from The Secret Life of Lobsters

by Trevor Corson

Prologue, “Setting Out

At the helm of his lobster boat Jack Merrill yawned and scratched his beard, then draped his hand back over the steering wheel and looked at the cabin clock. It was a few minutes past 6 a.m. Jack was late this morning because

he had a task to accomplish before tending his traps.

But given how worried he was about the lack of lobsters,

it was a job he had to do.

A flash of reflected sunlight caught Jack’s eye. He nudged the wheel to starboard, aiming his bow toward a white wedge on the horizon. Reaching overhead, Jack dialed his VHF marine radio to the hailing channel. He plucked the microphone from its clip and cleared his throat.

“This is the Bottom Dollar, calling the R/V Connecticut,” Jack said into the mike, his voice gravelly. From a loudspeaker by Jack’s ear the response blasted back.

“This is the R/V Connecticut,” the voice said. “Go ahead.”

Jack winced and turned the volume down.

“Good morning,” he responded. “Is Bob up?”

“Yes. He’s expecting you.”

Fifteen minutes later Jack throttled back, twirled his wheel, and peered up at the ship that loomed above his boat. “R/V” stands for “research vessel,” and the Connecticut, operated by the Marine Sciences and Technology Center of the University of Connecticut, was a state-of-the-art platform for the study of undersea life. Her bridge rose from behind her soaring bow like the control tower of a small airport, and her aft deck was equipped with a variety of machinery, including a gray A-frame crane for launching submersible equipment off the stern. Crew members wearing flotation vests and carrying walkie-talkies deployed rubber bumpers from the Connecticut’s rail. Jack maneuvered the Bottom Dollar to the side of the ship with forward and reverse thrusts of his propeller.

From inside the Connecticut’s superstructure a compact man strode on deck. His name was Robert Steneck, and he was a professor of marine science at the University of Maine. He was smiling.

“Hey, Jack!” Bob shouted.

Bob Steneck and Jack Merrill had been friends for fifteen years. Marine research and commercial fishing were two different worlds, and for nearly a century the relationship between scientists and lobstermen in Maine had been one of open hostility. But with many of New England’s fisheries decimated by overfishing, Bob and Jack had joined forces in the hope of averting a similar disaster in Maine’s lobster fishery.

“Good morning, Bob,” Jack said. “I’ve got some numbers for you.”

“Excellent,” Bob said. He grinned and rubbed his palms together.

Bob pulled a notebook from his breast pocket. Jack produced a notebook of his own and read off several pairs of coordinates to the scientist -- numbers he wouldn’t have shared with his fellow lobstermen.

“That’s where I’ve seen them,” Jack said. “Big ones.”

“Good,” Bob said, jotting down the information. “We’ll take a look.”

The two men traded banter for a moment. Then Jack pulled away from the research ship, gunned his turbodiesel, and roared off toward his traps.

Bob stepped through a portal in the Connecticut’s bulkhead and strode through the ship’s laboratory. Passing the smell of breakfast cooking in the galley, he mounted a steep stairway to the bridge. Surrounded by navigational electronics and hydraulic control levers, Bob studied a nautical chart and mapped out the coordinates Jack had given him.

“Two outcrops,” Bob said, nodding. “Little underwater mountains.” He sipped from a cup of coffee. “Just where you’d expect to find big lobsters.”

Bob conferred with the Connecticut’s captain and put together a plan for the day. Bob was conducting a census of large lobsters. An average lobster in Maine waters required approximately seven years to grow to harvestable size. That was also about the age at which lobsters started to become sexually active, and lobsters old enough to copulate and reproduce were crucial to the health of the lobster population. If their numbers were dwindling, trouble could be in store for the lobster fishery. From the look of the catches this year, some feared trouble had already arrived. Bob wasn’t so sure. With the help of lobstermen like Jack, Bob hoped the waters off Little Cranberry Island might provide some answers.

Younger lobsters tend to live in shallow water and can be studied using scuba gear. The older lobsters Bob was after on this trip were another matter. They had been known to live at depths exceeding two thousand feet, though most of them probably didn’t venture much below several hundred feet. That was still too deep for comfortable diving with a scuba tank, so today Bob would remain aboard the Connecticut and send down the Phantom instead.

The Phantom was a submersible robot, referred to by the technicians who took care of it as a “remotely operated vehicle,” or ROV. The Phantom belonged to the National Undersea Research Program of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the past, NURP’s fleet of underwater robots had dived in exotic locales off Russia, in the Great Lakes of Africa, and at the North and South Poles. But NURP had granted Bob use of the Phantom for a mission closer to home: for the next ten days the robot would be stalking lobsters off the coast of Maine. Armed with searchlights, video cameras angled both forward and down, four whirring propellers, and a pair of lasers, the Phantom was likely to dominate an encounter with any lobster, no matter how large and antagonistic.

Or so Bob hoped. A few years back he’d been aboard a nuclear submarine owned by the U.S. Navy, cruising the sea floor off the continental shelf, when the sonar operator had reported a target at two hundred meters. Bob had slipped into the cramped observation module belowdecks. There, through a six-inch-thick glass portal, he’d been faced with the largest lobster he’d ever seen. She was a four-foot-long female, probably weighing thirty or forty pounds. She had turned toward the submarine and defiantly raised her claws.

The foregoing text is excerpted from The Secret Life of Lobsters, copyright © 2004 by Trevor Corson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

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