The beach, where land meets sea.
A place of beauty, wildness and, sometimes, mystery. When I’m beachcombing, I keep an eye out for these favorites:
Not actually fish but invertebrates (animals without a spine), jellyfish are alien-looking relatives of sea anemones, corals and Portuguese man-of-wars. Species common on Texas shores include moon jellyfish, cannonball jellyfish and sea nettles. Moon jellyfish and sea nettles resemble transparent sand dollars with tentacles on their edges, while cannonballs look like white Snapchat logos.
In Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone, author Juli Berwald reports that, while appearing to drift aimlessly, jellyfish actually employ the most efficient swimming method and achieve the fastest motion in the animal kingdom by firing their stinging cells. Fish, leatherback sea turtles and humans eat jellyfish. More than 1,000 animals feed on their carcasses, too, according to Maria Pia Miglietta, assistant professor at Texas A&M University at Galveston.
Do not touch jellyfish, even dead ones, Miglietta says. Wash stings with vinegar, remove tentacles with tweezers, and apply a baking soda and sea water mix. Do not rub the sting or use fresh water, as both can activate unseen stinging cells.
Wind sculpts these ever-changing piles of sand, and they continue to move until vegetation covers them. Once vegetation takes root, so do the dunes. Grass-covered dunes typically line the beach, while large expanses of barren sand, known as dune fields, sometimes form behind them.
In addition to protecting the coast against storm surge and waves, dunes provide habitat for plants and animals. Lizards, snakes, rabbits, coyotes and other creatures leave ephemeral tracks in the bare sand of the dunes. A variety of distinctive plants grows on and between dunes, and many birds feed and take shelter in them.
Even though people generally dislike seaweed on the beach, everything living there loves it. What we call “seaweed” actually is floating algae called sargassum, which provides food and shelter for fish, sea turtles and other waterborne creatures. Migrating tuna, humpback whales and birds depend on sargassum for food, and about a dozen marine species spend their entire lives in the woven mats. Particulates known as marine snow rain down from sargassum toward the ocean floor, feeding many species along the way. Sargassum also produces oxygen and sequesters carbon.
On the beach, dead seaweed feeds insects and creatures such as lizards. It also nourishes plants, boosting their growth by up to 70 percent. Texas A&M Galveston tested compacting washed-up sargassum into bales used to create dunes and found it increased vegetation growth and dune stability. About a million tons of the stuff grows in the Gulf of Mexico each year, says Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. In Galveston, learn more about sargassum and what lives in it on Artist Boat Bucket Brigade tours.
High tide literally draws a line on the beach. Using plants (including sargassum), crustacean shells, feathers and even trash, the tide defines its daily reach. Some wrack lines have more surprising contents thanks to wind and currents that bring pallets, logs and fishing gear from untold distances.
It might look like refuse, but the wrack line feeds and shelters insects, crabs and birds, says Mark Fisher, science director of coastal fisheries at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Wrack also acts as a nursery for grasses and other plants and so helps to anchor dunes. Trash and debris in the wrack line can hinder natural movements of wildlife, though. Sea turtle hatchlings struggle to safely cross trash-filled wrack lines and may exhaust themselves or fall victim to predators. The wrack line harbors the small and vulnerable, so don’t walk or drive on it.
Nesting Sea Turtles
Very few Texans have experienced the thrill of chancing upon a sea turtle nesting on the beach. “It’s not something you see every day,” says Donna Shaver, chief of sea turtle science and recovery at Padre Island National Seashore. The only sea turtles to nest during the day, Kemp’s ridleys come ashore April to July.
Kemp’s ridleys have existed for millions of years but largely disappeared from Texas beaches by the mid-1970s. An intense recovery project brought them back, and the first nest was recorded in 1985.
A record 219 Kemp’s ridleys nested at the Padre Island National Seashore in 2017. Staffers take eggs to protected labs for incubation and release hatchlings under controlled conditions. Many releases are open to the public.
Green sea turtles, common in Texas waters, crop seagrass beds and encourage more growth, and Kemp’s ridleys may play a role in the population dynamics of crabs, their favorite food. Sea turtle eggshells and unhatched eggs add important nutrients to beach ecosystems.
Drive slowly on beaches. If you see a sea turtle on the beach or catch one while fishing, call 1-866-TURTLE-5 immediately. Place a prominent marker near the nest; mother sea turtles are masters at disguising them. Do not touch or disturb the turtle.
See more of Melissa Gaskill’s work at melissagaskill.blogspot.com.