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March on the southern Californian coast the days are long and hot, with a clear bright light that evaporates the smallest tide pools in the space between tides, leaving nothing but thick crusts of salt and the desiccated remains of whatever creatures are unfortunate enough to be stranded there. At six a.m. on Point Lobos, however, there were no tide pools, but only a deep sandstone cove in the shape of a horseshoe, filled with a tourmaline swell. There had been a high wind out of the equator and thunder in the night, but the sun was rising and it looked to be another sweltering day.
A small tide pool sculpin, Oligocottus maculosus, was lurking in the swash zone close to the base of the sandstone cliff. It had been hunting bay shrimp in the high tide, but when the wind had picked up and the breakers become more powerful, it had taken refuge on the dimpled bottom where the velocity of the water was the least. There it had passed the hours resting with its fins flat on the sand, listening to the limpets comment on the ferocity of the storm. Once, when a particularly violent combination of waves had woken him from a slight doze by skidding him across the sea floor, he noticed how the slipstream over the conical shells of the limpets was faster than the surrounding water, and he made a game of riding back and forth over their ranks, ignoring their indignant protests. Eventually their protests turned to taunts, that he was no threat to them, he couldn't flip them over to feast on their tender bellies, and they hoped he enjoyed the storm and all the predators likely to be out in. He drifted off and half-buried himself in the sand again, burrowing underneath with careless sweeps of his flat, wide head.
By seven a.m., the storm had vanished completely, but the water was still rough from the long fetch of the wind. Tide pools were forming as the backwash withdrew, but their surfaces had barely stilled before the next surge filled them to overflowing again. The sculpin knew that sooner or later the surge would not reach the shallow depression he was sheltering in, and he would therefore, if he didn't want to spend a hungry day submerged in mud which might easily dry out, have to start finding his way back over the shelf to his home pool, or, failing that, the sea. The water was rougher than he liked, and he had to steel his nerve before choosing his moment to ride the backwash over the lip of his crater. He shuffled back and forth in anticipation, and then, not wanting to show himself up in front of the limpets, he hurtled with all his strength into the bore and was rewarded with a brief and thrilling ride safely over the lip into the next pool, a deeper one with a sandy bottom.
He rested for a moment at the bottom of the pool. Clearly it was no permanent refuge. It was deeper than the last pool, that was true, but it was still small enough to evaporate entirely over a long summer day, or at least enough so that the temperature of the pool and the increasing salinity of the remaining water would become unbearable. The sculpin was proud of his tolerance and knew he could spend limited time in conditions worse than other fish could survive, but he had not had a successful night's hunting and didn't want to wear himself out before the next tide. Bay shrimp, his favorite food, were lightning fast, and quite sarcastic.
There was nothing to be done but ride the backwash over the lip again, and hope to find either an especially large tide pool, or a channel back home. This time he had to wait a longer time for a suitable volume of water to skim the roof of the pool, and he rejected several waves as being too shallow to carry him over into the unknown territory beyond without the risk of stranding. He was nervous. About him the local animals were making preparations for what promised to be an extremely hot day: Anthopleura anemones were patching gaps in their coats of fragmented shell, limpets were grinding deeper into their home scars in the rock as for a long nap, and a few periwinkles on a ledge to his right were closing their opercula and sealing their completely sealed shells to the rock with mucus. When the right wave passed and he coasted over the top he was waved at by two crabs he knew who were passing over an outjutting rock. He had time to see them retreat out of the sun into a moist crack at its base before he was plunged into the third and largest tide pool yet.
Out of habit the sculpin dropped sharply down the side wall and sheltered under a ledge in order to have time to get his bearings and check for predators. Once he had a firm grip on the rock, with no current action likely to pry him loose, he immediately began manipulating his chromatophores. Slowly his dappled red-brown body became a sandy grey, and, when he was satisfied with the match, he started to sort out the various scents of the pool. The rock walls arched overhead and enclosed the morning sky in a disc.
Home, the deep pool he shared with two older sculpins, was not far away. He could smell it: a unique flavour of ulva sea lettuce, some exposed iron ore, a preponderance of blue mussels, and that deep fissure in the bottom of the pool that sheltered an ancient and crotchety giant rock scallop. All the local barnacles said that the scallop had been there longer than any of them, which put its age in the decades. No wonder it was bad tempered, the sculpin often thought. Fifty years without swimming and I'd be grumpy myself. His territory was the deepest part of the pool, where he shared the fissure with the scallop. It was not prime territory, the older sculpins gave him a hard time, and it was generally a long trip to feed each day, but it was home and he was young yet.
Gradually he sorted out the different threads of scent. There were predators, but their scents were degrading, so they were not nearby. The smell of home was funneling in through a channel on the other side of the pool. The sculpin knew exactly where he was. He was in an oval-shaped pool he sometimes passed through that typically did not offer any good hunting itself. When the tide was out, the pool was connected to the next by a small channel, only a few inches deep. Home was through that channel and a series of connected waterways. Under his ledge, he allowed himself a few minutes of rest and self congratulation before he jetted up to the opening of the channel.
Immediately his attention was distracted by the luminous green body of Sitka shrimp which was sitting in the mouth of the channel, antenna flagella quivering. He checked his glide path, arrowed in on the shrimp, then stopped, pectoral fins working to check his attack.
Shrimp's scared, he thought. And it isn't scared of me.
The sculpin relaxed his fins and drifted down to the level of the rocks below. The shrimp saw him and tail-flipped, vanishing down the channel. The sculpin settled, checked the color of the rock, and immediately began working traces of pink into his grey body.
The octopus had not seen the sculpin. He could smell her clearly now, a mid-sized Octopus bimaculoides, and he could smell she was not excited. That meant she had not caught the shrimp as it passed, and so she was not hunting. It was lucky for him, because if he had ventured down the channel, she would have seen him first with her sharp eyesight, and might have sprang out at him, hungry or not. The question now was whether she was moving towards him or away.
After waiting motionless for a long time, he became aware of the stillness of the surface of the pool, and the compression waves of the breakers that seemed far distant now. The tide was out.
With inconspicuous movements of his pectoral fins, he raised himself above the rock and drifted up level with the opening of the channel, without getting too close. He could see nothing but the short passage of clear water through which many red copepods, Tigriopus californicus, were passing and commenting happily on the weather. The sculpin didn't like Tigriopus because, for all their diminutive size, they were one of the few species that could outlast him in waters of high salinity and temperature. They positively thrived in evaporating pools.
The way seemed clear enough. He drifted a little closer. When he was actually sitting in the mouth of the channel, he could see at last that it was vacant and the octopus had been heading in the other direction, having not noticed him. He congratulated himself, not for the first time, on his phenomenal powers of smell, and commenced to wriggle down the shallow channel. He could smell shrimp on the other side, and his hunger encouraged him. He was half-way down the channel when a bright golden garibaldi fish, approaching from the opposite direction, abruptly veered off its course and vanished back the way it had come.
The sculpin sank down to the rock, heart pounding.
That was almost it for you, he thought. The octopus is lying in wait under the ledge at the other end. That's a cephalopod, fool. Almost as smart as you.
Blind panic overtook him and he reversed direction with a splash and shot to the bottom of the pool he had come from. Once at the bottom he wedged himself as deep as possible in a fissure and stirred up the sand around him with a wild beating of fins. It settled, hiding him from view, until he realized he'd turned a bright orange in his fright.
The sculpin spent the entire morning feeling the water get warmer and smelling the octopus scent get stronger. His eyesight was not good enough to see to the top of the pool, but the predator stench told him that the octopus was now blocking the channel, or indeed even in his pool. Once in the pool with him, the octopus could move faster and see better than he could. His sole advantage was his protective camouflage, which was more developed than the octopus', who remained an ugly red against her backdrop of grey rock. He passed the hours fine-tuning his chromatophores until he exactly matched the shade and pattern of the rock he lay wedged half-under.
By early afternoon the pool was distinctly hot, and the octopus smell was abating. Unfortunately, the channel was the only way out, and the octopus was still between him and his home pool. Once he was sure he was the biggest organism in the pool, he emerged from under the rock and swum a few laps to get his thoughts moving again. He settled on a rock on the opposite side to the channel.
It seemed safe enough for the temporary refuge he wanted. Sooner or later the tide would return, and he could ride it out any direction he pleased. He was, however, famished, and the thought of food was clouding all other thoughts out of his spade-shaped head. In his laps around the pool he had noted two Stichaster starfish on the walls. Stichaster, though they are certainly feared by every slow and sessile animal on the coast, are no threat to a sculpin, but they are no food, either. There were also the usual assortment of barnacles, some blue mussels, and plenty of anemones forming a dense turf with their deadly nemotocysts.
On the ledge next to him a Balanus barnacle remarked: "Getting warm, isn't it?"
The sculpin ignored him.
"This isn't your usual pool, is it? I haven't seen you here in the middle of the day before."
"No," said the sculpin shortly.
"It's not a bad pool. Not a lot of traffic but some good wave action. It's all right if you like peace and quiet."
The sculpin said nothing. They were silent for a time.
"I wonder," said the barnacle presently, "If you see that snail at the other end of this ledge we are on."
The sculpin had smelt the snail long ago as it moved incrementally down the wall of the pool, a dogwinkle, Nucella canaliculata, a long way from its muddy home and acting very irate. "Hmph," he said unconcernedly.
"If you felt like it, and sent it off in the other direction, I'd be extremely grateful."
"Not my problem," said the sculpin. Barnacles were friendly enough, but once they started asking you for favours there was no end to it. Nevertheless, and making a big show of grazing the algae on the ledge, the sculpin accidentally tipped the snail over the edge with the tail of his narrow body. It fell harmlessly to the sand on the tide pool floor, retracted tightly into its shell.
"Thank you," said the barnacle.
"Now don't bother me," said the sculpin. "I'm thinking."
But he couldn't think. All he could think of was food.
"If it's any help at all," said the barnacle, "the octopus caught a big kelp crab last night."
"What's that to me?" asked the sculpin.
"I just thought that, since it was a very big crab, the octopus is unlikely to be hungry."
"I don't care at all about any octopus," said the sculpin.
"It's just that it was such a very big crab," said the barnacle quietly. "Though I know you don't care."
The sculpin was wriggling from one end of the ledge to the other and back again. The threat of seagulls was quite forgotten: all he could imagine were the fat green shrimp and the large red octopus on the other side of that channel. He tried to distract himself with thoughts about his home pool and the deep fissure where he lived side-by-side with the scallop, but it was no use. He could not escape the octopus's attack, and he could not go without eating. Both prospects were unimaginable. By mid afternoon, a good two hours before the tide, waiting was no longer an option. He investigated once more futilely around the tide pool for food, then collected himself on the ledge for his lighting assault on the channel. As he gathered his strength he wiggled his tiny tail back and forth, wishing it was the size of a dolphin's.
"How big was that crab?" he absently asked the barnacle. "Not that it's anything to me."
"Very big. I'd say twice as big as you."
"Well," said the sculpin. "See you."
"See you," said the barnacle.
And he was gone, leaving a cloud of drifting sand. He sped up to the channel and almost broke surface as passed the length of its few inches into the next pool. He had to fight desperately against his instinct to drop down the side keeping close to the wall because that was where the octopus would be waiting. But in the end he saw a Sitka shrimp sitting on the sand at the bottom and hunger overwhelmed him utterly: he dropped into a dive and swallowed it.
When the shrimp was down he started foraging around in the sand for more: they often buried themselves with just their eyestalks showing. He was so pleased to have something in his stomach that several moments passed before he fully understood the octopus had gone. It must have exited the pool at the other end, and after catching one more very tiny shrimp, the sculpin went the same way. Then it was just a matter of tracing the scent until he reached his home pool.
The sculpin settled gratefully into the bottom of his fissure, taking care to avoid touching the giant rock scallop, who was grumbling to himself as usual.
"Well?" said the scallop. "What's new up there?"
The sculpin wanted nothing more than to settle into the sand and wait until hunting time came. But neighborliness demanded that he not antagonize the scallop.
"I saw an octopus," he said.
"Big deal. Even I saw one of those today. Big red brute."
"I spent all day hiding from it. It turned out it wasn't hunting."
"This one was. She came through here in the afternoon and ate the big fat sculpin that lives under the black rock."
"The black rock?"
"That's right. He was asleep. Didn't have a chance. Hey, where are you going?"
The sculpin wasn't there to answer. He had shot out from the fissure and gone to gleefully explore his new territory.