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Searching for Coral

I have yet to find orange cup coral in my backyard tidelands. I’ve wanted to see this colorful coral of the cold Pacific ever since I moved to the Oregon Coast. Common in some rocky intertidal areas, this species hasn’t revealed itself in my tidepool wanderings.

Snails and plumose anemones have quickened my pulse while I was hunting orange cup coral. When I stumbled toward patches of attention-grabbing color, I realized these orange creatures weren’t the corals I was looking for. But they were still fascinating.

I learned that the lovely dogwinkles are predatory snails that prey on creatures by drilling through their shells. Though these whelks are usually bland white or brown, some individuals are a striking orange, as bright as anything in a tropical sea. And I learned that plumose anemones, which look like pretty flowers, are carnivorous predators that deploy threads covered in stinging cells to defend themselves from other anemones that encroach on their territory. Many plumose anemones are white, but some are as orange as a construction cone.

A worthy consolation to discovering orange cup coral in a tidepool is seeing the pink coral mushroom in a rainforest. This strange fungi with its organ-pipe fluting and bubble-gum color when young is as stunning as any coral reef in the ocean.

My observant wife spotted a pink coral mushroom secreted away in a dark forest nook. It glowed like a flame in a cave. I had marched right past this mycological treasure, hurrying down the trail toward my destination, forgetting to look at details on the forest floor—and forgetting that the object of a search is often less interesting than discoveries along the way.

A coral of the forest can evoke as much wonder as a creature of the sea. That said, there’s still something about the alien ocean that has a lock on my imagination. I’ll continue probing the tidelands when waves recede, crawling around boulders looking for orange cup coral, discovering creatures beautiful and bizarre as I search for species that elude me.

Along with coral, on my list of ocean animals I want to see is a pyrosome. I’ve seen plenty of dead pyrosomes along the beach: I want to see a live one trapped in a tidepool. Pyro, as in pyromaniac, comes from the Greek word for fire; soma is Greek for body. Apparently these "fire bodies" bioluminesce like nobody’s business. Many creatures in the ocean make their own light, but pyrosomes are the champions of luminous displays.

The thought of seeing a pyrosome sparkling like a roman candle draws me to the water’s edge at night. When the waves rise too high for tidepooling, I search the woods for jack o'lantern mushrooms that glow in the dark. I might never see these spectacles of light in dark forests and seas. But whatever strangeness I stumble across while searching, like coral mushrooms and carnivorous snails, will make my wanderings worthwhile.

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