July 29, 2014

Nature Girl

In an area world-renowned for its beaches, the one where you’re most likely to find me is not the prettiest, largest or most isolated. And there are no amenities like snack shacks or shops anywhere at Bunche Beach in Lee County either—although the free parking is a huge plus in my book.

For those who enjoy a bit more diversion at the beach than simply soaking up rays (bad for you), reading (a pain in the glare and heat), or people-watching (so few there), this county-owned beach, accessed on John Morris Road, south of Summerlin Road, offers some slightly different ways to pass the time.

The shelling (more about that later) and beached marine life can be fascinating.

Beyond that, however, is the sheer variety of flotsam and jetsam found on almost every trip. It’s a cache unmatched by any other Southwest Florida beach, and not all of that is good. By definition, it includes what most people consider trash, but at least it has high curiosity value.

Even the phrase promises a hint of romance. "Flotsam and jetsam" dates back to sailing ships and the 16th century. "Flotsam" refers to the broken-up pieces of ship or its contents that washed ashore. "Jetsam" is what was deliberately thrown overboard, or jettisoned.

Updating the import here, Webster’s Dictionary says the phrase has now been broadened to include "natural debris" or "miscellaneous, unimportant materials" found on the shoreline.

Unimportant to whom? Did a toddler miss the pint-size plastic cat, curled into a sitting position to display the detailed, human-like blue eyes? Did the one-armed doll suffer that injury and was then abandoned, or was she accidentally left behind? And shoes. What is it about guys and shoes?

You’ll never find a woman’s shoe on the beach; they’re all for men. Women know the value of shoes.

There are enough flip-flops to keep a small nation shod, and tennis shoes aren’t far behind. None match, of course, so you have to wonder what happened with the other one? Once there was a pair—a left and a right, the same style, brand and colors, same size, both rotten and covered with barnacles, indicating time under water. But the shoelaces were gone and there was nothing holding them together. How did the matching two wash up within a couple feet of each other?

Bunche Beach is just across the water from Fort Myers Beach, and part of it is exposed to the open water of the Gulf. Some of the shoreline is mangrove, popular with fishermen. So there’s plenty of boat traffic, as well as a small town, to produce bits and pieces of non-beach life that then wash ashore.

Take the beer cans, please. How hard can it be? They should be easier to haul out empty than to bring in full. But why are most of them for light beer? Does being out on the water, with fewer clothes, make people more calorie conscious? If it doesn’t, more people should think about it.

The litter isn’t enough to make you think "what a dump." But there’s enough for a science project further proving that plastic never goes away and fast-food and snack wrappers don’t dissolve fast enough, if at all.

Then there’s the marine life that washes up in astonishing variety. Talk about science project inspiration. A ray measuring at least five feet from wingtip to wingtip stayed for a few days, then vanished. Large fish carcasses provide mute testimony to the "filet and release" potential.

Critter paw prints lead back into the mangroves, and flocks of herons, egrets and roseate spoonbills, along with dozens of smaller shore birds, busily feed at the water’s edge.

But it’s the shells that seem to provide the most dependable diversion. It’s a rare trip that doesn’t produce some worthy specimens.

There were weeks this past summer when you couldn’t set foot in the water without stepping on some of the thousands of crown conches (sometimes called kings crown shells) assembled on the tidal flats. If you waded out just a bit farther, there was the unmistakable smoothness of sand dollars under your feet.

Chances are excellent anyone could walk away with moon snails, fig snails, scotch bonnets, murexes, cockles, banded tulips, olive shells and rose petal tellins galore.

But here’s an important note: It’s illegal to take shells that have an animal living inside. If you pick up a shell and the slug-like creature is drawn up inside, leave it there. For one thing, the stink is terrible, much greater than expected from such a small critter, and it will permeate clothes and cars. Cleaning them out is neither easy nor fun.

If you think there’s little chance of getting caught, know that there are often law enforcement officers present (partly because of people who like to do things on that beach that are usually done in private) who aren’t obvious, and they can investigate all sorts of violations involving wildlife.

There are plenty of unoccupied shells. Finding the choice shells, however, can be tricky, but these tips, courtesy of Sanibel’s Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, apply to most Southwest Florida beaches.

First, Sanibel is famous for shelling partly because, unlike most barrier islands that lie on a north-south axis, it is oriented east-west, providing more ground to snag shells. Still, there aren’t as many shells as there used to be, and lots more people are looking for them. So the earlier in the day you go looking, and the more isolated the spot, the better.

The best time for shelling is after a storm in winter. Second-best is after a storm in any season. Winter is best because prevailing winds from the north or northwest push surface waters away from land, while the bottom currents rush toward land, uprooting and carrying shells.

Say you’ve found an interesting shell, and you have no idea what it is. Popular shell handbooks are likely to emphasize colorful, so-perfect shells of the south Pacific and other exotic locales.

Thumbing through those is like seeking the All-American girl-next-door in Vogue or Playboy.
Instead, go to the Bailey-Matthews Museum Web site, at www.shellmuseum.org. It offers realistic photos of Southwest Florida shells.

Shells are just one reason why it’s always good to carry a bag on beach walks. If you don’t find any shells, you can at least pick up some trash. No, you didn’t leave it. But it’ll make you feel good, and you may even get a story out of it.

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