The sky was gray, the water was choppy, the wind blew cool.
But 16 intrepid volunteers in two boats in Virginia's South Bay on the Eastern Shore tugged on wetsuits and prepared to slip overboard to start harvesting eelgrass seeds.
"Does anybody not have a mask or a snorkel? Does everybody have gear? Are you shivering already?" asked Bo Lusk, coastal scientist with The Nature Conservancy, the group coordinating the collection work last week.
This is an annual effort in partnership with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which 20 years ago began restoring eelgrass meadows in coastal bays that lost their seagrass long ago to natural catastrophe. As a result, a burgeoning bay scallop fishery died off, too.
As recently as 1999, there wasn't a single blade of eelgrass in South Bay. Now it's teeming with acres and acres of underwater meadows — all because of painstaking efforts like this to gather ripening seed pods in the spring, cure them over the summer in big tanks, then cast them in strategic areas come fall to germinate and grow into long, lean blades of brilliant green.
VIMS, based in Gloucester Point, uses a mechanical harvester — a sort of big lawnmower that trims and gathers vegetative and flowering shoots in a fraction of the time.
But The Nature Conservancy still relies on volunteers like these, and for a couple of good reasons, said Lusk.
"One, we've got a limited amount of volume in our tanks, so volunteers can get us higher-quality material and we're going to get more seeds per tank," he said. "But, also, we want the community involved. This is largely outreach, too. It's restoration work that we need to do, but it's a really neat experience to get folks in. If you've been out here snorkeling and had your head down here and done this work, you're not really gonna forget some of the lessons about why we care about the seagrasses."
And there are many reasons to care, experts say. Underwater meadows aren't just lovely to look at, waving in lush, vibrant unison just below the surface. They're key habitat for marine species, and also help ease wave action, preventing the erosion of coastal marshland. The loss of underwater grasses had a ripple effect on the entire ecosystem.
"All the seaside bays of Virginia used to have eelgrass all over," Lusk explained. "Any place that was shallow enough that light could get down and the grass could grow, any place that the sediment was sandy enough for the grass to be happy, had eelgrass.
"And that eelgrass supported all kinds of stuff. It was a great place for blue crabs to hide when they shed and were defenseless soft crabs. A great place for juvenile fish to hang out and hide. A good place for large-ish fish, the kind you like to eat — speckled trout, red drum used to hang out and try to eat those little fish. Waterfowl would stop in here over the winter and actually browse on these grasses."
Then, in the late 1920s and early '30s, eelgrass began to suffer. Some blame a slime mold or fungus. No one knows for sure, because back then no one was trying to find out, said Robert "J.J." Orth, a biological scientist at VIMS.
In1933, the issue became moot when a powerful hurricane blew through and wiped out every last remaining blade.
For decades, the bays were mud flats. Bare bottom.
Finally, in 1997, VIMS launched its restoration effort. The Nature Conservancy joined a few years later.
Today, South Bay has about 500 acres of thriving eelgrass meadow. Along with three other bays targeted for restoration, VIMS and The Nature Conservancy have planted a total of 6,200 acres, making it the largest and most successful restoration effort in the world.
And it all centers on the seeds.
There's a brief window of time to gather the flowering shoots before the seeds pop out of their pods and float down to the bay bottom.
One by one, the volunteers slipped into the water, only hip-deep to most of them. Soon they were floating face down, slick as seals, green- and orange- and blue-tipped snorkels sticking out of the water. Each had a laundry bag slung over his or her neck to hold the flowering shoots and slender grass blades that were grabbed by the fistful.
Several were students from the University of Richmond. Three were staffers at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News. One had driven six hours from Frostburg in western Maryland.
Retired wildlife biologist Scott Belfit had trekked from his home in nearby Accomack County. He'd never collected seagrass seeds before, he said, but had done other conservation work in the past, notably with diamondback terrapins for a professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. William and Mary is affiliated with VIMS.
Belfit had seen a notice a few days earlier about the collection effort and decided to drive down.
"I've always been very impressed with the achievements in conservation of The Nature Conservancy, and so I thought I would learn more about the specific project," said Belfit. "And get a free boat ride and get in the water — I love to swim."
Aquarist Britt Sorensen and two colleagues from the Virginia Living Museum were there for personal and professional reasons.
"Since we're a fairly small local aquarium and wildlife preserve and nature center, we kind of want to get our name out there as much as possible, and do as much good work as possible," Sorensen said. "We're focused on local environments, local species and local plants and animals, so we really want to help preserve this area. And if we can do projects like this, it's a good place to start."
The museum has already pitched in on other projects, she said, including a nearby oyster castle restoration a couple of weeks earlier.
Lusk said he expected his group would gather about 250,000 seeds in just one day. The shoots and grasses will be stored over the summer in eight open seawater tanks in nearby Oyster. Two other tanks are set aside for scallop larvae — part of a coordinated effort with VIMS to bring scallops back to the grassbeds.
VIMS expects to collect between 3 million and 5 million seeds during last week and this week, said Orth. Its mechanical harvester is efficient, and doesn't damage the meadows.
"It doesn't hurt the vegetation," Orth said. "It keeps them growing. If you went out to areas where we machine harvest in a month, you wouldn't even know we were there."
VIMS keeps its own curation tanks at its facility in Gloucester Point.
Over the summer, the seeds are separated from their pods and stored. In the fall, when they're ready to germinate, they're sown by hand in carefully chosen spots.
The process isn't terribly scientific to the naked eye.
"It's like you're feeding chickens," Lusk said. "It's not quite that random, but you have a set number of seeds that go out per acre, and a boat drives a certain number of lines in a grid across that acre plot. We know how many seeds we need to get out on each line, so we'll divide our seeds up evenly and you put them on a shallow tray. And, with a wet palm, you kind of tap the seeds and they stick to your palm, and you flick your wrists and they fly out."
Between 1997 and 2016, said Orth, they broadcast 70 million seeds in four seaside bays. Those being collected now in South Bay will likely be used to grow new meadow in nearby Spidercrab Bay.
The success in South Bay is one that Orth said most people will never get to see personally.
"It's just that (most) people don't have boats and most people don't go there to look at the seagrass — they usually go to places to fish," said Orth. "It's pretty remote. It's a hidden gemstone for Virginia. "
Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892