Virginia Beach and What the Tide Brings

Going to the beach on a cold, midweek early morning, before all the schools had gotten out for the year, meant a beach largely to myself. A perfect time to explore the shoreline as no one was brave enough to be swimming or playing near the water. What I found both enchanted and repulsed me.

The Natural Beach Finds

Beyond a handful of broken shells and rounded stones, the ocean gifted the shore with other delights. I saw what looked like oddly-shaped plastic, but learned was a mermaid’s purse, or in other words, an egg case. This one was most likely from a skate. Assorted feathers sat in the wet sand. A strange conglomerate of a rock with holes and crevices got my attention. Little wooden bits swept ashore together and felt light-weight, like bamboo. Then, a morbid find of disembodied legs, possibly from a hermit crab, but I found quite a few of these legs on the beach. What I missed seeing was lots of shells, rounded stones and seaweed that I had seen here in the past.

The Unnatural Beach Finds

While I wish the story ended here, the ocean purged up repulsive items. Maybe people didn’t mean to leave their garbage, but somehow high tide snatched it when they were off flying their kites or playing disc golf. On my first half day, I naively thought the trash by the water was an anomaly and ran each handful to the disposal bins higher up on the beach. I returned the next day with a bag.

Pieces in my collection included: plastic bottle caps, plastic shrink wrap, torn plastic bags, a straw, two broken sunglasses, a black fabric visor ripped from a hat, a plastic fried chicken toy, cigarette butts, plastic mouthpieces from cigars and polystyrene foam in a variety of sizes. I thought after walking one direction that the return trip would be a cleaner view, but the ocean kept spewing out more. Though a little of the trash seemed truly unintentional – worn bits of green netting and thick brown ropes probably lost by fishers.

Shorebirds on sandy beach near ocean
A cold morning with the shorebirds. This is a zoomed and cropped photo. I respectfully walked around them up the beach since they were eating. Photo by Karen M. Free

An Eccentric Collector

Small pieces of polystyrene foam and plastic were the most common form of garbage. More than once the wind blew a one-centimeter piece of polystyrene foam just as I was about to pick it up. I went running after it, only to have it blow away when I reached out again. This scene repeated itself more than I want to admit, but my special hatred of polystyrene foam motivated me to persevere. And several times I chased the trash right in front of people lounging up on the dry, fluffy-sand section of the beach, wrapped in coats and hats who stared at me like I was an eccentric adding to my beach-garbage collection.

I mainly focused on clearing the sand that the waves were rolling against. In an hour, my gallon-sized bag was full. Though this is a small bag, my old knees want to tell you that they bent down hundreds of times to reach all the tiny trash it contained. They may be exaggerating.

One time a group of twentysomethings saw me repeatedly picking up items in one spot and ran over, excited as if I had found a cache of cool shells. Their smiles dropped when they looked down.

Normally, I don’t pick up every piece of trash I see, especially around my apartment complex. But with a nearly empty beach, all the unnatural items in such a magical place were grating on me. The shorebirds were looking for meals and could accidentally eat tiny bits of polystyrene foam. Cleaning up their space a little made me feel that I earned my time appreciating the shore’s natural beauty.

sandpiper with beak in wet sand
Sandpiper eating alone. Photo by Karen M. Free.

A short clip of a solitary sandpiper on Virginia Beach.

Sandpipers and Salt Sizzle

Watching a sandpiper looking for food on a clean shore, his rising and receding with the waves, was mesmerizing – his dance with the water. I saw little holes form in the sand after the water pulled back and wondered if he only ate these sunken treasures. Later I learned that a sandpiper’s diet includes snails, worms, small invertebrates, assorted insects and biofilm, the slime that covers the wet sand.  

Few people on the beach meant I could hear the ocean’s subtler sounds that I hadn’t noticed before. No children were screaming in joy running in and out of the water and no teens were blaring music. On my past visits to popular beaches, only the crashing waves could be heard above that din.

This time I noticed the sizzling sound the salty water makes as it stretches to reach up the beach and then recedes. I felt comforted by this sound. The ocean is so huge, contains so much life, so much food, more than I can comprehend. A symbol of its hugeness was always in the background, as I saw gigantic ships stacked high with cargo, moving toward the nearby commercial port every day. That the ocean could speak in such a gentle voice lapping at my feet was enchanting to me. I promised myself that I won’t wait four years to visit the shore again.

A sizzling video that stops abruptly just before my feet enter the frame.

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