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Rachel Carson on the Mysterious Magic of the Sea

In The Edge of the Sea, the legendary environmentalist reminds us that the underwater world is as fantastical as our favorite fictional universes.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Few people have shaped our view of the natural world as significantly as Rachel Carson. A marine biologist and the face of modern environmentalism, she questioned the popular belief that we should—and could—conquer nature: Is it truly wise to interfere with the patterns of non-human life, and is it right to do so?

Carson believed it is not, and she bolstered her argument with years of field research. The result was a series of revolutionary books, such as Silent Spring, which substantiated her claims about the adverse effects of synthetic chemicals. Public opinion of pesticides changed so drastically after Spring's publication that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, for short) was founded shortly afterwards.

But Carson's advocacy for environmental safety stemmed from her lifelong fascination with marine life. In 1955, she followed up her National Book Award winner, The Sea Around Us, with the equally moving and eye-opening The Edge of the Sea. Here, Carson examines the ecosystems dotting the North American coastlines, using lyrical prose to bring the rituals of “moon jellies” and other underwater phenomena to life.

As science fiction and fantasy readers, we love getting lost in universes populated by strange creatures. If anything, the following passages from The Edge of the Sea show us that those worlds are not so far away, after all—but simply lie beneath the surface of the ocean.

Read on for an excerpt of The Edge of the Sea, and then download the book.




The Edge of the Sea

By Rachel Carson

On Jellyfish:

During many days of midsummer, the incoming tides bring the round opalescent forms of the moon jellies. Most of these are in the weakened condition that accompanies the fulfillment of their life cycle; their tissues are easily torn by the slightest turbulence of water, and when the tide carries them in over the rockweeds and then withdraws, leaving them there like crumpled cellophane, they seldom survive the tidal interval.

Each year they come, sometimes only a few at a time, sometimes in immense numbers. Drifting shoreward, their silent approach is unheralded even by the cries of sea birds, who have no interest in the jellyfish as food, for their tissues are largely water.

During much of the summer they have been drifting offshore, white gleams in the water, sometimes assembling in hundreds along the line of meeting of two currents, where they trace winding lines in the sea along these otherwise invisible boundaries. But toward autumn, nearing the end of life, the moon jellies offer no resistance to the tidal currents, and almost every flood tide brings them in to the shore. At this season the adults are carrying the developing larvae, holding them in the flaps of tissue that hang from the under surface of the disc. The young are little pear-shaped creatures; when finally they are shaken loose from the parent (or freed by the stranding of the parent on the shore), they swim about in the shallow water, sometimes swarms of them together. Finally they seek bottom and each becomes attached by the end that was foremost when it swam. As a tiny plantlike growth, about an eighth of an inch high and bearing long tentacles, this strange child of the delicate moon jelly survives the winter storms. Then constrictions begin to encircle its body, so that it comes to resemble a pile of saucers. In the spring these “saucers” free themselves one after another and swim away, each a tiny jellyfish, fulfilling the alternation of the generations. North of Cape Cod these young grow to their full diameter of six to ten inches by July; they mature and produce eggs and sperm cells by late July or August; and in August and September they begin to yield the larvae that will become the attached generation. By the end of October all of the season’s jellyfish have been destroyed by storms, but their offspring survive, attached to the rocks near the low-tide line or on nearby bottoms offshore.

RELATED: 10 Incredible Books About the Ocean

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  • Moon jellyfish.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

If the moon jellies are symbols of the coastal waters, seldom straying more than a few miles offshore, it is otherwise with the great red jellyfish, Cyanea, which in its periodic invasions of bays and harbors links the shallow green waters with the bright distances of the open sea. On fishing banks a hundred or more miles offshore one may see its immense bulk drifting at the surface as it swims lazily, its tentacles sometimes trailing for fifty feet or more. These tentacles spell danger for almost all sea creatures in their path and even for human beings, so powerful is the sting. Yet young cod, haddock, and sometimes other fishes adopt the great jellyfish as a “nurse,” traveling through the shelterless sea under the protection of this large creature and somehow unharmed by the nettle-like stings of the tentacles.

Related: 12 Books With an Environmental Message 

Like Aurelia, the red jellyfish is an animal only of the summer seas, for whom the autumnal storms bring the end of life. Its offspring are the winter plantlike generation, duplicating in almost every detail the life history of the moon jelly. On bottoms no more than two hundred feet deep (and usually much less), little half-inch wisps of living tissue represent the heritage of the immense red jellyfish. They can survive the cold and the storms that the larger summer generation cannot endure; when the warmth of spring begins to dissipate the icy cold of the winter sea they will bud off the tiny discs that, by some inexplicable magic of development, grow in a single season into the adult jellyfish.”

On Coral Reefs:

On certain nights of the year, extraordinary events occur over the reefs. The famed palolo worm of the South Pacific, moved to gather in its prodigious spawning swarms on a certain moon of a certain month—and then only—has its less-known counterpart in a related worm that lives in the reefs of the West Indies and at least locally in the Florida Keys. The spawning of this Atlantic palolo has been observed repeatedly about the Dry Tortugas reefs, at Cape Florida, and in several West Indian localities. At Tortugas it takes place always in July, usually when the moon reaches its third quarter, though less often on the first quarter. The worms never spawn on the new moon.

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The palolo inhabits burrows in dead coral rock, sometimes appropriating the tunnelings of other creatures, sometimes excavating its burrow by biting away fragments of rock. The life of this strange little creature seems to be ruled by light. In its immaturity the palolo is repelled by light—by sunlight, by the light of the full moon, even by paler moonlight. Only in the darkest hours of the night, when this strong inhibition of the light rays is removed, does it venture from its burrow, creeping out a few inches in order to nibble at the vegetation on the rocks. Then, as the season for spawning approaches, remarkable changes take place within the bodies of the worms. With the maturing of the sex cells, the segments of the posterior third of each animal take on a new color, deep pink in the males, greenish gray in the females. Moreover, this part of the body, distended with eggs or sperm, becomes exceedingly thin-walled and fragile, and a noticeable constriction develops between this and the anterior part of the worm.

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  • Palolo worm.

    Photo Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica

At last there comes a night when these worms—so changed in their physical beings—respond in a new way to the light of the moon. No longer does the light repel and hold them prisoners within their burrows. Instead, it draws them out to the performance of a strange ritual. The worms back out of their burrows, thrusting out the swollen, thin-walled posterior ends, which immediately begin a series of twisting movements, writhing in spiral motions until suddenly the body breaks at the weak point and each worm becomes two. The two parts have different destinies—the one to remain behind in the burrow and resume the life of the timid forager of the dark hours, the other to swim up toward the surface of the sea, to become one of a vast swarm of thousands upon thousands of worms joining in the spawning activities of the species.

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During the last hours of the night the number of swarming worms increases rapidly, and when dawn comes the sea over the reef is almost literally filled with them. When the first rays of the sun appear, the worms, strongly stimulated by the light, begin to twist and contract violently, their thin-walled bodies burst open, and the eggs from some and sperm from others are cast into the sea. The spent and empty worms may continue to swim weakly for a short time, preyed upon by fish that gather for a feast, but soon all that remain have sunk to the bottom and died. But floating at the surface of the sea are the fertilized eggs, drifting over areas many feet deep and acres in extent. Within them swift changes have begun—the division of cells, the differentiation of structure. By evening of that same day the eggs have yielded up tiny larvae, swimming with spiral motions through the sea. For about three days the larvae live at the surface; then they become burrowers in the reefs below until, a year hence, they will repeat the spawning behavior of their kind.

On the Sea:

NOW I HEAR the sea sounds about me; the night high tide is rising, swirling with a confused rush of waters against the rocks below my study window. Fog has come into the bay from the open sea, and it lies over water and over the land’s edge, seeping back into the spruces and stealing softly among the juniper and the bayberry. The restive waters, the cold wet breath of the fog, are of a world in which man is an uneasy trespasser; he punctuates the night with the complaining groan and grunt of a foghorn, sensing the power and menace of the sea.

Hearing the rising tide, I think how it is pressing also against other shores I know—rising on a southern beach where there is no fog, but a moon edging all the waves with silver and touching the wet sands with lambent sheen, and on a still more distant shore sending its streaming currents against the moonlit pinnacles and the dark caves of the coral rock.

Then in my thoughts these shores, so different in their nature and in the inhabitants they support, are made one by the unifying touch of the sea. For the differences I sense in this particular instant of time that is mine are but the differences of a moment, determined by our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea. Once this rocky coast beneath me was a plain of sand; then the sea rose and found a new shore line. And again in some shadowy future the surf will have ground these rocks to sand and will have returned the coast to its earlier state. And so in my mind’s eye these coastal forms merge and blend in a shifting, kaleidoscopic pattern in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality—earth becoming fluid as the sea itself.

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  • Rachel Carson.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On all these shores there are echoes of past and future: of the flow of time, obliterating yet containing all that has gone before; of the sea’s eternal rhythms—the tides, the beat of surf, the pressing rivers of the currents—shaping, changing, dominating; of the stream of life, flowing as inexorably as any ocean current, from past to unknown future. For as the shore configuration changes in the flow of time, the pattern of life changes, never static, never quite the same from year to year. Whenever the sea builds a new coast, waves of living creatures surge against it, seeking a foothold, establishing their colonies. And so we come to perceive life as a force as tangible as any of the physical realities of the sea, a force strong and purposeful, as incapable of being crushed or diverted from its ends as the rising tide.

Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp. What is the message signaled by the hordes of diatoms, flashing their microscopic lights in the night sea? What truth is expressed by the legions of the barnacles, whitening the rocks with their habitations, each small creature within finding the necessities of its existence in the sweep of the surf? And what is the meaning of so tiny a being as the transparent wisp of protoplasm that is a sea lace, existing for some reason inscrutable to us—a reason that demands its presence by the trillion amid the rocks and weeds of the shore? The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.

Want to keep reading? Download The Edge of the Sea today.

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Featured photo of moon jellyfish: Wikipedia