words by Stephanie Martin
illustration by Ryan VonMinus
When I finished my undergraduate degree, I decided to take a year off to work before heading back to school. I was nineteen. I packed up all my belongings and moved to a new city and state — Savannah, Georgia. I managed to get a low paying job working at an oceanography institute as a research assistant in organic geochemistry. I was more or less a glorified lab rat, minus the nifty wheel to run in. The institute is located on an island south of Savannah, surrounded by the Skidaway River, estuaries, ocean, and pristine coastal habitats. I can still smell the intoxicating mix of wet earth and salt whenever I think about it.
Besides working in the lab, I got to spend time on multi-day oceanic research cruises, collecting and sifting through gallons and gallons of mud I dug up from the shore line, and separating invertebrate organisms from deep ocean sediment. Just another day at the office, I thought.
All of the researchers, technicians, and interns from my building always ate lunch together, like birds of a feather. I mostly listened as they talked about drama within the oceanography community, papers they were trying to publish, where you can get the best coffee in Savannah, how so-and-so got rejected for funding, and local cultural events; useful information.
During one lunch hour, one of the rather quirky scientists — let’s just call him Poindexter — started talking about how it was almost the last lunar quarter of the year, which triggers his favorite event, epitoky. “What is that?” I asked. “Three words: glowing worm sperm,” he replied with little hesitation. I was intrigued and also a little concerned he was just fucking with me. I could only respond with a meek, “Seriously?” He asked me if I wanted to join him to watch. “Of course!”I said, because why not? Everyone else sort of laughed it off.
A few weeks later he told me to meet him at midnight, about a half mile down the road, at the wooden stake with a black “x” on the side of the road. These situations always end well in horror movies, right?
I drove down to the island arriving at about 11:45 pm. I finally found the stake on the side of the road with the help of my headlights after making several failed attempts to find it. I had never noticed the stake before. I parked and looked up at the sky. It was so dark; no light pollution, no clouds, everything was vibrant, the moon almost intoxicating. After a few minutes, Poindexter showed up. “Follow me.”
We climbed over a small fence and walked down a dirt path for roughly a quarter mile. The path was almost black, illuminated only by Poindexter’s tiny flashlight and some moonrays. A narrow, wooden dock appeared at the end of the path. The dock sat over an estuary, full of shallow muddy water, a mix of river and sea. “Just wait,” he said, still sticking to your classic horror movie template. We sat in silence for twenty minutes, but it could just as well have been three days. All I could think was, “What the hell are we doing out here?”, “How well do I actually know this guy?”, “Is this an elaborate joke?”. Suddenly, he yelped in half whisper, “It’s time!”
My eyes darted around. Nothing. Then I noticed these 1-2 inch long packets floating on the water. One after another, they were popping up to the surface from the water below. After a few minutes, the water was covered with a squirming blanket of fleshy packets. “Those are the epitokes!” he squealed in pure elation. Epitokes, I later found out, are the reproductive segments of marine worms engorged with sperm and eggs with tiny eyespots on the outer surface.
As the breeding season nears, these marine worms begin to develop additional rear body segments until the worm becomes clearly divided into two halves. The front half, called the atoke, is non-sexual and the back half is the sexual epitoke, the writhing “packets” we saw covering the waters surface. The lunar cycle triggers the worms to release their epitokes.
The eyespots on each epitoke sense when it has reached the surface triggering the squirmy packets to burst open! One after another, the segments burst open like overstuffed balloons releasing millions of eggs and sperm into the water. Each burst resulting in a short bioluminescent glow on the waters surface. Finally, the glowing sperm!
Ten minutes after the first burst, all of the glowing had stopped, the water covered in the shrapnel of torn worm flesh. He told me that by morning it would look like nothing happened at all. Birds, fish, and other invertebrates would consume the remaining tissue. I was stunned and overwhelmed while walking back to my car.
On the way home, Poindexter asked, “Want to go worm grunting next week?”. ◥