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The End of the World

Well, it’s May 21. If this is what the end of the world looks like, it’s not half bad.

I’ve had a sore throat since yesterday and after getting up early to lead a beach walk this morning I crawled back into bed and spent the middle of the day alternating between napping and watching TV. I normally only sleep during the day when I’m sick; cross your fingers this isn’t a return of the bronchitis that caused me to miss three days of work a couple months ago. Finally I decided had to get some chores done, sore throat or no, so I got up and did my laundry, timing it so that I could take a walk on the beach at sunset while it was in the dryer.

No sign of the end times here.

The setting sun is still lighting up translucent fragments of snail shells, so polished you can see your blogger’s reflection in them.

The pelicans are still leaving their big footprints all over the beach. (And I still have a truly spectacular sandal tan.)

The deer don’t seem to have noticed anything amiss. Other than the sudden appearance of a two-legged person in their dunes, that is.

And sadly, there is still man-made flotsam washing up. Before you release a helium balloon into the sky, please think about the fact that it could end up in the ocean, where a sea turtle could mistake it for a jellyfish.

Anyway, no earthquakes or missing raptured people here. I’ll try to get a “real” post up tomorrow but I hope you enjoyed these photos in the meantime.

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Superhero Movie Dune Restoration

Last December I posted a photo of a movie set that had been constructed here on Jekyll for the movie X-Men: First Class (or, as my friend Michelle has taken to calling it, “X-Men: Filmed on Rebecca’s Island”).  They built a big plane crash on the beach, complete with imported palm trees to make it look more tropical than it actually is.  Let’s revisit and see what that beach, soon to be seen on movie theater screens around the world, looks like now that the film crew has been gone for a while.

They’ve replanted the dunes with grass, bunches planted in neat rows with straw in place under them.  I’m assuming the grass is sea oats, Uniola paniculata, a salt-tolerant pioneer plant common on primary dunes that helps hold them together with its long roots.

Just north of the restoration area is the beginning of the sea wall.  I’m glad I live on the island’s south end, where the beach is still relatively untouched.

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Back to the Beach

I’ll tell you up front that there’s nothing earth-shaking in this post – no massive stranded horseshoe crabs, photogenic cottonmouths, or dead baby dolphins.  But today I did finally go for a walk on the beach for the first time in about a week (finally being sufficiently over my bronchitis to muster the energy), and took my new camera for an initial spin.  My most shocking discovery, actually, was that there were people on my beach!

Okay, so this was hardly the first time I’ve encountered other humans on what is, after all, public land, but there are a lot of people there today – people on bikes, people with buckets of shells, people with beach towels and lawn chairs and umbrellas.  Sigh.  Tourist season is here.

I don’t think I’ve posted any photos of sea cucumbers yet, and there were quite a few washed up today, which slowly expanded and contracted when I poked them – yes, these blobs are living animals, relatives of the sea stars and urchins.  Try explaining to kids that sea cucumber is an animal but sea lettuce is not.

Also lots of dead jellyfish, which are sometimes formless blobs of goo but can sometimes be surprisingly pretty, like little sunbursts at the edge of the waves.

Aaaand now I’m worn out from my walk and tempted to spend the rest of the day inside playing computer games – further proof that I’m not quite over my bug yet.  Ah well.  At least I’m sure I’ll be back at work Monday.

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Supertide Part 2: Dead Baby Dolphin

That may be the most morbid blog post title ever. Warning: there are dead baby dolphin photos ahead. Look away now while you still have a chance.

After my camera died while I was exploring the beach during the unusually extreme low tide caused by the previous night’s so-called supermoon, I kept walking down toward the south end of the island. Eventually I wandered up away from the water’s edge toward some driftwood near the high-water mark left by the morning’s equally extraordinary high tide. Behind the chunks of driftwood my eyes picked up a large finned shape. “Man, that’s a big dead fish that washed up,” I started to think, but this was quickly replaced by “OH HOLY $#@& THAT IS A DEAD BABY DOLPHIN.”

It was about three feet long, and right in the middle a large round chunk had been taken out of its abdomen. Later I walked back down to look at it again with two of my coworkers (one of whom lent me her camera, if you’re wondering where the heck the photos came from if mine was busted), and the only explanation any of us could think of for that missing chunk was a bite from a big shark. If anyone has an alternate theories feel free to share them in the comments.

Hey, I did warn you.

Bottlenose dolphins are quite common around here, but all marine mammals, common or otherwise, are protected by law under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has a phone number for people to call to report dead or injured marine mammals, which I must admit is one phone number I thought I’d never need to know, but I looked it up on their website when I got home. A woman took my name and phone number, and a few minutes later a DNR officer in the area called me back to get a description of its location and condition. In addition to dolphins, Superfund sites are also common around here, and I know one thing they do with dolphins is test their tissues for the build-up of pollutants.

So that was my Sunday afternoon. Just when I thought I was running out of inspiration for interesting blog posts, too…

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Supermoon = Supertide!

Everyone has been talking about the “supermoon” last night, but just in case you’ve been living under a rock, let me break it down for you: last night’s full moon happened to coincide with perigee, the point during the moon’s monthly orbit at which it’s closest to Earth.  This happens fairly infrequently, and when it does the full moon looks a little larger than normal.  (Contrary to what you might have heard, however, there is no evidence linking so-called supermoons with major natural disasters like what happened in Japan last week.)  Wikipedia has a good article on the subject, including an image comparing the size of last night’s moon with that of a more typical full moon; it’s not really that much bigger, and I think most people who were astounded by the huge moon last night probably just aren’t in the habit of watching the full moon rise on a regular basis.  While the moon did look impressively big and orange last night, it wasn’t particularly bigger or oranger than other full moons I’ve seen when they’re just rising above the horizon.

However, the real story here… is the supertide.

The most extreme tides every month, called spring tides, happen immediately following the new moon and full moon, when the Earth, moon, and sun are all in a line.  I wrote about spring and neap tides previously in this post.  When this happens at the same time as perigee, like it did today, the effect is even greater and the tides become truly crazy.  I didn’t see the beach at high tide this morning, but I was back on the marsh side of the island and was shocked to see practically the entire marsh flooded, the tidal creeks about to bust out of their banks.  So six hours later I made sure to hustle down to the beach to see the opposite end of the spectrum, the ridiculously low tide, exposing areas of sea floor that probably hadn’t been above water for a long time.

The water’s edge revealed supersaturated sand that sucked at my feet as I tried to walk, interspersed with deposits of rich black mud.  And in the sand were some interesting critters, like these sea squirts, which pulsed gently as I watched (my hand is for scale)…

…and this odd lump of mostly-buried material.  Little currents coming out of it suggested something living, but what, and where?  In it?  Under it?  What was this thing?

Finally I gently grasped its edge and flipped it over, then jumped back in shock.  It was an enormous whelk, alive and wiggling, its shell so encrusted that I hadn’t even recognized its shape!

I was going to take more photos, including some wide shots of the whole beach to try to give you a better sense of the craziness of the low tide, but my camera chose this moment to jam up and stop working.  And of course, it was after my camera went bust that I found the dead dolphin.  TO BE CONTINUED…

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Crab? Spider? Sea Monster?

Imagine you’re walking on the beach when you see a massive spider-like creature emerging from the water and crawling toward you across the sand.  Sounds like something out of a monster movie, right?  But this ancient chelicerate (that is, member of the arthropod subphylum Chelicerata, which also includes spiders, scorpions, and mites) is harmless, if bizarre.

I found this fellow (or lady?) on the beach this afternoon while on the phone with a friend – because we get better cell phone reception on the beach than at the center, I often walk down there to make calls.  Not wanting to tell my friend “hey, I have to hang up so I can photograph this horseshoe crab,” I proceeded to try and use my little camera with one hand while holding my cell phone in the other.  Here’s one I took with my foot for scale…

It was low tide, and the big critter’s track began a few feet away from what was then the edge of the waves, so I figured it must have been stranded on the beach by the retreat of the tide.  (As far as I know it’s too early for them to be coming out to lay eggs or anything.)  So after I got some photos I slipped my free hand under the edge of its carapace and carried it, legs waggling frantically, back out into the water.  I got my pants soaked up to my knees in the process, but oh well – I think my friend was pretty amused by my narrating all this as it was happening.  Kids often seem to think that horshoe crabs’ long, pointed tails contain a stinger like a ray’s, but they have neither sting nor pinchers.  And like I mentioned before, they’re not really a crab at all but a prehistoric cousin of the spider.

This was only about the fifth live one I’ve found on the beach since moving here, but I suspect it’s going to happen more and more often as spring goes on, especially once their breeding season gets started.  Fine with me, they’re incredibly cool animals to have around!

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Snake Bones and Snail Snot

This spiraling structure is a fairly common find on our beach.

Kids see this and immediately recognize it: the skeleton of an exotic sea snake!  These round rubbery things with the frilly edges, though…

…these are harder to identify.  If a kid picks one up and asks me what it is, I’ll have them carry it for a bit so I can talk to the whole group about it the next time we stop.

The first photo, in case you haven’t guessed, actually has nothing to do with snakes.  It’s the egg case of a whelk, which some people apparently call a “mermaid’s necklace.”  The second one is the egg mass of a moon snail, which is commonly referred to as a “sand collar,” because whole ones resemble old-fashioned detachable shirt collars.  To make a sand collar, the female moon snail cements grains of sand together with mucous, embedding her tiny eggs in the matrix.  Which means that, after making the kid who picked it up carry it for several minutes, I get to wind up my explanation with “…so basically you’re holding snail snot” and see the look on their face.

Isn’t outdoor education grand?

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Gray

This afternoon, after I got off work, I put on three extra layers of clothing and my wool hat and braved the cold, wind, and rain to walk on the beach.

Yes, I swear my camera was not set to black and white when I took that photo – it really was a grayscale landscape.  The advantage to going on such a dreary day was that I had the beach all to myself, at a time when the unsettled weather meant that the waves had been dredging all sorts of pretty things up onto the shore.

At the south end of the island, I was surprised and delighted to spot several Laughing Gulls whose black hoods had almost completely grown back in – a sure sign of spring? – plus there were about half a dozen skimmers around, which I hadn’t seen for a while.

By far the best find, however, was a knobbed whelk shell as long as my hand, the biggest once I’ve ever come across.  When I spotted it it was mostly buried in the sand, and I couldn’t believe my luck when I pulled it out and discovered that it was intact, empty and whole and perfect.

I’m not a big shell collector most of the time.  What would I do with boxes full of shells?  Better to leave them for the hermit crabs, who can put them to good use.  But this one, heavy though it was, absolutely had to come home with me.  When I flipped it over…

…its rough gray outside revealed an impossibly brilliant red-orange interior, one warm spot of color on the grayscale beach.

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Waves and Sand

I am and always will be a forest person at heart, but that doesn’t mean I won’t miss walking on the beach every day when I leave Georgia.  Ambling along the wrack line, seeing what the waves have turned up today – it’s never the same twice.  The tide will carve a deep runnel midway up the beach…

…only to smooth it out again the next day.

Translucent jellyfish…

…live keyhole urchins, and their remains, which we call sand dollars…

…fist-sized knobs of “sea pork,” a colonial tunicate, which probably resembles our distant ancestors: its tadpole-like larvae have notochords, primitive “backbones” which make this one of the oldest chordate animals.

Eventually my walk takes me to the southern tip of the island, where a mixed flock of sanderlings, dunlins, willets and oystercatchers has congregated at the remains of a shrimp boat that wrecked here decades ago.

I sit on a piece of driftwood for a while, contemplating the view, before returning the way I came.  Not a bad way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon.

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The Boneyard Beach

(Please, please click for larger view!)

My favorite beach on the island is actually not the one on the south end where I live, but the one on the north end, whimsically dubbed the “boneyard beach” because of the massive dead trees that are its dominant feature.  They give the place an air of desolation, a feeling that something cataclysmic must have happened in the past to destroy these ancient trees and give this spot its alien beauty.

In fact, no storm or earthquake happened to kill these giants.  The cause is the slow, natural process of erosion.

On our barrier islands, sand naturally migrates from north to south through a process called longshore drift.  On the south end of the island, where I live, a broad beach is backed by an extensive zone of dunes and shrubby meadows that, given enough time, succession will turn into a forest of live oaks and palmettos.  However, on the north end the opposite is happening and the beach is eating directly into the edge of forest.  As the soil is slowly but inexorably pulled from around the roots of the enormous oaks, eventually they die, and the salty breezes preserve them where they fall.

Those trees that are still standing have been shaped by the same winds so that they lean drastically away from the sea, a process called “salt shearing.”

Who says you need to visit an art museum to see bizarre sculpture?