Florida’s vast, vulnerable beaches

I should have started my last post about Florida bugs with a confession: I could have avoided the whole thing by sticking to the paths …

… instead of bushwhacking through the mangroves.

Well, no matter. We’ve put the bugs behind us and have finally made it to the beach!

During our trip to Florida last November my husband and I stayed across the street from the ocean, where once again I was struck by the power and immensity of the sea.

Florida from 10,000 feet: mostly sand and water

I got up before dawn every morning to watch the sunrise. And although the light and the weather were a little bit different each day …

… each day drew the same cast of characters. I never got anything more than a scowl from the lady who carted off mounds of sodden seaweed in her tattered plastic bags, nor a single word out of the surfer I dubbed “Methuselah.”

But by sitting still, I did gain the trust of some wildlife.

One morning a seagull approached me — probably looking for handouts — but took flight when I extended my hand. The image of its sudden departure is a fail, but I still love the sunlight streaming through its feathers.

Another day I watched a heron fishing along the shore. He looked awkward, stomping through the waves on his skinny stilt-legs, but he was a formidable hunter: He caught three fish in the 10 minutes I watched him.

Even more comical were the sandpipers that sprinted along the foam’s edge with the manic intensity of tiny meth fiends. But when they stood still for a moment they suddenly seemed frail to me, and vulnerable.

In fact, the more time I spent on the beach the less vast the ocean appeared — and the more vulnerable. One day my husband and I spotted a crowd in the distance. “Let’s check it out,” I said. “Are you sure?” he asked. “It could be something grisly …”

To the contrary, it was a sea-turtle release. I imagined how confused and thrilled the animal must have been to be back in the briny expanse, but fretted about the dangers it would once again face in the open water.

Another morning the beach was littered with shells. I stomped with glee on the crunchy carapace carpet.

But my glee faded somewhat when I considered that every one of these shells represented a life.

One shell in particular caught my eye — both because it was still mossy, and intact. I picked it up, thinking I’d found a real treasure, only to realize the shell’s architect was still inside.

Its eyes poked out, like a snail’s antennae, as it surveyed me in return. I tossed it back into the ocean as gently as I could.

This poor crab wasn’t as lucky, though.

A couple of mornings the beach was littered with Portuguese man o’wars. Some were still alive, their gelatinous bodies heaving as they suffocated on the sand. I briefly considered trying to return them to the water, but then remembered that the tentacles can be up to a foot long — and that their poison can sometimes be fatal. I felt terrible for the little creatures as I left them to die.

During my morning walks I also noticed other types of litter, such as these branch bits that mimicked little bonsai trees.

But even on the worst day, nature’s litter paled in comparison to the sheer volume of human trash I saw. Isn’t it ironic that we could kill something so vast as an ocean with tiny, careless acts?

The good news is that each of us can make a difference, even if we’re nowhere near a beach: Here are 10 ways you can help protect the ocean right from your own back yard.

Thank you — as always — for reading.

Text and all images © Heather Munro.