It was a stormy day in early November when I happened upon the grey and battered beach. Brown lumps of bladderwrack heaped on the sand like walruses on the high tide line. Huge cups of banded fanweed nestled in the wrack. Death was in the air as dozens of sea squirts pushed one last feeble breath of water from their aorta-shaped siphons.
Then there was the Globster.
Startling white it was, with a mass of tentacles like so much upturned udon. It splayed limp yet plump on the wet sand, commanding the beach not by its size but by its sheer unknowability.
I approached with suspicion in every sodden step. Was this some monstrous anemone risen from the deep? Some nest of hideous marine worms? Or was it something altogether more sinister and strange?
Cold drizzle peppered the back of my neck as I bent over the weird lump. I found a stick and turned it over. The mass was firm and jellylike, damp, with an inner sheen. It neither quivered nor tried to escape my cautious prodding. Recalling that everything in the sea is venomous, I drew a tentacle away from the mass with the end of the stick. Each individual tentacle appeared to taper down to a fine string, woven into a net encompassing a mass of detritus. The mass had no apparent foot or mechanism of defence. I knew it had to be toxic.
The seagulls kept their distance as I wandered the short bay, overturning bladderwrack with my stick. More white masses were exposed. Two more were large, the size of an adult’s brain. Another two were not much bigger than my balled fist.
The rain drove harder. Sheets of water fell across the sea. To the west, the escarpment was cloaked in deep grey cloud. A momentary merging of sea and land. Alas, I do not have gills. In lament of a bag and gloves, I left the Globster for drier land.
Only to return the next day. The small masses were gone. So was the week of heavy rain and cold water pushed from beyond the continental shelf. Sun shone on the bladderwrack, baking it crusty and black. The two large white masses had survived well, one slightly dehydrated. In its greying mass were revealed paler lumps. Each tendril carried five lumps, giving them the appearance of too-many jointed fingers.
I tried to guess how many tendrils there were. A hundred, two hundred? Could it be an egg mass? Thinking of anemones, I checked the creature for a mouth. A pair of silver gulls watched from a distance. There was no mouth.
Eager now, knowing the creatures were dead (if they had ever been alive) I found the stick I’d wedged in the sand and gently peeled tendrils away from the central mass. A grey stretchy latex-like material bound the tendrils to a central net, the gatherer of debris. Twigs and stringy weeds littered the tendrils. It was impossible to tell whether the tendrils were poking through the grey latex or were part of it. I would have to dissect it to find out.
Curious now more than I was frightened, I lifted one large mass on a stick and carried it to the water’s edge. When it dropped into the foot of a wave, its tendrils bloomed out weightlessly and carried the mass back to shore. It was limp, unresponsive, even in the water. But for the first time, it was not some hideous monstrosity washed up on the sand. In the water, one could see that it was functional, even beautiful. Its shape was that of a dozen jellyfish arranged on a multi-tiered cake stand. Alien as it was, it was somehow elegant.
I picked up the mass on the stick and flung it into deeper water. Whatever it was, if it had any chance of survival, it was in the sea.
Work beckoned in the afternoon, but all I had were questions about the solitary white mass left on the beach. I couldn’t tell if the thing were plant or animals. If it were dead or alive. I was unsure if it were a collective or single organisms or a strange clutch of eggs.
The home bell struck. I wandered into the workshop and picked a rubber glove from the box the mechanic keeps on his toolbox.
“I’m taking this,” I warned him. “And you won’t want it back.”
The mechanic was still shaking his head over the news that Trump looked to win presidency and didn’t deign to answer.
Well, forgiveness is easier attainted than permission, so I took my plastic bag and rubber gloves and trotted down to the beach. Right in the middle of Thirroul Beach are the big yellow buildings of the local surf lifesaving club. I ducked under the boathouse door and knocked on the tin roller. A couple of lifeguards on duty in the booth looked around.
“Come in, come in!” said the older of the pair, ushering me up the stairs to the booth. Beneath the panorama of rolling waves were clusters of tide charts and shift rosters. “What can we do for you?”
I shrugged. Regardless of the answer, I knew what I was going to do. “There’s a weird white thing washed up on the beach. I was wondering if you might know what it was?”
A brief description of the creature – like an overturned bowl of noodles – didn’t spark any fires, so I brought up a picture on my phone.
“Ew,” said the younger lifeguard. “What is that?”
“Never seen anything like it here before,” said the older. “What is it?”
“No idea,” I said. “But if you don’t mind, I might collect it and take it to the University for IDing. That’s if you don’t mind.”
Both lifeguards made noises of encouragement.
“Go do it!” said the older one as I ducked back under the roller door. “Make sure you come back and tell us what it is.”
Thusly bidden, I trekked up the beach, barely able to keep from running in the fear that the white Globster had already been taken, by man, tide or seagull, but equally gone.
But there it was, caught in the seaweed pushed up during the afternoon’s high tide, but not washed away. I donned gloves and bagged the mass. I scanned the beach. Not another mass was to be seen.
Though it was the more dehydrated of the two large masses, the thing was heavy. Heavy enough that I wandered into town and into the supermarket, where I sat the inconspicuous bag on the vegetable scales. 450 grams – a full pound.
Heavier still was the news that Trump had won the presidency. There was gloom in the workshop as I went to fetch the car. “This will cheer you up,” I said, to the pair of mechanics languishing by the radio. I opened the bag. “Guess what this is.”
The head mechanic peered into the bag. The scent of clean seawater drifted back. “Um. Is that a squid?”
“It’s an anemone, obviously,” said the hired help, an erstwhile technician resembling a seagull. “Clear as day. Anemone.”
“Anemones have mouths,” I told him. “This thing doesn’t. They also have tapered tendrils; these are blunt. It’s not an anemone.”
“Then it’s worms,” he said, but like the rest of the seagulls, he kept his distance.
Back home in the lab* I filled a bucket with water and spread out the dissection kit. Armed with tweezers and a scalpel, I began the long work of extracting debris from the tendrils. Soon I could see that a grey rubbery net bound the mass together, forming a cylindrical body distinct from the fronds of tendrils. Floating the mass in the bucket, these fronds became apparent; tiers of tendrils arranged around the narrow body. Furthermore, the body extended into a dark grey, thick rubber knob. Roots extended from one end of the knob; a hank of seagrass from the other.
A housemate wandered into the lab. Trump’s election speech had just played twice on the television.
“What is that?” said my housemate, Mungus. “It looks like the state of American politics.”
Mungus is an avid dissector and taught me all I knew. I could use his help on this project. “I don’t know what it is. Wanna help me dissect it?”
“Take gloves though,” I said, indicating the pack of latex gloves I’d bought as a cover for using the supermarket’s vegetable scales. “It’s probably venomous.”
Mungus took a glove and a razor blade. He sliced of a tendril. While the tendrils had some size variation, they averaged about the size of my pinky finger. Each one contained five transparent lobes kind of like young beans in a pod. Mungus ran the razor blade over the membranous skin of the tendril, cutting it open and extracting a lobe. It dissolved into water in his fingers. It truly seemed like we had some alien on the cutting board.
I cut through another, careful to avoid the lobes. The tendril was the texture of a gummy worm on a hot day. A stretchy membrane hooked on the scalpel and refused to tear. I yanked it and the entire thing split open. Each lobe averaged 8 mm long and 4 mm wide. As carefully as I lifted a lobe on the edge of the scalpel, it dissolved into water.
“Let’s cut through this part,” said Mungus, indicating the dark grey knob. He held it and I cut, slicing through a 15 mm wall of warm rubber.
“This plant grows right through it,” I said, to break the stunned silence. It was as if the plant had grown right up through this thick rubber tube.
“Is that plant part of it?” said Mungus. “Is this thing part plant, part animal? See the beads on the roots – they look just like the lobes on the tendrils.”
There seemed to be no more to the Globster. No brain, no lungs, no recognisable organs at all. Just the white tendrils and this grey knob with its symbiotic plant. Mungus took a photo.
“I’ll send this to a biologist professor friend. He might be able to help.”
He sent the photo via Messanger and soon we had a reply. ‘No idea! is it an anemone?’
“It’s not an anemone,” I said to Mungus, before he could say it. “It’s nothing like an anemone. We need another biologist.”
It was with a bit of searching that I found an email address for a chap in the University’s marine biology department. But email is slow compared to IM, and it was unlikely I’d hear back that night. I wrapped the Globster in catalogues and stowed in the freezer.
“Maybe we’ve found something new,” I said to Mungus that night. “Maybe it’s something really different.”
“Maybe they’ll name it after us,” said Mungus. “The Mungusopus anemone.”
“Let’s hope not.”
Mungus made eyebrows, and kept his peace.
For the next 20 hours, I checked my phone at every opportunity. Mungus texted me on the hour, every hour. The professor’s reply (and the news of our Nobel Prize) was unforthcoming. The lifeguards asked if we’d had any luck; I had to tell them no.
When at last the email arrived, it was simple, one line.
‘Egg mass. Squid or octopus sp.’
I messaged Mungus immediately. ‘We found something AWESOME. Squid egg mass.’
He replied within the minute. ‘Holy crap. That’s incredible. That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.’
A little research led to the tentative supposition that the eggs belonged to a Sepioteuthis australis, a Southern calamari squid. Common in shallow waters, the squid lays fronds of eggs that attach via a tough rubbery mass to plant matter on the seabed. Our grey knob was an anchor, tethering the mass to a hank of seagrass. The eggs were most likely freshly laid, being small and readily dissolved; as they develop, the eggs become more beadlike. The masses I’d found on the beach must have been yanked from their moorings like boats in a storm by the week of rough weather.
I went around to the surf club that evening to tell the lifeguards the news. “I’ve never seen anything like that on the beach,” said the older lifeguard. “You find anything else weird, come show us!”
Their enthusiasm was oddly charming. “Of course.”
That evening in the lab, I felt a slight sting of disappointed that we had not discovered anything new. The Mungusopus anemone was not to be. Yet so much more than disappointed, I realised I was thrilled. The ocean contains so many mysteries. The White Globster was only the first.