Barefoot in the surf again on Sunday. The last few weeks have taught that a walk in ankle deep water offers a completely different perspective, lowers the heat factor by several degrees and takes the mind off time and distance. Tidal flow these past few days has created a long sandbar about twenty yards offshore, a swath of nearly submerged sand enclosed on either side by knee deep water. Constantly washed by the surf, it offers the perfect conditions for wading birds hunting small fish, and for the solitary shell collectors who meander among the pools and inlets.
Summer is at our doorstep here on Florida’s east coast, a season when few could ask for a prettier or more felicitous environment. While schools are still in session the weekdays remain quiet and unruffled. Weekend crowds are still small, still manageable and arrive with their temporary dash of color and unthreatening ruckus. The days are still untroubled by the furor that comes in mid-June with a bombardment of families on holiday arriving with insatiable children and 200 pounds of beach equipment. For now, a few children romp in the pool, build sand castles and watch daddy fish, but hardly a number to dent the passage of golden days.
Not the avid shell collector, my walks on the beach are never an eyes-down search for the perfect specimen. That’s not to say that I amble along uncaring or blind to the possibilities of the unusual, and I do turn my attention to the curious shape or color half-buried in sand. By now, the dime-a-dozen examples that blanket the sand seven days a week go by unnoticed, but I am vigilant for a couple of the rarer shells or lifeforms. One favorite is something called a seaheart, and in my days here I’ve managed to find eleven of them, most often pulled from a tangle of seaweed. A dark brown tropical seed, they are carried to the ocean by freshwater streams and rivers, drifting on ocean currents and later washing up on distant shores. They float because they have an internal air pocket trapped by a hard outer covering on the bean.
Another hard-to-find favorite is the sand dollar, something that is commonly seen in broken pieces on the beach. These shattered remnants are part of the animal’s sun-bleached skeleton, minus its skin of tiny velvet-textured spines and small hairs. Only once have I come across a whole, unbroken sand dollar skeleton, and until Sunday had never found a living specimen. Conditions were right, and suddenly there at my feet, half buried in sand three inches underwater was a brownish-green sand dollar. From the moment I lifted it from the water I could feel the spines and tiny hairs moving in my hand. In spite of my fascination with a living sea creature I had never seen up close, underlying that feeling was a tinge of guilt at killing it by not returning it to the water.
The photo above shows a white sand dollar skeleton and the brown sand dollar picked up on Sunday. Along with it are two shells, a starfish and three small pieces of driftwood that caught my fancy on different walks.