When I arrived at the tidepool that held the mystery fish, only the eyes in the photo were visible. A juvenile skate seemed plausible. An egg case, or "mermaid's purse," of a big Pacific skate had washed up on the beach nearby not long ago. I imagined I could see the shape of the creature's "wings" and stingray-like tail beneath its camouflaged cover of sand.
The fish stayed buried in the sand with only its eyes exposed for about two hours as its pool shrank and warmed. An occasional puff of breath stirred the sand in front of its face. Dozens of visitors crept to the edge of the pool to stare at the creature's eyes and wonder what it was, where it had come from, and why it was there.
When the tide turned and refreshed the pool, the mystery fish rose from the sand, and the skate story I had been spinning suddenly unraveled. No wings, no whip-like tail. The creature definitely wasn't a skate. Not a flatfish. It swam around for a minute or so and then reburied itself at the bottom of the pool. Then it rose again and vanished in deeper water as the tide surged in. What was it?
Being unable to identify a species frustrates the scientist in me. But the writer in me revels in the mystery. We know so little about life at the ocean's edge--a realm we can observe and probe with relative ease. The abyss of the deep ocean, which covers more than half of our planet's surface, offers a bottomless well of wondrous beings yet to be cataloged by science. As we gaze into the unexplored depths of the world's oceans, what creatures will stare back at us? And how will children of the future look back on our stewardship of the marine systems that support life on this planet?