Nature Connection: Flotsam and Jetsam

By: Mary Richmond

Mary Richmond photo

Walking the beach after a storm full of wind is always interesting. Add a surging high tide that pushes beyond usual boundaries and you never know what you might find where. There are the usual piles of seaweed, driftwood, shells of all kinds and the broken shells of horseshoe crabs as well as true crabs. There may be a dead fish or two, even dead sea birds half buried in wet sand. There could be feathers and odd bits of rope, maybe a rogue buoy, a torn boot and an old water-logged hat.

And then there are the not so usual things. A picnic basket, perhaps, or a bottle of wine, unopened. Once I found a large hardcover book, its pages swollen and damp, its appearance forlorn and melancholy. I’ve found toys and tools, boxes and buckets and even a few broken pieces of old ceramic pipe. My most alarming find was what turned out to be part of an old bomb or missile. When I brought it to the attention of the beach patrol folks they said it wasn’t all that unusual. More than a few wash up on our beaches now and then, left over from target practice held decades ago.

As you probably know, people walk the high tide boundaries looking for stranded sea turtles in the fall. As December creeps along, getting colder and colder, it will be less likely that these folks will find live turtles, but knowing as they do that miracles do happen, they will continue their search and rescue missions for another week or so.

These dedicated people get up in the middle of the night on some of the worst nights of the late fall to trudge along the waterfront with flashlights and headlamps. They go in the rain and the wind, the sleet and the snow. They brave gusty winds and the spray of waves crashing against the shore. Their feet get wet, their legs get tired and their fingers lose their feeling as do their noses and foreheads. And still they do it year after year after year to save the turtles. Over the years thousands of young turtles have been rescued and saved by these diligent and humble volunteers. It is efforts like these that encourage me and others that the world really isn’t as bad as it sometimes seems. Little actions add up to big effects. All those saved turtles are now able to have the chance to mature, mate and reproduce. This is a big win for a seriously endangered population of animals that many thought would become extinct in our lifetime.

On a recent post-storm walk, the tide was way out and the flats were expansive and winding like a sandy map of a land in my dreams. The wind was still cold and damp, but the sight of white flecks bouncing over the waves in the distance at the end of the sand caught my attention. A good look through my binoculars confirmed they were gannets, diving and splashing as they fished.

There were broken pieces of razor clams, tangles of seaweed, whelk egg cases and skate egg cases with random feather adornments sticking out here and there. There was an old sneaker, more than a few medical masks and a dovekie that had succumbed to the cold and foul weather.

Groups of bundled-up people were driving onto the beach in low motorized vehicles, heading to the shellfish flats they monitored and managed. Dogs frolicked in the tidal pools while people walked backward into the wind.

It’s easy to think of all the things the tide and wind leaves behind as flotsam and jetsam, a collection of odds and ends. In maritime terms, of course, flotsam is what is lost from a ship or boat unintentionally, such as in a shipwreck or capsize situation. Jetsam, on the other hand, is what is deliberately tossed into the sea from a ship or boat, perhaps in hopes of stabilizing it. Some may simply fly off the boat in the wind, lost to its owner as it makes its way to a random new home downstream.

As I survey the piles of shells and broken branches, seaweed and fish vertebrae, I think of how the sea recycles its own versions of flotsam and jetsam. Calcium and other valuable minerals many organisms need for growth leach back into the water. Seaweed breaks down, giving nutrients to all sorts of critters, large and small. Feathers, carcasses of dead animals and birds and the natural detritus of old egg cases and worm cases may look like they were casually left behind, but they are, in fact, what keeps the beach and the sea cycles going round and round. Our trash, on the other hand, needs to be picked up and disposed of. Where? Wouldn’t it be nice if our trash was all compostable, too?