Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

Babbling Beaches

“By the wisdom of Nature it has been appointed that more pleasure may be taken in small things than in great.”— Ruskin.

On a breezy day, when the sun scorches the sand and the wind continuously sweeps off the dry surface, and your ears detect the musical sound accompanying the process — vague as the visible part of it is blurred and misty — then it is that you are made aware of the agencies by which time creates geographical differences. Precipitated at the apex of the spit, the sand as it sinks tints the verge of the sea, while the lighter spoil, leaves and wisps of seaweed, trip off on independent voyage. The current from the south pares the spit, preserving its shapeliness. The ebb from the bay maintains the fluent inner curve. The dry wind, the current with its northerly set, and the ebb in conjunction, push the spit to the north, and as the sand advances, vegetation consolidates the work. Then comes the season of northerly winds, when the apex of the spit is forced backwards and outwards into a brief but graceful flourish, in the bight of which small boats may nestle, though the seas roar and show white teeth a few yards away. Since the winds of the north are less in duration and persistency than those from the south and east, the tendency of the spit — in defiance of the yearly setback — is to the north. Driftwood, logs, and huge trees with bare, branchless limbs become stranded, to dry and whiten in the sun and reinforce the sand, and in their decay, with ever contributed seaweed, to make mould for vegetation. The work of encroachment and consolidation is incessant and strangely rapid, for vegetation never lacks pioneers of special character to prepare the way for the less venturesome and less hardy. Often before vegetation appears, coral chips, shells, small stones, and sharp gravel, are concreted into platter-shaped masses which seem to become the base of blocks of rough conglomerate, capable of resisting the attacks of the sea; and a few yards back, where a mangrove-bordered creek once existed, the mud and decayed fragments of wood have been transformed into a black, cheesy substance which might be mistaken for soft coal. So do these beaches lay bare their secrets.

When the mainland streams pour out their floods and the commingled volume hurries north in a mud-tinted, sharply delimited current, and whole trees are cast up on the beaches of far-away isles, vivid examples of the dispersion of animate and inanimate things by purely natural means are afforded. Weighty stones are found locked among roots which, as the wood decays, are deposited on alien sands, thereafter to invite speculation as to origin and means of transport. On one such raft voyaged a living specimen of the white and black banded snake, one of the most singular of the family, for Nature has bestowed on it a placid disposition, and provided it with an unmischievous mouth and fangs so minute that, although classed as venomous, it is not considered injurious to man. Though strange and interesting, on the plea that the family is quite sufficiently represented, the derelict was unwelcome, save as a living proof of the practicability of natural transports. By what grace, indeed, could the creature which earned the Almighty’s bitter curse be accepted as “wilsam”— goods of God’s mercy driven ashore, no wreck or ship being visible?

This small bay never ceases the laying of tribute at one’s feet. There are seasons when the amount is less than at others; but how seldom are its sands trodden without a display of the infinite variety of productions of the ocean? When the mood of the sea is savage and the spoil from the reef is flung in ridges among the vegetation of the shore — coral in blocks and shattered masses, shells, seaweed, sponges, and other dead marine animals and driftwood, heap on heap — days of enthusiastic toil might be spent in sorting out the oversurplus of the secrets of the sea. But for months together the beach maintains its cleanly orderliness, and during these dreamy days the sea will tell of many a pretty treasure which the sands will reveal in the face of the sun.

The most famous of botanists compiled a floral almanac; the months, and in some cases the weeks, being associated with the development and flowering of significant plants. So might it be possible to ascribe to particular months the tokens with which the obliging sea bestrews the beaches. It is not proposed herein to attempt any such design, which would involve special knowledge of the science of conchology and the compilation of the records of years of patient observation. A few examples of the material on which the delightful work might be undertaken are given, so that the wealth of one brief strip of beach may be taken as typical of a vast stretch of calm waters within the Great Barrier Reef.

The ridges and furrows of the cyclone season, when the clean sand is covered and stained with weed, dead and living molluscs, coral, leaves carried from the hills by flooded streams, all fermenting in the heat, tell that Christmas is past and March not yet over. Many a year passes without such a storm as compels the groaning ocean to ravage its reefs. Then the beaches, during the first three months are not particularly fertile, nor are the shells to be found special or peculiar. In April many specimens of the mollusc known as Tapes, of which there are several species, are cast ashore, empty but fresh. In life the animal buries itself in the mud at the edge of the sand, and some disturbance of natural conditions, possibly due to the fresh water from flooded rivers, causes seasonal mortality. The most conspicuous of the species is that known as “literati,” because of the erratic scribblings decorating its valves. With others of the genera, it is to be found cast away at other times of the year, but the end of the wet season seems exceptionally direful.

April is confirmed, too, but transiently, by the presence of a frail mollusc (HAMINAEA CYMBALUM) which is washed ashore attached to seaweed, soon to disappear desiccated by the sun and ground to powder. The shell is semi-transparent with a sandy tint, and in form not unlike that of a common snail. As the weather becomes cooler, a thin, delicate bivalve decorates high-water mark. It is one of the tellinas — semi-transparent, lustrous, and fragile — which occurs in muddy sand, but why the species should be more susceptible to the ills of life during a particular season is not apparent. When the fates do conspire against its welfare dozen of bright specimens may be picked up during a casual stroll, the animal having disappeared. The epidemic the beach thus announced with pink and glittering shells coincides with low night tides, which possibly leave the inefficiently protected animals exposed to the attacks of uncustomary enemies which thrive only when the muddy banks are exposed. The cause of the exhibition of the relics is not of so much concern to the unlearned observer as the relics themselves and the part they play in signifying the progress of the season. If strong winds occur during the cool months, among the wreaths of broken seaweed thrown on the beach may be found unbroken and fresh specimens of a singularly beautiful and fragile univalve known commonly and most appropriately as the “bubble shell” (HYDATINA PHYSIS), which when alive is a most lovely object, its fine spiral lines being black and faint yellow with faint purple edges, while the mantle is fringed with light blue intermingled with pale yellow. In some specimens the base colouring is fawn, the lines, of varying width, being brown and “comely crinkled,” like the face of the pleasant old woman of whom a poet wrote. Such a frail shell is subject to many mischances before it reaches the beach, and a few hours of exposure to the sun tarnishes its lustre. To obtain it in perfection the beach must be patrolled every day during due season, and very rarely is the collector rewarded by the discovery of unsullied specimens.

When the chill is out of the surface the spring-time of the sea begins. Vegetable life is strenuous, so that one may chance to see a lazy turtle bearing on its back a weedy garden. The water is alive. Miles of space are belted with that plant to which Captain Cook applied a significant name, likening it in its myriads to “sea sawdust.” Some dare call it “whale spawn,” forgetful that the whale is not a fish. Others assert it to be none other than the “coral insect,” which does not exist save in the minds of those who write odes to such creatures:

“Ye build, ye build, but ye enter not in,

Like the tribes whom the desert devoured in their sin.”

It consists of minute vegetation in bundles, to be individualised under a strong microscope, though when countless billions drift on to the beaches and die and become green and grey with corruption, the fumes are by no means in proportion to the marvellous littleness of the individual plants. Then we know by the organs of scent and sight that August has come. The beaches are foul. The breakers roll in unbroken or with a muddy, froth, for the scum acts as oil, calming even troubled water.

The Red Sea is said by some authorities to derive its title from the scum formed by this plant (TRICHODESMIUM ERYTHRAEUM), which is strongly impregnated with iodine. It emits a most disagreeable odour and exhales a gas which affects the mucous membrane, causing in some individuals sneezing and inflammation of the eyes. One amateur fisherman of considerable experience and by no means susceptible to intangible irritations, and not to be diverted from his sport by trifles, has frequently been compelled to move from a favourite ground by a stream of the scum drifting to his anchored boat. The fumes gave intense smartness to the eyes, which were relieved by a gush of tears, but keen discomfort recurred when the tears were wiped away.

Following the least desirable of marine phenomena is that which is known as the “blanket weed,” which floats ashore in loathsome blobs, a hand’s breadth and more, the centre a grey, solidified slime, with a periphery of long, dull green, slimy, shapeless fringes Individual plants coalesce on the sand and, mingling with other weeds, cover respectable beaches with a woolly, compact mass not unlike a rough, thick blanket, but teeming with unpleasantnesses. Isolated plants cling to ropes, which become garlanded with thickened slime, from which evil-smelling mud oozes. Offensive to man afloat and ashore, the “blanket weed” is a luxury to mullet and garfish, for during its period both may be seen in shoals skimming the surface of the sea in abandonment of habitual shyness, and the stomachs of both are found to be full of the greenish-grey slime. With the compliance of the sun the impurity disappears, giving place to the graceful weed of vivid green that attaches itself to dead and whitened shells and fingers of coral covered at low water. Every flood-tide deposits a zone of shells splashed with green, while the shallows glow as a field of rich pasturage. In favourable situations, such as the upper part of a long immersed log, coated to the water-line with goose barnacles, the plant grows long and luxuriantly, falling on each side like a silken mantle.

One other season, ephemeral but universal, do the babbling but truth-telling beaches record. No rocky cove, no smooth strand, no rubbish-accumulating creek, no mangrove-fringed islet, no coral esplanade white under the tropic sun, no sand-bank with crest of windshaken bush, is free. It is Christmas. Christian and pagan alike tell it to the sea, and the sea tells it to the beaches in — corks.

Though there are grounds for the belief that some molluscs are seasonal in their appearances and disappearances, the majority are always with us, though subject to many casualties. A few months since an epidemic broke out among a certain species of sea urchins (Echinus), spherical animals with shells thickly set with spines, keen and exceedingly brittle. The beaches were strewn with thousands of the dead, no apparent exterior injury having been suffered. The particular species afflicted gathers to itself, seemingly as a disguise, but perhaps as ballast, the dead shells of cockles, which are retained by the spines. It was noticed that the dead were not encumbered.

A curious and one of the rarest of local shells is that known as the elephant’s tusk (DENTALIUM APTINUM). Pure white and slightly fluted longitudinally, it typifies the marvellous extent of Nature’s requirements and her fertility in design. It is especially interesting to note that the existence of the species in Australian waters has not hitherto been recorded, the nearest known locality being the Moluccas.

The DRUPA RICINUS (so specifically called because of resemblance to the prickly seeds of the castor-oil plant) has another feature almost unique — two ivory-white projections in the mouth, singularly like a baby’s teeth. In the waters of Florida is a distinct curiosity in the form of an altogether different mollusc which is commonly known as the “bleeding-tooth shell,” the gory stains about the base of the tooth being highly significant. The local example of the whimsicality of Nature owes its excellence to absolute purity. No fond mother crooning to her first-born ever looked on budding teeth more delightful in modelling and pearliness.

CHAMA LAXARUS belongs to the same family as the clams, the largest of living molluscs, its specific title being an allusion to the tattered raiment of the beggar of the most edifying of parables. Occasionally the china-white upper valve is decorated with a broad streak of buff. Some of the genera are attached to coral or rock indifferently by either valve, and it is exceptional to find on the beach a perfect specimen — that is, the valves united. Since on the reef the shells are frequently protectively disguised with seaweed and other growth, it is only after the violence of a cyclone that the amateur collector expects to be rewarded.

Unlike some others of the family, the cockscomb oyster, though not objecting to the near-by presence of its kind, seems to hate a crowd. Half a dozen may occupy separate areas on a rock, and solitary specimens lie embedded and strongly anchored in the sand. A typical example may weigh over seven pounds. So big and weighty a shell can scarcely be sensible of its invariable burden of parasites and other encumbrances — but the variety of such tenants never fails to excite curiosity. That which is illustrated accommodated another oyster of delicate texture, a thorny clam (which has the reputation of being poisonous), a mass of seaweed, a serpentine mollusc, two species of coral — the red organ-pipe and a mushroom — three burrowing crabs, besides a number of smaller animals, fixed and mobile, in addition to the congregation of less obvious life critical examination would undoubtedly have revealed.

Most species of univalves are wanderers, many bivalves are free, and multivalves become fixed at an early stage of existence. The goose-necked barnacle, with its five valves, comes in its myriads attached to derelict coco-nuts, floating logs, and pumice-stone. The species owes its name to the fabulous belief that it was the preliminary state of the barnacle goose of the Arctic regions, the filaments representing the plumage and the valves the wings. It has been found on shells, whales, turtles, and marine snakes.

In the mud close to the edge of the beach sand one of the most singular of marine animals exists, and often its empty, horny, flexible, semi-transparent shell, always tinted green, may be found. It is known in some works as LINGULA ANATINA, and by the natives of this Isle, by whom a certain part of it is eaten, as “Mill-ar-ing.” A pinhole in the mud indicates the presence of the animal, and the hungry black boy, thrusting his hand with outspread fingers below it, closes the fingers and withdraws anything but an inviting morsel. To the tongue-shaped shell is attached a pedicle or stalk, attaining a length of ten inches, opaque and tough, which is broken off, seared over the fire, and eaten with apparent relish. It is remarkable that in localities in which this mollusc is found a seaweed occurs similar in shape and size, the chief difference in appearance being in the length of the stalk, which in the plant is thin and membranous.

The Phorous, or carrier, otherwise the mineralogist, is remarkable for its extraordinary habit of cementing to its exterior stones of irregular size, and in some cases dead shells of other species, an office performed by the use of an exceptionally long tongue. Its movements are said to be very clumsy and erratic, as if its self-imposed burden was too cumbersome for its strength. Personal observation fails to verify its staggering gait, for dead specimens only have been found. The stones are, no doubt, designedly acquired as a disguise and so represent another form of life insurance. When stationary the mineralogist successfully baffles observation; but some day, peradventure, in a moment of preoccupation, it will reveal itself lurching along over the rough country it favours. How few living things escape the “penalties of Adam.” Some bear sorrows, some stones.

Among the fixed molluscs are what is known as the winged shells, to which the “pearl oysters” belong. The name is apt, for the expanded valves are not unlike the form of a bird in flight. The illustration shows a rare species, several specimens of which were found attached to the mooring-chain of a buoy by what is known as the “byssus,” a bunch of tough fibres which passes through an hiatus in the margins of the valves. Like the king’s daughter of the Psalmist, PTERIA PEASEI is “all glorious within,” the nacreous surface, margined with lustrous black, shining like silver with a tinge of blue.

Only a very small proportion of the species of shells to be found on the shore of this bay have been enumerated. In a work of general character a complete commentary on any particular branch of natural science would be out of place, nor is it competent for one who has but a trifling knowledge of a special subject to deal with it in an enlightening manner. It would be highly interesting to ascertain by study and observation why the denizens of so many parts of the ocean meet in community in such a narrow space, though it may not be very difficult to present a fairly satisfactory theory for the continuous presence of many species by reference to existing features and prevalent conditions. Within the area of the bay the water varies in depth from a few feet to four fathoms, the rise and fall of the tide being about two fathoms. The fringing coral reef represents all stages of development and decay — live growth on the outer edge, ever encroaching on the deeper water, and comprising many varieties; dying masses on the shore-side, and a considerable extent of dead and denuded relics lying in mud. There are also weedy patches, bare sand-banks of limited extent, uncovered at low water, and muddy depressions both in the deep and shallow portions and clean sand. Strong currents race past the sand-spit and across the bay, carrying, no doubt, continual supplies of spat from elsewhere to settle in quiet places. No one who has lived on the margin of the tropic sea can be astounded at its prolific life, though it may be a matter of unceasing wonder that along a beach not more than four hundred yards in extent should be found shells representative of species existing in nearly all the warm waters of the world.

And there are other isles with other beaches. One may present a narrow strip of soft sand, cringing and squeaking under foot, almost entirely composed of finely ground coral and shells, among which polished fragments of red coral are to the beach-comber as the “colours” the gold fossicker may find in his dish — prospective of reward. They reinspire the like fervour which leads to the discovery of mountains as well as microbes, for may they not signify the existence within the bounds of the Great Barrier Reef of the precious coral of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea? Above such hopeful sands lies a band formed of stag’s-horn coral, bleached snow-white, each time lying at right angles to the sea, and higher up on the strand are blocks and lumps of weather-stained coral among which vegetation is springing. A few yards further back stands a group of Pandanus palms, the van of the dense and intricate jungle covering rock and ridge.

The shore of the sister islet may at the moment be but series of steeply shelving banks of coral debris, to the base of the granite ramparts over which the luxuriant foliage falls.

Each islet has its distinguishing features, each beach its budget of news for ears attuned to “small measures,” each its display of seemly things — the sweepings of the floor of the sea.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32