Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Beachcombing

Things I like about Sydney No. 62: Beachcombing

There are many common things you can expect to find whilst beachcombing on Sydney's inner-city beaches, things which I, as a Londoner, still find exciting. I've discovered lots of shells, some dead fish, various seaweeds, sea-urchins, stranded jellyfish and some crabs. The most ubiquitous objects of all have to be the discarded and broken shells of Sydney rock oysters  - quite beautiful with their pearly opalescent insides. It is always a challenge to try and find an empty oyster with both halves of the shell intact - so far I've found only three...

Unfortunately, when scouring Sydney's inner-city shorelines for treasure there is also a fair chance of coming across a mass of rubbish - plastic bottles, bottle tops and bags, deflated beachballs, syringes, wire. Unpleasant and unsightly things for us and often potential killers for seabirds and fish.

The further out you get from Sydney the more exotic the things that turn up on beaches. Shells become more colourful, more prolific, more varied and generally larger. Daniel and I have made an ever-expanding collection of various shells, augmented most recently by our trip north to Elizabeth Beach, and to fulfill that tiredest of cliches they mostly live in the bathroom, nestled in coloured art deco glass bowls.

















And, as I always think the more the merrier, we have a few lines of shells creeping across various surfaces of the house, dust magnets all.


Occasionally, when beachcombing for shells, one is squirted in the face by an indignant occupant who is not yet ready to relinquish their home. Or perhaps you peer into a shell just in time to see a little trapdoor closed firmly shut by pairs of spindly legs. These shells can then be thrown back into the sea although I always wonder what it is like to be propelled in a great arc into the sky and to land with a sickening lurch back in the water when you are the size of a fifty pence piece. Either it feels like the best fairground ride ever or it's enough to give you a heart attack. Do clams and crabs have heart attacks? The world of the sea is truly a mystery to me...

Larger finds than shells are also quite common beyond and in Sydney - dead fish, squid and jellyfish frequently dotting the sand, seemingly placed just so ready to be captured in an artist's still life.





































Some of the fish can be quite large...















And then readers of this blog know how Daniel and I found an even larger dead New Zealand fur seal on the beach in the Coorong and how we wrenched off its skull for taxidermy purposes...

This holiday it was the turn of a Wandering Albatross to undergo the Cooper-Brine taxidermy service, its skull is currently at the bleaching stage (which will hopefully get rid of the last traces of the godawful smell it bore). Poor Daniel was given the task of flaying off the dead skin and feathers and of removing its eyeballs, which, predictably, burst in nauseating fashion, spurting black gunk over his clothes.















As we had seen various live Wandering Albatross flying high over the sea it was very exciting to get this skull. We actually found it on the shore of a lake rather than on a beach, but the sea was only metres away beyond a sandbar. It reeked to high heaven and was much more recently dead than our fur seal had been. As we were in rented accommodation there was no question of boiling the skull in a spare saucepan as we did in the Coorong - the stench would have remained long after we left - so we headed to the nearest town and the nearest op-shop to buy a pan in which to do cold-water masceration (which simply involves leaving the skull in cold water until all the flesh can be easily picked off). Later on in the process I had great difficulty keeping the beak sheaths intact...a sort of flexible covering over the beak which you can retain and replace once all the mascerating and bleaching of the whole skull has been achieved. My fingers would reek of death every time I had another go at removing them but I finally got them off after five days of soaking the skull in water and they're now ready for reassembling once the bleaching has finished...















By the way, if there is anyone else out there who ends up spending their holidays boiling and bleaching an assortment of skulls do let me know. I'm hoping we're not alone...

Shells, fish, crabs, seaweed, birds, seals. We've found them all on beaches in Australia. But what we never ever expected to find in a million years was that which we found stranded on Seven Mile Beach on a cold but bright winter's day this July....

We were trudging along the long, long stretch of deserted white sand, our shoes making loud squeaking noises as we walked, easily audible above the buffeting of the wind and waves. A few birds, mostly gulls, flew up as Sniff made marauding half-hearted feints at them. They would circle in the sky above us before landing again further up the beach where, minutes later, the interplay would happen all over again. A single Jacky Winter followed us, hopping from side to side, flicking its tail vigorously back and forth, perching on tiny rocks and cocking its head inquisitively as if waiting for an answer to a question.



















I was checking the high tide-line on the sand where shells and seaweed and small stones had been deposited earlier in the day, bending over now and then to pick up a promising-looking shell. The beach was completely empty except for us - no surfers, no four-wheel drivers, no other beachcombers. Daniel, looking out towards the sea, was the first to spot it, this curved shape on the sand, like a scribble on an otherwise empty page...




With a sense of shock he realised it was an enormous great snake. A sea snake, no less.















He called me over and, as we got nearer, we could see marks in the sand which the snake had made earlier, wriggling about in an attempt to return to the sea. Now, however, it was inert, possibly even dead. I peered that little bit closer when, suddenly, its head reared up, looked straight at me, and began to dart backwards and forwards. At which point, I reasoned, this being Australia where most everything seems to be venomous, it was probably wise to signal the retreat.

What we didn't know, as we casually inspected the snake, was that it was a hugely venomous species which, although it rarely attacks when in the water, can become aggressive when stranded on land, exactly as it was now. Sea snakes have the most powerful poison of all snakes. Just one drop would be enough to kill three people and they can deliver up to eight drops in one bite. The Yellow Bellied Sea Snake, for such it was, has the widest range of any sea snake in the world - travelling all around coastal Australia and over as far as the Philippines, feeding entirely on small fish. They propel themselves by the means of their tail which has been adapted into a kind of paddle and which is beautifully marked, like a leopard.















Sadly, they rarely survive once stranded on land. In fact they are usually stranded in the first place because they are exhausted and on the way out - from the effects of battering storms, or from illness, or from old age.

I felt very guilty once we'd returned home to our rented house that we hadn't tried to rescue the snake by returning it to the sea. But once we did some research and read various stories on-line of other people's failed rescue attempts and knowing that once stranded, these snakes rarely survive, I felt a little comforted. And secretly I hoped that it had survived until the sea once more swallowed up all that white sand and enabled it to paddle its way off again across the oceans in search of fish.

Either way, we were overwhelmed by the fantastic opportunity we'd had to learn something up-close and personal of these elusive creatures which, because they make difficult captives, are rarely available to be scrutinised in aquariums or zoos.

Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake, or  Pelamis platurus, of Seven-Mile Beach, Daniel and I salute and thank you.

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