Not long after Spencer Fullerton Baird, first director of the U.S. Fish Commission, established a research station in the village, in 1875, the Woods Hole Science Aquarium opened its doors—the nation’s first such marine animal showcase.
Still in operation and open to the public, it’s rather low-tech compared with aquariums that have come along lately, but it remains a terrific place to see codfish, flounder and other critters cruising through glass-lined cases. I made friends with a horseshoe crab in a touch tank and was lucky enough to catch the feeding of two amiable seals that can’t be released for various reasons and so live at the aquarium.
Science, in a word, is what sets Woods Hole apart from other salty Cape Cod towns, and the good news is you can get pretty close to the action. The Marine Biological Laboratory dropped anchor in 1888; today it boasts a year-round staff of about 300 and summer programs that swell its ranks to 2,000, including a fair share of Nobel laureates. Visitors take behind-the-scenes tours and attend Falmouth Forum lectures. I checked out the Robert W. Pierce Exhibit Center—lots to read and think about, underwater videos, more animals—and got to talk to the MBL president and director, Joan V. Ruderman, who told me about her research on cell division involving the common surf clam (an animal also loved by people who study clam chowder).
Another science powerhouse, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has been at the center of marine exploration and engineering since 1930. It burst into the headlines with the discovery of the wreck of the RMS Titanic in 1985 by the WHOI-designed submersible Argo; the ocean liner was later surveyed by Alvin, another submersible designed by the institution. WHOI now has a whole fleet of high-tech vessels that observe erupting volcanoes beneath the ocean surface, search for mines in war zones, study strange species found around deep-sea hydrothermal vents and discover such scientific imponderables as submarine waterfalls. The institution’s staff of 1,500 makes it the second biggest employer on the cape, with a modern campus just north of Woods Hole. Its Ocean Science Exhibit Center occupies an old Methodist church in the village center. There I watched a class of Massachusetts middle school students take turns climbing into a full-sized model of Alvin.
Woods Hole—the seemingly odd name refers to the channel, or, in mariner-speak, the “hole” between the town and the Elizabeth Islands where the current runs six to seven knots—is also home to the Sea Education Association, the Woods Hole Research Center and the Children’s School of Science. But science also begets art. The Geo-strophic String Quartet, led by a former WHOI researcher, has played concerts at the village historical museum. Local ceramic artist Joan Lederman creates glazes from sediments collected on the ocean floor. The public radio station WCAI broadcasts “One Species at a Time” from a 19th-century captain’s house on Water Street. The Woods Hole Film Festival, now in its 23rd season, is planning a “Bringing Science to the Screen” program. Even at Pie in the Sky, a well-loved village coffee shop with every genus of bakery items, I sat in front of a display on the science of coffee roasting, wondering whether the man at the counter ordering a latte has been awarded a Nobel Prize yet.
To give your brain a rest, hang out at local beaches and freshwater ponds, walk the many trails or hit the Shining Sea Bikeway, a 10.7-mile path occupying the bed of the former Old Colony railway. Still, all roads tend to lead back to Waterfront Park, presided over by a bronze statue of Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and, before that, The Sea Around Us, who did research in Woods Hole. There she sits, gazing out at the channel she called “that wonderful place of whirlpools and eddies and swiftly racing water.”