This was my post from the highly recommended weekly publication Bratton Online (10/20/21 edition)
People at the Beach
I hop off my bike and lock it to a post at the entrance to the beach. I’m here to meet Juan and Ted and their dog Fluffy for an evening stroll to catch up and get some fresh air. I smile with the transition to the beach, which is a regular way to leave my busy day behind and return me to myself, my normal world and what I want to be – relaxed! Squinting through the reflective brightness off the sparkling water, I spot my friends already down by the water and jog towards them. We exchange hugs and start on our walk. We won’t turn around for a long while…this stretch of sand goes on and on, and we have an hour before we need to head back to our homes. We keep to the wet sand where its easier (and less messy) to walk. Juan uses one of those plastic scoop arms for extra lift to lob a ball for Fluffy. There’s lots to talk about, the light breeze feels invigorating, the sand cool and wet between my toes. For the breeze and noise of the lapping waves, we walk closer than we might otherwise to hear one another better. Fluffy comes crashing into us as she rough houses with another dog, now we are sandy and wet to our waists, laughing, and smiling at another group passing by. The sun is getting lower, and the clouds are turning pastel orange and magenta, a myriad of colors reflected in fractal patterns of swirling sea foam. We’re quiet for a bit, pausing on our walk to watch bottlenose dolphins pass by and to hear the lapping waves. Way down the beach we approach a party – bonfires in big metal bins and chairs around portable tables, musicians setting up for an event that will last into the night. We are at our halfway point, turning around we face into the wind and towards the setting sun. I know from our past walks that we are now each pondering what more we want to ask to make sure we are all caught up on conversations that have lasted years. Our walks are not often enough, this time together is precious. The conversation picks up pace and the walk back seems faster than the way out. We brush off the sand, towel off Fluffy, and say our goodbyes.
Nonhumans at the Beach
In parallel, the nonhuman organisms at the beach were having very different experiences during our visit. Walking in the wet sand, Ted, Juan and I crushed hundreds of living organisms and smashed the structure of the sand where critters had tunneled for breath and to filter feed…contributing to the greatly diminished diversity and abundance of such organisms with increasing recreation on beaches. Fluffy’s cavorting flushed dozens of shorebirds, already exhausted from being frightened over and over by people and their dogs. Those shorebirds also particularly need the wet sand, where they probe for food; they only get a few chances to dart into that feeding zone between the constant parade of walkers. The fires and noise from the beach party will keep nesting beach birds on high alert nearby, as they cuddle their newborn chicks; those families will not be having restful nights and will have a harder time remaining healthy. Next season, maybe they will remember not to make a nest so close to those areas of the beach where parties light up the night, but there isn’t much beach left where they can still find peace.
What Makes a Beach?
There is so much we take for granted about our beaches and few even realize what a natural beach might look like, or how nature maintains and forms it. Our best beaches are sandy, and that sand is constantly on the move, eroding and replenishing with the wind, waves, and tides. Streams and rivers are beachmakers, depositing sand into the ocean. In Santa Cruz County, the sand is driven downshore from the north with the prevailing wind and current. Promontories create sand deposition shadows- rockier areas to the north of most beaches and more sand on the south, including piles of sand up on the bluffs above the beach to the south. Where beaches are wide enough, there are low mounds of sand towards the waves and bigger and bigger dunes further onshore. Typically, the sand blocks most rivers and streams in the summer, creating still water lagoons full of life.
Natural Diversity in the Sand
Our beaches are super-diverse ecosystems, teeming with life wherever we let them thrive. Where we don’t trample them, plants establish close to the sea. Sea rocket, with its pale, simple 4-petaled lavender flowers, is notoriously resilient, establishing from seeds that are constantly floating around the ocean waiting to wash ashore. This plant is cosmopolitan, on beaches around the world. By stabilizing the blowing sand, sea rocket starts formation of the little mounds we call foredunes. Foredunes then become habitat for many other species. Further inland are taller and taller back dunes where waves rarely crash. There can be freshwater ponds in back dunes in the winter. Elephant seals rest there. North facing back dune slopes have ferns and mosses; throughout these taller dunes you can find succulent plants, shrubs flowering year-round, endangered lupines, wallflowers, paintbrush, spineflower, and gilia…as well as many species of songbirds. Around the lagoons and ‘dune slack’ (ponds) ducks breed and red legged frogs, newts, and garter snakes flourish. Raccoons, pond turtles, egrets, herons, and lots more are at home in these wet areas.
Healing Beaches and Dunes
As I mentioned above, we have loved our beaches to death but, in some places, people are trying to establish more of a balance. Across the Monterey Bay, there is just one beach that is off limits to people: Wilder Beach. We set aside this State Park beach to protect nesting endangered snowy plovers. Any regular and observant beach goer will know this story: there are signs and “symbolic” fences on many beaches to remind people not to trample their habitat. Unfortunately, fences and signs are not enough, and the species is struggling to survive in our region. What few snowy plovers are left is because of a team of conservationists associated with the nonprofit Point Blue Conservation Science who monitor the species and work with parks managers to protect them. Without those always underpaid and generous people, there would be no signs and no fences: they serve as the conscience for the species and are supported by grants and donations. Further south, in Santa Barbara County, at Coal Oil Point, a docent program has volunteers standing by the plover fences with signs and binoculars educating visitors and assuring plover safety, a program that is being duplicated elsewhere. Again, generous conservationists coming to the rescue!
Snowy plovers are an indicator species for healthy beaches and dunes, and other programs are working to restore the plants needed to sustain healthy plover habitat. From Seabright Beach through Pacific Grove’s Asilomar State Beach, parks managers and volunteers are controlling invasive species and planting dune plants. Ice plant is the most widespread and pernicious threat. Each year for the rest of eternity, people will have to comb the beaches and dunes to find iceplant and rip it up before it takes over. Thanks to years of this work, we are starting to see the return of dunes and associated vibrant rolling mounds of wildflowers.
Before Our Time
Four hundred years ago…imagine the scene at the beach. Native peoples must have had a common presence on beaches for many reasons: launching boats, fishing, clam digging, tide pool foraging, harvesting of marine algae, leisure, and play. The lowest tides of the Spring and Fall must have drawn many people to the deep rocky intertidal where there were easier to reach larger and more varied shellfish. And there would have been grizzlies, condors, and coyotes sharing that space, feasting on (stinky!) washed up marine mammals. The tiny snowy plover probably had much larger flocks scampering around. Every beach would have had intact dune communities and clean lagoons.
The Future of Beaches
Can we find a way to conserve beach and dune species for future generations? What would that entail? Biologists suggest we need more control of the main threat: beach visitation – we already have too much. We thank the California Coastal Commission for steadfastly pursuing public access to beaches, a job that never seems to be finished. But we also understand that this agency has a mandate to protect biological diversity, something that they sometimes forget when it comes to beach access. For instance, they recently required the University to provide public access to Younger Lagoon and were surprisingly acquiescent at State Parks providing nearly unregulated and completely unplanned public access to Coast Dairies beaches. The Coastal Commission doesn’t have a plan for beach and dune biological conservation in California despite this being the only ecologically sensitive habitat that is in their jurisdiction statewide! I think almost all of us would like for all the plants and animals to have a place on Earth, even if it means giving up some of our conveniences…including our ability to use every beach or every inch of every beach. We need a comprehensive plan across all California beaches if we are to realize this outcome. And people need to care enough to support parks and the Coastal Commission if they decide to do pursue beach and dune protections. Oh, and it would be good to keep our Fluffy dogs from harassing beach wildlife, our strolls up on the dry sand, and our trajectories steering wide, away from foraging shorebirds.