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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

The College Pump

Sea Sex

January-February 2016

Illustration by Missy Chimovitz, from the book


Illustration by Missy Chimovitz, from the book

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the publisher advises, St. Martin’s Press will publish Sex in the Sea: Our Intimate Connection with Sex-Changing Fish, Romantic Lobsters, Kinky Squid, and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep, by marine biologist Marah J. Hardt ’00, of Boulder, Colorado. “Forget the Kama Sutra,” write the book’s promoters. “When it comes to inventive sex acts, just look to the sea.”

Hardt leads an excursion into seduction, sex, and reproduction in the place where it began—the ocean. She reveals the mating rituals of the Maine lobster, shows us giant right whales engaging in a threesome while holding their breath, and points to full-moon sex parties of groupers.

Her underlying purpose is to promote sustainable oceans, to mitigate the over-fishing, climate change, and ocean pollution that disrupt the creative procreation she celebrates here. Hardt dispenses much “sex-sea trivia” along the way. Some groupers can start life as female and then morph to male, for instance. Some oysters can do the opposite. In one shrimp species, becoming male or female depends on how much seaweed you eat.

In “The Penis Chapter,” Hardt reports that “the longest penis (proportionally) is eight times the length of the male’s body.” It belongs to—wait for it—the barnacle. Some whale vaginas, she writes, “are so convoluted, they warrant use of a GPS.” And some sharks “can become pregnant nearly four years after they last had sex.”

Turning her attention to urine, Hardt writes that “In the world of lobster sex, nothing says ‘let’s get it on’ like peeing in your lover’s face.” Males and females rely on the golden shower to set the mood and keep potential rivals at bay until a couple has completed their crustacean consummation. Lobsters smell through their antennules, the smaller of two sets of antennae. A female uses her antennules to smell her way to her male of choice and then seduces him with her own intoxicating pee. During mating season, big males become “complete brutes,” Hardt judges. “Approaching another lobster’s den, the big male will stop and fire a stream of urine in the front door....By continually bullying his neighbors, a male never lets anyone forget who’s in charge.”

Hardt’s assessment is that “for a female, seducing a dominant male lobster is...a bit like trying to woo the Incredible Hulk when he’s in a full rage.” It involves caution, patience, and a lot of peeing in each other’s faces.

We will step aside now, readers, and give the lobsters a bit of privacy, which anyone may invade by reading Hardt’s book. Suffice to say that the female molts, they snuggle up, and what ensues, Hardt believes, “may be the most tender act of lovemaking in the invertebrate kingdom.”

* * *

Skinny-dipping under lights: When Hardt was at Harvard, the closest she got to the ocean was the shell collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, one of the largest and best collections of shells outside of Davy Jones’s locker (see page 17). She never met the late J. Woodland “Woody” Hastings, Mangelsdorf professor of natural sciences emeritus in the department of molecular and cellular biology, who died at 87 in 2014. That’s a pity, because he was a briny savant with a sense of humor, and they might have enjoyed each other’s company.

Hastings was an expert on bioluminescence, and was one of the founders of the field of circadian biology, based on insights from studying a single-celled marine bioluminescent dinoflagellate. In a memorial minute about him, read to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on November 3, colleagues noted that he was a mentor who served as co-master of North (now Pforzheimer) House for 20 years, and was active in the summer teaching program at the Woods Hole (Massachusetts) Marine Biological Laboratory.

“Hastings famously led late-night swimming excursions at Woods Hole during departmental retreats,” his colleagues reported, “where efforts at modesty were defeated by his beloved dinoflagellates who lit up the waters as the swimmers jumped into the sea.”

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