About the Author

Jeff Quinn is class of 2010 at MIT in the Department of Biological Engineering. His essay is a glimpse at his childhood relationship with his father, a relationship that even now—more than ten years later—has not changed much from what is depicted in "The Great Undersea Search."

The Great Undersea Search

by Jeff Quinn

I know the entire contents of the two-page spread by heart, I've stared at it so often. The Great Undersea Search is, after all, my favorite book. It's kind of like the I-Spy book series, but it's more educational, and has a different marine ecosystem on each page—the "Mangrove Swamp," or the "Deep Sea," or the "Great Barrier Reef."

But my favorite page is the "Tide Pools." There's a cross-section of one tide pool, and there are other pools in the distance, each sitting in a rock like a bowl of sea-life soup. A big pink octopus hides in the centerfold of the page, his arms radiating out and grabbing blue crabs, red crabs, sea stars, and prawns with long feelers. The prawns are always difficult to find because there are so many of them and they're basically see-through. The pool surface looks like rocky, living carpet, as it is covered in animals: limpets and multicolored anemones and clams and starfish and barnacles and mussels and sandy, bubbly kelp. Seals play out in the bright blue ocean waves, and birds nest on the cliff-side. The commotion and the beauty just seem so perfect to me.

Someday I want to go to a tide pool like this one and see all the animals. I fantasize about this, and even make a list of equipment I'll need when I finally do go: goggles and a snorkel (for viewing the animals in the water), a fishing net and glass jars (for catching some critters), big boots and a metal stick (for poking around), and some sandwiches (for a picnic out on the beach—probably peanut butter and jelly). Wouldn't it be cool to catch one of those tiny prawns and keep it as a pet?


I look out my bedroom window from the top bunk—it's still dark out. Dad just woke me up and told me to get dressed and that we're leaving. He says he's going to take me to the beach to see tide pools. If it weren't so early I'd be bursting with excitement.

When we leave the house, it's really cold out. I shiver and think, I'm glad Dad made me bring my sweatshirt, the Disneyland one. He gets in the AstroVan on the driver-side and, smiling inwardly, I open the passenger-side door. I never get to sit shotgun. Mom usually gets it, but when she doesn't come with us somewhere, Rachel and Tara fight over it, and I'm stuck in the back with Becky, MacKenzie, and Zach. Sometimes we even have to double-buckle, there are so many people in the car. But not this morning; I get to sit up front with Dad.

As we pull out I ask, "How long of a drive is it?"

"Well, it's about a hundred miles to San Fran, but we're going just north of there, so a bit less." I have no concept of how far that really is. All I can think is that one hundred is a really big number; this trip is going to take longer than I thought. I knew we should have brought more snacks. And I forgot to bring a glass jar and net to catch myself a pet prawn! We are so under-equipped.

After Dad turns onto the freeway, I ask, "Are you tired?" I always ask this question when he's driving late (or in this case, early). I have this dumb fear that he'll fall asleep while driving and we'll crash. This is my veiled way of asking so he can't tell that I'm scared. I don't know why I feel like I have to hide it. But I've always been pretty good at faking it.

He simply replies, "No, not really."

The sun was still too weak to break through the dense clouds, which were reflected a thousand-fold on the steely cold waves below.

He is probably used to driving this early to work anyway. He's usually gone before I even wake up. But even though I'm sleepy and Dad isn't, I stay awake and talk to him. It's another tactic of mine to make sure that he keeps awake at the wheel. I can't let him know what I'm doing though; I can't let him know that I'm scared.

"What do you think we'll see in the tide pools?" I ask him. I turn in my seat so that I'm facing him and pull my legs up pretzel-style. The front seat is big and I have a lot of room. "I hope we see some anemones. Did you know that anemones have stinging tentacles, but they can't hurt people? I want to stick my finger in one and see what happens! They close up during high tide, though, so they don't dry up." I'm imagining the Tide Pool page, and the oystercatchers and their long, bright red beaks. "Maybe we'll see some seabirds. That would be really cool. Most of them eat crabs and clams off the beach. Did you know that they build their nests on the side of cliffs?" It's such a preposterous idea to me.

I continue like this, spouting facts to him, until I'm too tired to go on. In the silence, I think how cool it would be to see a stonefish. They look just like a piece of coral or a rock, but I think I'd be able to point one out to him. Then I could tell him that their spines are venomous, and that swimmers sometimes step on them, and that sometimes it's fatal. I read that in The Great Undersea Search, but I had to ask Mom what "fatal" meant. She said it means you die from it.

The sun is coming up as we leave the Valley. The Bay is separated from the Valley by a range of mountains, and even though I've traveled over them only a few times before, I know what to expect. As we reach the top of the first hilly mountain, I spot the first one: a giant wind turbine.

The entire hillside is covered in them, the only interesting thing to break up the monotonous landscape. There are very few trees here, the ground is all just dead grass, and even the cows that normally roam this part of California are mysteriously absent. But thousands of tall, white wind turbines stand there, looking as if they just sprouted up from the earth. They look natural there, for some reason, whereas the occasional green tree seems completely foreign.

There are several variations of wind turbine, and some of them are shaped like airplane propellers, but instead of zooming around the sky they're just stuck there in the air, twirling their three or four or five blades without getting anywhere. Some spin around a vertical axis, and make these really strange rotating-spiraling patterns. They remind me of the ice skaters on TV during the Winter Olympics, the way that they spin so asymmetrically.

Dad tells me that these hills are called "wind farms," which I find kind of ironic. There's just something funny about it, maybe that a large part of the Valley is used for cow farming or citrus farming or corn farming, but here in the hills they harvest wind.

This morning, the turbines are all twirling pretty fast in the wind. The sun is now up behind us, but it appears lazy and far away. The Bay's sky isn't blue, but rather that cold gray color of winter. We drive a bit further, around a bend in the hills.

"Dad, I see the ocean! DAD, IT'S THE OCEAN!" I'm squirming in the front seat trying to get more window-room of the scene before me. He must not see it yet, because he isn't looking all that excited. Or maybe he's trying to focus on driving. Driving must be really difficult, but he usually makes it look easy. He's probably a really good driver.

"Yeah, that's the Bay. It extends all the way over here. See the barges over there?" He points to the left of the car.

"WHOA!" I feel my eyes go as wide as my mouth. The barges are huge, like buildings turned on their side. They even look kind of boxy and dull like the buildings downtown, but without windows. They're all just sitting there in the Bay. In the "Open Oceans" page of The Great Undersea Search the barges are small and way off on the horizon. In real life they look so much bigger.

I've been good about not asking the question yet, but I can't hold out any longer. "Are we there yet?" I know that Mom and Dad hate that question, but I'm too excited.

"No, but we're getting closer," Dad says. Why is that always the answer?


When we got to the beach, the scene that greeted us was not the picturesque image from The Great Undersea Search. The sun was still too weak to break through the dense clouds, which were reflected a thousand-fold on the steely cold waves below. The beach didn't have rocks for making tide pools, or at least I couldn't see any. It was high tide, which was bad news for us—all of the interesting creatures were hidden under the waves. What little of the beach was actually exposed resembled a cold, damp desert. Just sand. Boring, unvarying sand.

I walked out a few steps ahead of my dad. He stayed rooted to a spot somewhere behind me. I remember bending over the only thing that broke the monotony of the landscape, a soggy bit of seaweed.


I poke it with my finger. That seems to be the scientific thing to do. It's really cold, and sandy too. It isn't bright green, like they are on the "Kelp Forests" page, but rather a dark ugly shade of black. I figure this must mean it's dead. I pick it up between my forefinger and thumb, as I would something disgusting. It's surprisingly heavy, like a wet t-shirt, but more leathery.

I show him the kelp, holding it wholly in my palm now, and point out the pieces I can identify.

I show it to Dad, recalling as many facts as I can about kelp to impress him. Or rather, it isn't to impress him. It's to show him that I'm not disappointed—but I am. I can't believe that there aren't any tide pools filled to the brim with crabs and sea stars and anemones and sea otters and guppies and limpets and octopi. Not even a lone seagull nor empty mussel shell nor dead crab. But he tried so hard—it's not his fault.

"Kelp is one of the fastest growing plants in the world, Dad, did you know that?" I'm probably too involved in feigning interest in the dumb piece of seaweed to notice his reaction. He's probably just surprised I'm not complaining about how boring the beach is.

"Uhh...yeah, that sounds about right," he says.

"Yeah and it has all sorts of uses," I quote directly from the "Kelp Forests" page. "It's in paints, toothpaste, fertilizer, and even in foods like ice cream."

He takes a step closer to me. I decide it's my responsibility to make this situation better. I can't have him thinking that I'm disappointed because if I'm disappointed he'll be disappointed in himself and then both of us are disappointed.

I push my round-rim glasses farther up my nose; they always slip, and the wet-salty air isn't helping that. I show him the kelp, holding it wholly in my palm now, and point out the pieces I can identify. I tell him about the gas-filled bladders at the base of the leaf and how they keep the leaves close to the surface to get more sunlight, and I pop one between my fingers. He looks interested, but like me, he may be faking it.

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