Robert Louis Stevenson
NATURE STUDY FIELD JOURNAL: Summer
June 22 – September 22, 2006
This season I am writing from base camp on the tropical island of Sanibel. I arose early this morning so that mine might be the first set of footprints dotting the shore following high tide. This is but one of my shelling methodologies, which I choose depends a lot on what I’d like to find in my shell case at the end of the day. In A Gift From the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh shared her thoughts on shelling: “. . . one must never dig. The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy or too impatient. To dig shows lack of faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.” This morning’s treasure hunt brought lightening welks and atlantic giant cockles gathered as they tumbled in the receding surf.
I have been shelling on this particular stretch of beach for all of my adult life. Back when we lived in South Florida, it was just a two-hour jaunt through the Everglades. Now, it is nearly two day’s ride or a 1 ½ hour flight from Atlanta Hartsfield airport. This summer we chose the latter and immersed ourselves in the warm tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico for all of eight days. No matter how many days we spend on the island, it never seems quite enough.
Today I met an ancient collector on the beach. She was clad in slacks, long-sleeved shirt, shoes and socks, and juggled her shell bag and an umbrella. She was on the beach from very early in the morning until sundown. We weathered several showers in close proximity. She stood in the surf most of the day, steadfast and focused on the hunt. Eventually I found a baby horse conch, one of the rarer shell finds during the summer months, and offered it to her. It brought a smile to her face, but she seemed self conscious during our chat standing there fully clothed in ankle-deep water. She explained that her blood pressure medication causes her to be ultra sensitive to sunlight, and she “wasn’t going to Sanibel without shelling!” I completely understood. It seemed a small concession to be there on that perfect day sifting through the shells for hours on end, while contemplating the universe.
Sanibel is a magical place with more than half its land, 5000 acres, a dedicated nature preserve. And its gulf- rimmed beaches rank among the top shelling locales in the northern and western hemispheres. Unlike other barrier islands, Sanibel is positioned east and west of the mainland allowing for bountiful shell deposits. I have always felt a spiritual connection to the island, possibly because I was raised on old Florida’s sun-drenched shores and spent all my time in and around water, until I ultimately married my husband in a park on the bay in the midst of a torrential downpour.
Sanibel is still the Florida of my youth, vintage Florida. And its natives have done everything possible to keep it undeveloped and chaste. This year we returned to find Sanibel, sans its lush vegetation and struggling to recover from the effects of a red tide. We arrived July 21, almost two years post Hurricane Charley and were eager to reconnect. Fortunately, while Charley was a fast-moving hurricane packing winds it was not pushing much water. We were relieved to see that two years out, the most notable change was storm ravaged vegetation and the loss of its lush tree canopy. As always, it was reassuring to find things relatively unchanged. Even our favorite beach seemed unaffected; at least until we learned that a mere 24 hours earlier, they had been suffering the brunt of a red tide.
In another life, my coastal life of 39 years, killer storms were few and far between, and red tides nonexistent. Red tides were something that happened somewhere else. But just one day earlier, Goliath groupers weighing hundreds of pounds had been rotting in the sand rendering the beaches inaccessible. The local newspaper filled in some blanks for us, explaining that a “red tide is a natural phenomenon caused by a population explosion, or bloom, of the single-celled alga K. brevis which produces a powerful neurotoxin. During a bloom, the toxin renders shellfish poisonous, can kill fish, marine mammals, sea turtles and marine birds, and can cause respiratory irritation in humans.” Scientists attribute the “population explosion” to run-off of pollutants. Never have we been more aware that our planet is in trouble.
Though the rotting fish had been removed, the telltale signs that all was not well remained. It was what we didn’t see and hear that was eerily unsettling, such as the constant chatter of marine bird life and schools of dolphins feasting offshore. What was visible was another first for us. On two separate days, we discovered the remains of ancient Loggerhead sea turtles, fallen victims of the red tide, laying splayed in the sand at the water’s edge. July had always been our favorite time to visit the island, largely because it coincides with the nightly arrival of mother Loggerhead sea turtles making landfall to deposit their caches of eggs. We had never previously found more than tracks in the sand. After a couple of days we finally felt the island relax and the abundant bird life and dolphins returned, along with the morning turtle patrol flagging new nests that will give rise to hundreds of baby sea turtles in just a couple of months.
When we weren’t on the beach, we kayaked through the black mangrove estuaries of Ding Darling nature preserve observing anhinga and scarlet ibis along our route. We visited the Baily-Matthews Shell Museum and studied local specimens and those from around the world. In your boxes you will find a seed from a black mangrove tree. The old time islanders have been known to ride out storms in the mangrove estuaries, believing them to be the safest place during storms because of their great strength. Without mangroves eventually the island would succumb to the tides. While it is illegal to pick one of these seeds from a tree, you may collect them from the flotsam and jetsam of the tidal wash. If your seed floats, it is still viable and may be planted.
One of the things we particularly enjoy about Sanibel, are the afternoon storms as they come rolling in from the ocean, thunderous and dark, but at the same time cool and breezy, insisting on a respite from the sun and sand. (You can find some storm pics posted at http://naturestudy.typepad.com/sanibel_island/ ) And, of course something we don’t see much in the heavily forested Georgia terrain, the colors of a sunset drifting beneath the horizon as day becomes night.
As summer turns to fall, I bid you all a fond farewell until next season.
“ . . . Think of all you would have missed but for the journey there, and know that the true worth of your travels lies not in where you come to be at journey’s end, but in who you come to be along the way.” ~ Unknown