A couple of memories from my childhood: going to the shore of the Chesapeake at Virginia Beach and seeing crabbers breaking yellow egg casings from the backs of the females’ backs, tossing the eggs back in the water and throwing the crabs into water boiling over an open fire. (Even at 10 years old, I thought to myself, ‘isn’t killing the egg-bearing female kind of dumb?’) Then, accompanying my best friend on his 12-foot boat, armed with string, chicken necks, and nets. Playing a neck along the bottom of the inlets near our home, feeling the tug of a crab and ever so slowly lifting it from the water. Watching the brilliant blue rise through the murky water, seeing it tenaciously clutch the meat, and easing it into the boat only to have the great beast attack and pinch me until my hand bled.
William W. Warner wrote Beautiful Swimmers about the time I was spending my summer days leaning over gunwales or piers looking for blue crabs. He created a detailed and vivid examination of the blue crab’s lifecycle and temperament, writing so clearly that he won the Pulitzer Prize for the book. After assessing the crab’s place in the water, he turned to the people and places that relied on the blue crab for their livelihood. The hardworking watermen of the Chesapeake, the now-abandoned canning plants, the town that gave money to the watermen (then took it back in bawdy entertainment) are all faithfully recorded in this evocative book.
Even at that time, though, Beautiful Swimmers (the title coming from the crab’s Latin name Callinectes sapidus, which actually means ‘beautiful tasty swimmer’) had an elegiac quality to it. Crab harvests were steadily declining, watermen and their families were moving away to find jobs with steady pay, and the now-famous Tangier Island was already capitalizing on its seafaring history to attract tourists. Warner gave an even-handed account of the species’ decline, citing government failures, chemical runoff from agriculture and development, and the working methods of the watermen themselves as probable reasons for the dropping harvests.
Warner could have been reading recent headlines: Bay habitats making too-slow recoveries, Maryland and Virginia’s governors announcing immediate reduction of female blue crab harvests, watermen frantically lobbying for their way of living, legislators complaining but allocating no money to address the problems. The water quality of the Chesapeake Bay is declining even as development along its shores skyrockets. Industry, agriculture, and construction successfully obtain regulatory exemptions, and individual citizens pollute by accident or intention.
Those signs point to Warner’s book becoming the historic record of an extinct species and a lost way of life. Fortunately, it is a beautiful portrait, and future readers will thank him if that indeed becomes the case. One can only hope that current readers will be moved enough by his writing to take action at the local, state, and federal level and save this incredible species.