Change Is Crucial, and Slippery

Illustration: Aurelia Fronty

“Look what the divers brought up this morning!” Our marine embryology professor, John Wourms, PhD ’66, pushed up his flannel sleeves and pointed to a glass specimen dish. “Behold! Parastichopus californica—the California sea cucumber!”

My first reaction was: yecch

Pressed close to my classmates around the saltwater table at Hopkins Marine Station, I zipped up my down vest as the chill sank into my bones. This morning in 1976 was no different from other summer mornings in Monterey, Calif.: foggy and damp, a shivery 52 degrees both outside and inside this wet lab. I peeked over my classmates’ shoulders to behold the fat, 7-inch-long, orange-and-white pickle languidly floating in seawater. Darker orange nubs protruded randomly along its body, giving it the appearance of spongy Nerf armor, or a pustulant disease. The professor wet his hands and gently lifted the creature, rotating it to show us the mouth at one end and the anus at the other. “Here are the guts,” he said, delicately stretching open the hollow tube. Lacy beige strands lay inside. 

I edged closer, my rational left brain reminding me what was at stake: my GPA. Still, my stomach squirmed. As a Chinese American with countless 10-course Chinatown banquets literally under my belt, I’d eaten enough sea cucumber to know that its soft, spongy texture—so prized in Asian cuisine—repulsed me. Although sea cucumber is virtually tasteless, when my teeth slid through that gelatinous mass and it slithered over my tongue, I cringed like I’d bitten into a fish eye. 

We sneaked sideways glances at one another. Who had dealt the death blow?

Our first task as embryologists was to induce spawning in our sea cucumber. We kept straight faces as Wourms held up a syringe of potassium chloride. “Here’s how we spawn other echinoderms, like Dendraster, the sand dollar. Here goes!” He released the sea cucumber back into its dish, and we crowded around to watch for clouds of eggs or sperm. Nothing. The professor frowned. “Let’s immerse it in a dilute solution of potassium chloride overnight.” The next day, still nothing. 

I won’t detail the many ways we tortured our sea cucumber that week, but one morning we arrived to see that it had eviscerated—vomited out its guts. Filmy strands floated in the water. We sneaked sideways glances at one another. Who had dealt the death blow? Wourms prodded our sad specimen. Suddenly he beamed. “It’s still alive!” 

Evisceration can be a response to stress, he excitedly explained, a smart adaptive behavior. Parastichopus evolved this desperate strategy to escape from predators. Offering a writhing, tasty morsel for the predator is a brilliant distraction; the sea cucumber then covertly floats away like a piece of debris. In a few weeks, its organs regenerate and it carries on, good as new.

I brightened, delighted with this miracle of nature. I empathized with the little guy. In that moment, the sea cucumber transformed from nemesis to lodestar. It spoke to me. There’s no shame in starting over. Things will get better. And never eat the likes of me again.


Amber Wong, ’77, MS ’78, is a writer and a retired environmental engineer who lives in Seattle. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.