Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Thoughts on a January beach

The tide comes in, the tide goes out. Six hours rising, six hours falling, and repeat forevermore. The intertidal zone lives to this rhythm. But there is still a longer, slower beat on the dry/wet/dry sands; summer and winter, similar to our land-based seasons, but oh, so different in the doing.

We are more familiar with the summer beaches; they're friendlier, on our terms. The tidepools are warm, sand softens and drifts to a consistency suitable for sunbathing on, splashed clothing dries quickly on our backs in the warm breeze. In the tidepools, crabs scuttle and small fish dash about; periwinkles bake on the rocks, sunbathing without tanning.

If you're paying attention to that sort of thing, you'll notice the variety of seaweeds brought in by the tide, or growing in the tidepools. Sea lettuces, broad, narrow-leafed, stringy in abundance. Fine, feathery red miniatures. Brown fuzz on the eelgrass. Fresh yellow-green strings, purple Turkish towel, deep green rockweed, red sheets of algae fading in the sunlight to candy pink. Glowing blades of kelps, all kinds: smooth, crinkled, ribbed, feathered; short, long, super-long.

Come winter, it all changes. The wind is cutting, coming ashore from its long stretch with no windbreaks. Sometimes it howls as it attacks. It is no longer possible to wade in tidepools without good, warm protection. And don't fall in! Not if you're not fond of pneumonia!

January beach

But for the small permanent residents of the zone, things change even more. Sure, the water is cold; at least it stays at the same temperature or thereabouts, day in and day out. No more cold currents pouring into bathtub-warm tidepools, bringing sudden chills. It's chilly always.

But the intermittent storms, even the ones that miss the beach entirely, the inland rainstorms, the snow on the mountains, melted in a brief warming; they all bring in sudden influxes of fresh water, changing the salinity of their homes, interfering with the functioning of their body systems, geared to a high salt environment. Runoff from the land brings pollution, both natural (mud and silt and bits of vegetation) and man-made (machine oil, detergent, solvents, you-name-it). Food doesn't taste the same. Storms at sea rip up forests of giant kelp and eelgrass, and dump them to rot in deep mounds along the beach. Logs get tossed up, then washed away again, only to be beached elsewhere.

The small critters take shelter. Those that don't become sustenance for wintering birds, the peeps, especially.  On the Boundary Bay beaches, all we see in our persistent rock-flipping, sand-digging, beached-eelgrass-rolling are the Asian mud snails (though not in summer numbers), a few shore crabs, periwinkles (not sunbathing now; hiding in warm(er) crevices), the occasional limpet, and a multitude of tiny hermits.

January beach, with eagle and gull

And there is no sea lettuce, not even, by January, sea lettuce brought in by storms from friendlier shores. No red algae, no fuzz, no strings. Bare sand, bare sand, bare rocks. Here and there, at low tide, we find some freshly torn up eelgrass, tied in knots and left to be swept inshore with the next tide, or a scrap of browning Turkish towel. Along the upper edge are those mounds of eelgrass and kelp, now long past their sell-by date, stinking, celebrated by hordes of tiny black kelp flies.

Did I mention before that my critters love sea lettuce? I did. So I've been walking the water's edge, searching, searching, doubling back to see if I missed anything, picking up every scrap of fresh greens I find. My critters are lucky if I come home with a few square inches of half-shredded lettuce. Sometimes I don't manage even that.

Nothing to see here but the gull

But there's still life! There are always eelgrass roots, exposed when the eelgrass was swept from its bed. And there are those amazing kelp holdfasts, slimy and pungent in their decay, but each one still a little world.

I seem to have run on; the latest finds will have to wait until tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written... I can smell the intertidal salt air!


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