Whale Barnacles

Donald Shephard

"The swimming larval stage places barnacles in the subphylum Crustacea. Unlike other members of their group, they retain a hard calcium carbonate shell throughout their life. Cryptolepas rhacianecti, the barnacle pictured here, lives only on Gray Whales."

Lynn sat in the dimmed auditorium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography taking copious notes as Professor J. Vaughan Thompson led a seminar on whale barnacles for postgraduates. She intended to cram as much information as possible about the Gray Whale before she interviewed for his research assistant position. Her investigations covered both the barnacles and the professor. Students regarded Thompson, a large, oddly dapper man, as cold and inaccessible as the oceanic environment of his beloved mammals. His secretary told her he married his research.

Lynn typed each word uttered during his seminars into her laptop, intent on capturing every detail. Later, when she transcribed her notes she focused on the pertinent data and omitted irrelevant comments. Professor Thompson continued his presentation.

"Although the shell offers great protection, it prohibits movement in adult barnacles for they are glued by their heads to the whale’s skin, using the strongest adhesive known to man. Limitations in movement lead to innovations in feeding and mating." He had embedded in his PowerPoint presentation a video of a barnacle feeding. Lynn watched two triangular opercular plates, at the top of the volcano-shaped shell, open and close, to allow access to the mantle, the barnacle body. A netted feeding apparatus, a plume-like hand protruded through the opening, between the opercular plates and into the ocean waters. It trapped plankton and transferred them to the mouthparts, which chopped, ground, and brushed this food into the mouth. The video ended and Thompson continued.

"Barnacles face another dilemma when they reach sexual maturity, and need to find a mate. Unable to cruise the bars for a compatible partner, they reach out and touch their neighbor with a prehensile penis that is seven to nine times their body length."

"Makes your eyes water," said a girl and the younger postgraduates laughed. Later, when Lynn reviewed her verbatim account of the seminar, she deleted the remark from her laptop.

Thompson glanced at his notes until the group settled.

"Fortunately, each of their barnacle neighbors can act as a functional-female, since all whale barnacles are hermaphrodites. A receptive partner will open its opercular plates when it feels a friendly knock on its shell. The functional-male can then deposit sperm inside the neighbor and fertilize the eggs in the mantle cavity. The eggs develop into tiny larvae that swim away into the sea. There they feed, grow, molt and eventually, if lucky, cement their heads to a passing Gray Whale to begin anew their life of obligate communalism, not unlike undergraduates.

"That’s all for today. Next week we’ll discuss the amphipods, whale lice and major food source."

Lynn reviewed her situation as she approached Thompson’s office for the research assistant interview. From senior programmer for Microsoft in Seattle she switched to re-entry student in La Jolla. Married with two children until the accident and now reluctantly free at thirty-eight, she buried herself in her studies to avoid the possibility of losing another family. She escaped the clouded skies of the north-west to begin a new life on the sunny border with Mexico, but her grief traveled south with her like coastal fog.  
"This is no time to scratch that old wound. Your life is turning around, some purpose may come of it yet," she said aloud as she walked the hall to Thompson’s office.

His secretary warned her of the professor's absence.

"He’s left you a question on his desk. Answer it and he’ll be along in fifteen minutes. At least that’s the official story, but he usually forgets in which case I’ll call him and he’ll turn up late. Good luck."

Lynn surveyed his office, as neat and logically arranged as his seminars. The bookshelves sported labels, as did the filing cabinets and the pictures had titles and the name of the artist on the frames. There were no personal photographs. His B.S. from U.C. Santa Cruz, his Ph.D. from U.C. San Diego and the citation for his D.Sc. hung framed above a side credenza. Opposite the long window with its Pacific view, the central wall held an enlarged photo of barnacles and lice. This frame lacked a title.

She sat at the desk and read the instructions. “Describe the environment from the point of view of the barnacle in the photograph opposite you.” She studied the picture again. In the upper left, she saw a single hair rising stiff and straight from a mound of supporting flesh. The hair indicated the skin of a mammal. A ring of whale lice encircled the base of each barnacle. Some of these amphipods showed signs of bacterial disease. She set her laptop on his desk and typed six pages, printed them on his machine using her wireless connection, edited and reprinted them before he belatedly returned. She rose to move around the desk but he waved her back. He sat in a side chair rapidly scanning her notes.

"Ah! Yes. The hair… young whale… possibly female… barnacles surrounded by whale lice… amphipods… You are ahead of next week’s seminar… Logical flow from bacteria to lower orders of animals to the mammalian host… wonderful…perfect… Miss er?" He scrambled to find her name on the first page.

"It’s Larsen," she looked directly into his eyes and saw reflected there, the setting sun, which brought a flashback of the fiery crash she alone survived. She closed her eyes and said, "It’s Mrs. Larsen."

"Damn,' he dropped his hand holding her paper onto his lap, "Oh. Excuse me but this position requires long hours, days even, away from home helping me excise barnacles from dead whales. It is hardly compatible with the functions of wife and possibly mother…" he trailed off.

"They are gone," she told him, "victims of a drunken driver," and she saw him wince and again the brilliance of pain pierced his eyes. He blew a protracted breath of two distinct notes.  
"How long ago?" he rubbed his forehead.

"Five years," she whispered. Although she planned to bury her grief, it erupted from her hardened will and spewed from her into the room with the pressure release of a whale spout. He listened in silence seeing only her silhouette darken as the twilight deepened into night, and then he switched on the light.

"I came out of the coma with no sense of smell so the dead whale stench will not bother me," she ended her story, slumped in the chair.

"I have anosmia too, also from a head injury we need not discuss now. The odor of a dead whale may not bother you, but I tell you from experience, the mouth tastes awful after a few hours of breathing those rotten vapors."  
He paused for a moment looking at her nose.

"You have the job, if you want it," he said.

She sat with her arms on his desk as the sunset faded to black and the smallest ember reflected in his eyes. Once again, the splintering noise of the crash flashed across the screen in her head but, for the first time, she suspected the pain of a fellow griever who shared her loss. Did an accident also deprive him of family? Does he share the relentless agony? It makes sense, she thought, his immersion in his research, the absence of family mementos in his office all pointed to a shell-encased person like herself. She stared at the network of veins on his hand as it emerged from his lab coat pocket and opened her palm to receive his touch. Not looking now, not daring to glance down, she gripped his ring finger and squeezed.

Back to ... Back to Stories | Home page