Yesterday afternoon, my husband, Tom, and I went for a walk on the beach. This is something we do frequently, now that we are living by the ocean. Actually, we live on the shores of Monterrey Bay in Northern California. For those of you unfamiliar with NorCal, it is not a hot, palm-tree-fringed coast. The Japanese current comes down from Alaska, and the waters are cold. Most of the summer, fog covers the coast in the morning, pulls out for a bit in the afternoon, and pours its chilly self back onto the land in the late afternoon or evening. When it’s 100ºF inland, it might get up as high as 80ºF here on the coast. Mostly, summer temperatures are in the 60s or 70s.
But yesterday afternoon, it was warm and the fog hung far out on the water. The sky was cloudless. I spent some time tipping crabs. There are hundreds of small crabs that thrive in the wave zone. They often get tipped upside down by the receding water and wave their eight legs in the air frantically, trying to right themselves. If another wave doesn’t come along to right them, they eventually give up and pose upside down, legs rigidly extended. If the tide is going out they are sometimes eaten by seagulls or just die from exposure. I have a hard time resisting their little flailing legs and I tip them back upright to give them a fighting chance. Yes, I know they’ve been getting tipped upside down for millions of years. Still.
I love shells of all sorts, and collect them whenever I am visiting a beachy place. The shells in our area tend to be a bit drab and there isn’t a lot of variety, but
I look for sand dollars. They wash ashore frequently in this area. When alive or recently deceased, their shells are purple. I check to see if they are alive, which isn’t easy to determine, but if they still have their hair-like legs on the undersides of their shells, I pitch them back in the water. (I make it a point never to take a live shell. I never buy shells, because these are harvested live to assure they are unbroken and unblemished.) If the sand dollars have lost their legs and the “velvet” that coats the outside, they are truly dead and I pick them up if unbroken. The shells are quite fragile, so finding an unbroken sand dollar isn’t unusual, but it is the exception. I’ve been placing the shells to bleach in the sun on my front porch. They range in size from about one inch across to three or four inches.
The water was full of life—and not just surfers and screaming children. There was a huge pod of dolphins roiling the waters, their dark backs and fins rolling smoothly out of the waves like synchronized swimmers—which I suppose they are. There must have been a hundred or more of these beasts just offshore. A small seal or three poked their heads out of the waves. They come in quite close to swimmers, and they sometimes get quite a reaction from people who aren’t expecting a largish animal to surface right next to them.
And then we saw the whales. Further afield, perhaps a half a mile from shore, great spouts of water appeared above the waves. Like geysers, the spouts rose high in the air and lasted for a fairly long time. Several times, I saw whales breaching, leaping out of the water and falling back with a mighty gout of water rising as they hit the surface. I was told by one passerby that humpbacked whales had been spotted in the bay, but today I heard that blue whales were out there yesterday as well. They were too far away for me to tell which we were seeing.
People all along the beach were stopped, standing on the sand and shading their eyes as they stared out to sea. Everyone was smiling, pointing, talking to strangers. People were rejoicing in the sight of the whales as though they had just seen angels.
It was, in a word, magical.