind them. A grainier group shot of women against a washed-out ocean squint- ing toward the sun. In one photo from the 1960s, a person wearing white heels, a white turban, and a white terry towel draped around their waist clasps their hand to their chest and looks behind them at the camera, brows arched. They are beautiful, like something conjured from the waves. When I look at these photos, I know without question these people are at Riis. It is not because of the generic expanse of sand or timelessly lapping waves but the familiar hulking brick skeleton that serves as the unintended backdrop of so many of our photos, in various states of decay. The sanatorium appears in the chiaroscuro photos of archives, in the sudden color of 1980s Polaroids, in the corners of our iPhone photos. Sometimes you can see the whole stalwart building, sometimes only its fence, some- times merely its long shadow. It anchors this place. It has seen us all. We queer beachgoers come and go, but the abandoned children’s tuberculosis hospital will always greet us when we return.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, children sunned on the decks that wrapped the hospital, taking the so-called heliotropic cure. The city closed the place in 1955, when a microbiologist from New Jersey cured tuberculosis. It reopened in 1961 as the first municipally operated elderly home in the city. In 1985, Mayor Ed Koch announced plans to transfer ten patients diagnosed with HIV/AIDS to an isolated, already vacant wing of the Neponsit Health Care Center. The Neponsit community, affluent and majority white and filled with misunderstandings of how the virus spread, protested, and Koch, who famously failed to take action amid the mushrooming crisis in New York, gave in to their demands. The patients died elsewhere, likely farther from the ocean. The hospital remained open until 1998, when a storm whipped through Riis Beach and peeled away stones and bricks from the building’s walls, leaving the sanatorium a dilapidated fixture in the city’s queer life.
In recent years, the hospital has been slowly taken over by those who treasure the beach. As I’ve watched the building crumble, I’ve also witnessed it become an altar of sorts, for queer lives past and future. In 2018, part of the concrete barricade blossomed into a memorial for Ms. Colombia, a per- former who wore dresses festooned with rainbows, dyed her voluminous beard highlighter yellow, and drowned in the waters off Riis one Wednesday morning. A vigil re-created her silhouette in fake flowers and garments pinned to the chain-link, and a muralist painted her name in gem-colored hearts. In the following years, elsewhere on the concrete, dykes & faggots run NYC appeared in bubbly graffiti. Someone scaled the hospital and painted at the top of one tower queer trans power in marshmallowy all-caps letters, a reminder of the urgency of our softness.
In the ocean, the bodies of salps are often repurposed by tiny amphipods whose glassy claws are speckled copper. One such amphipod, Phronima sedentaria, has bulbous eyes with crimson retinas that help it spot diaphanous creatures like salps in the open ocean. Once it spots a salp, P. sedentaria uses its grasping appendages to cling on to it, hollows out the tunicate with its scythe-shaped front claws, crawls inside the body, and carves out the creature’s quaggy insides with its knifelike mouth parts. Finished, it spends its days living inside its new conveniently aerodynamic cocoon, holding its front legs and body inside the salp and kicking its feathery tail legs out the other end. The amphipod lays hundreds of eggs inside the barrel shape of the salp’s body, a soft shield that dilutes the ocean current. This relationship is technically parasitic, but P. sedentaria is less a parasite than a parasitoid, a creature that kills its host. The amphipod more or less guts the salp as it takes over its body, but it also allows a strange and wonderful kind of cohabitation, between the living and the dead, or almost-dead. The salp is no longer fully there, but it has transformed beyond a creature to something like a shelter, a home. And, cells still alive, it continues to exist alongside the amphipod and the amphipod’s young, both eggs and newly hatched babies too small to leave. It is an eerie but pristine preservation of a body without rot or disintegration. It is, in other words, the closest thing I can imagine to living alongside a ghost.
I have never come close to drowning, but the possibility sometimes comes to mind when I am swimming in the waves. Sometimes at Riis, when a surging afternoon wave comes to us, perhaps more dangerous than we understand it to be, we stay in the water and scream together, alive, hearts pounding, and when the water retreats, we push our heads above water and gape, the cold air inflating us upright.
But that September at Riis, the day I swam with the blobs, their bodies teemed in the water so thick that drown- ing felt impossible. I knew, logically, this was not true, but each time I kicked, even thrashed, in the water, I touched something alive, or close to it. I felt as buoyant as I’d ever been, held in the water that day. I imagined myself a spineless, fleshless blob, 95 percent water, my body a water body. I imagined ourselves billions of years ago, a time before salps, all of us blobs in some primordial sea, becoming the first microbes. All of us on the cusp of inventing life. The first cells on Earth were more like bubbles, fatty molecules coating foam, and they wavered in and out of existence as they circulated in the ocean. Back then, the whole world was ocean, a globe made entirely of blue seas studded by occasional islands. The only place to live was underwater.
The poet Ross Gay asks if joining together all our sorrows—all our dead relatives and broken relationships, all the moments that make life seem impossible—if joining all these big and little griefs together, if that constitutes joy. As I watched the other beachgoers floating amongst the apocryphal blobs, all of us strangers until this strange, shared moment, I imagined my body chained to their bodies. My sorrows to their sorrows. My survival to their survival.
As I write this, I have not been to Riis in two years. At least, not the real Riis, the Riis that I know. I did go to the beach this past summer with my tiny pandemic pod and saw other pods in the distance, all of us afraid to draw too close to one another, and it did not feel like Riis. The sun was out, but it felt lonely. I don’t know when I will go to Riis again, but I want to, I want it, I want Riis, my swarm of people shimmering together in sweat-slicked murmurations, a sunburnt bait ball on the sand.
I want to see all of my exes—let them come—and to feel a surge of remembrance of the times I loved them most, our moments of greatest connection, the closest we came to imagining a future together, futures like building a home in the South, seeing the killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, growing old in the same town we grew up in. I want to see everyone who has moved upstate or to Los Angeles or grown distant for reasons beyond geography, tangled in their friends and lovers, ex-lovers, lovers-to-be. I want, impossibly and more than anything, to see the people who first found refuge on Riis, who sat in sand that no one else wanted, who lived in spite of the people who wanted them gone or dead. Maybe they imagined what the beach could become, or maybe they had no inkling of the future they were building, how their Riis would continue on and on and on. I want more than exists in the archives. I want to know them, to understand the texture of their lives, who they loved (and who they despised), how they spent their days, what they brought to the beach in bags or bundles, what music they heard or made, how they eked out joy. The tubercular children can come too, and sit among us while they soak in the promise of sunbeams, all of us relearning what it means to be cared for.
I want the breaking of each new wave to collapse the years that separate us into a single timeline, a single day at the beach, where no one is competing for space but where we are together, not just the people who have come to these shores but the creatures too: 28- and 29- and 30-foot-long humpbacks that have come to Riis to die, the last scuttlings of horseshoe crabs, bean-sized clams and the shorebirds that peck at them, the maybe-salps, along with every single strange and gelatinous thing that loses its shape when it leaves the water. I want all our soft bodies pressed together. I want all of us, teeming masses, swirling riot, heaped atop one another until we become something more than summer, more than life.
Excerpted from How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler. Copyright © 2022 by Sabrina Imbler. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.