The Monkey on My Back
I swear, I was just minding my own business, doing my early-morning, power swim around a rocky point off the Seri people’s now un(human)inhabited Isla Tiburon (Spanish for shark) when the unbelievable happened. This, Mexico’s largest island, is a truly tough place for even an omnivorous mammal to survive on spiny cactus fruits, the artichoke-like hearts of agaves, and frighteningly scant fresh water. Only a few hundred resilient, creative, and wily Seri ever managed to live on Tiburon before the Spanish arrived. But if you could subsist on beauty alone you would grow fat here among the burnished-orange rocks polka-dotted with surreally turquoise collard lizards.
That unforgettable morning I was swimming alone as usual (Paul is not a morning person, especially if frigid water is involved) with my dive mask on, just pondering the limpets I could see imperceptibly gliding over the surface of the splash zone rocks, wondering what hook I could use to grab you and get you to read about limpets, when I suddenly felt something of tooth or claw grabbing onto my wet-suited back!?!
What happened is still hard for me to believe. I’ll tell you about it after I expound about limpets and what relationship/life lessons we can scrape from them as they scrape food off those sea-pounded rocks. I mean really, would you read about limpets otherwise? I promise that their otherworldly wonders will amaze and perhaps enlighten you as they have me.
First, what the heck IS a limpet? Well, they’re the animals who make those non-spiraling, cone-shaped shells that most folks tend to ignore when beach combing. You may be most familiar with similar-looking non-limpets who sport a little dollhouse-sized “keyhole” in the top of their shells or the non-limpets who are more oblong and have a shelf underneath making them “slipper shells” that can cradle a Barbie™ doll’s tootsies (Yes, I used them as such when a kid). The true limpet animals themselves are old-school archaeogastropods, ancient shell-making snails who move around on one single foot while spookily staying firmly attached to their home rock instead of being swept out to sea where toothy predators await. As they imperceptibly glide along, they eat by scraping algae off the rocks. These vegans rasp with anywhere from 1 to 750 sand-paper-like teeth (radula) that wear down and are replaced, conveyor belt style, like sharks’ teeth. Except limpet radula wear down and are replaced every 12-48 hours! And do you know what the strongest substance in the animal kingdom is? Yep, limpets’ iron-infused radula!
We human’s haven’t even figured out the seemingly occult alchemy limpets use to biomineralize their matrix of chiton (similar stuff to the keratin in your nails and hair) to create radula. They store iron in their cells and with some chemical voodoo convert it to goethite crystals. Goethite (named after not just any dead white dude but the famed German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)) is a mineral we’ve been using since our ancient relatives used it to create red-ochre pigment to paint those haunting scenes on cave walls such as France’s famed Lascaux. But that’s not the most amazing and insightful thing about limpets. As I swam I was wondering how in this world they manage, with their single foot/muscle, to cling to the rocks so steadfastly (you’ can’t pry them off) and yet be on the move? Is there some Faustian bargain involved? In order to travel so supernaturally over the rocks must they trade in their sure-footed, soulful hold on the Earth?
It’s all in the mucus. Think of a slimy garden-snail trail with magical superpowers. Their foot makes and secretes a substance that consists of mostly water with one secret ingredient: a protein with a trick up it’s long, molecular sleeve. The chemical bonds that hold the protein together actually separate when under the stress made by the foot muscle’s undulating motion. When those electron bonds break, the mucus becomes an extra-slippery slime allowing the animal to glide along as smoothly as a ghostly demon sliding under your bed. But when the foot stops moving, the stress is relieved and those molecular bonds re-join and the mucus now acts as a glue, holding the foot as surely to the rock surface as that clawed demon will grasp your dangling foot. What’s most personally inspiring to me is that the limpet animal can move the stress action along their foot in a wave flow so that they are simultaneously creating slippery slime from the undulating areas while making glue in the still areas, allowing them to stay firmly attached while eating on the go!
So, why is this so relevant to me and maybe you? What can we learn from these ancient, unimposing, gooey snails whose shells are not even prized for their beauty? When people find out that I live and work full time on a sailboat with my partner, Paul, they wonder how it is that we manage not to push each other’s buttons. Oh, but we DO! When I was younger, I naively thought that a “good” relationship meant that you rarely disagreed or argued, and certainly didn’t push each other’s buttons. Now, with the limpet showing me the way, I see that when Paul triggers my gotta-have-control buttons that’s actually the stress I need in order to keep moving and flowing and growing into a more grace-filled person. If he didn’t give me that irritating push, I’d just hunker down with my safe-feeling glue and never change. Of course, if he puts too much stress on me by pushing my buttons too hard then I just freeze up and become fixed-in-place. I sort of think of my stubborn, Bowman-girl will as the hardest substance in the human-animal world.
OK, let’s get into some slimy specifics. You might recall from my blog posts from the wild Revilligigedos dive trip last spring that I’ve been struggling to creep forward and out of an exercise addiction/eating disorder. I made some big strides after my ecstatic and near-death experiences there, but I’ve felt old glue . . . that clinging for control of what goes into my body and what I do with my body . . . creeping back in, trying to bind me. I want to change, to glide forward, and let go of control that’s just an illusion anyway. I still want to eat healthy and be active but to do both by taking pleasure and making joy, instead of doing the constant mental math of “I ate food so now I need to run/hike/swim this hard and long” and the inverse “I ran/hiked/swam that hard and long so now I can allow myself to eat food”. You may laugh, I know how ridiculous it must read, but after thirty years of living and thinking that way every single day, and thinking that if I don’t do it, I’m going to become unlovable at best (really, was I trying to look like my Barbie™ dolls?) and/or drop dead of a heart attack way too young like my parents did. Plus, that “runner’s high” is the soma I use to keep my anxiety at bay (so to speak).
Paul has been pushing to sail further away from bay and visit far-flung, challenging places more and more. That means spending days, even weeks without getting off the boat to run, hike or swim and risking running out of fresh produce to eat. The guy knows me well. When he was courting me, he once met me at the Quito airport with a bouquet of fresh spinach leaves in hand and on his lips a promise to get up early the next day to hike to the top of an Andean volcano. He also knows that I need to move forward by learning to sometimes just be still. Ugh, I hate and love him for it simultaneously! Can I do it? I’ll have my first challenge at the super-wild and inhospitable (to humans) Isla San Pedro Martir very soon. Can I be like those limpets and stick to my rock of healthy habits while simultaneously letting go and gliding away from their constant hold on me or will I lose my footing and get washed away into the waiting jaws and claws of my own fear? And, I now wonder, do I in turn provide my partner with the right amount of slime-making pressure to move himself forward? I hope so but, honestly, I’m not sure. Paul has his own stubborn blind spots and I’m not known for my subtle messaging. I mean, how many times have I told him he should meditate and he swears he can’t stop his swarming thoughts long enough to focus? Ok, enough about my neuroses. You want to know about those real claws I felt on my back as I swam around the point of Tiburon’s Dog Bay!
Whatever it was (and it all happened in seconds) it was actually up on my back and, it seemed, scrambling to stay there. My first thought was that perhaps I spooked one of the pelicans who like to hang out on those detached rocks off the point and she was injured and unable to fly or float and sort of landed on my back and was struggling to stay on while at the same time wishing dearly to be off this freaky swimming beast. Nope. I peeked over my left shoulder just in time to see a coyote launching off my back onto the nearest limpet-speckled rock! And, behind that rock, the perked-up ears and attentive eyes of her partner in trickery. I gave out some sort of wild yelp that both Paul and our dog, Gizmo, heard from the boat. Paul pointed his camera (What a hero!?) and snapped this shot of the two of them turning around as I stubbornly continued my power swim around the point to the adjacent, out-of-sight bay.
As I swam, I thought that they must’ve just been curious about me. After a couple weeks anchored in their bay, their pack and ours had exchanged nighttime howls and they liked to rifle through our kayak when we left it ashore to go hiking, as you can see from the video to come. But, when I got to that other bay, there was more of their pack, another pair, waiting for me! They tracked me all the way around the cobbled shoreline and seemed eager to “meet me” at that bay’s far rocky point. One of them scrambled up the cliff towards the far side of the outcrop. I turned around before they could ambush me there like the other two had. However, one of them was persistent and stayed right by my swimming side all the way back to what we now and will forever call “Coyote Point”. I kept my distance from the rocks this time, staying out too far for a wily coyote leap. I suddenly heard yipping-howling at which my lone tracker turned back and disappeared. When I got back to Triplefin I learned that the four canids gave up their seeming plans to converge on me in order to hide behind the dune when they saw Paul paddling the kayak to shore for a hike. That’s when Paul set up the camera on the kayak on the beach and recorded this video of one tearing the seat strap and nosing under my yoga mat.
So, what was going on? I’ve lived and trail-run daily in several places in the desert outside Tucson for over 20 years and I’ve had quite a lot of truly interesting coyote encounters. I’ve sensed some eerie need to look over my shoulder and found a coyote at my heels several times. I’ve watched my once-young son get buzzed by a couple coyotes while zooming around on his scooter. I’ve even had one play peek-a-boo with me while I was doing aerobics on the opposite side of a creosote bush. I have never felt threatened by them. I have laughed off other folks when they express fear of coyotes. Now, I just learned, these Tiburon beasts are a special sub-species of coyote, endemic to (found only on) Isla Tiburon and it seems they have also behaviorally adapted to island life. We just found this one scientific document of them preying on a plunge-feeding, blue-footed booby by jumping onto her from the rocks of a Tiburon point! Indeed, I asked my friend who is a wildlife veterinarian what she thought and without hesitating she said, “Oh, they were trying to drown and eat you.” So, I think whether it’s whales, sharks, island coyotes, or limpets, this wild Sea of Cortez is telling me to wake the heck up and move forward! Which, ironically, for me, means learning to be more still. Or at least more in slow-flow, spooky, limpet motion without losing my healthy grip. Maybe our upcoming time at crazy-wild Isla San Pedro Martir will even return some of my soul that I sold decades ago. Until then, I'll leave you with this must-see B-movie cult film: