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Pandemic Beach Finds 

click to enlarge Small by the wind sailors.

Photo by Mike Kelly

Small by the wind sailors.

I was born on the beach. Actually, it was about 4 feet above the beach. My mother was a competitive beach volleyball player. She leapt for a big spike and I found myself momentarily suspended in mid-air before falling on my face in the sand. Mom screamed, "Game point!" and scooted me and my placenta off court to serve the winner. Then she washed me off in the surf.

Being a newborn and not knowing any better, I assumed the sand and seawater in my mouth was mother's milk. This is why I think of the beach as my second mother.

So all of this controversy over beach use during the COVID-19 pandemic hits home for me. I thank the surf every day that I don't live in a wacky place like Los Angeles or Miami, where people go to the beach specifically to be in a crowd. Would they close Humboldt beaches? Would I be publically shamed for my beachcombing habit? I was relieved when our dreamy-eyed sheriff dude told us it was OK to go to the beach under the shelter-in-place order.

However, State Parks closed its beach parking areas, which meant you could still go to those beaches but you had to find a place to park and then walk in. I took advantage of the now-harder-to-reach beaches to be extra physically distanced. Here are a few finds and observations from the period of reduced competition:

I've seen bear tracks on local beaches before but never fresh tracks of two different-sized bears going in opposite directions. I'm glad I showed up late that day. Maybe fewer people on the beach means more beachcombing bears. Bears must not be interested in agates because that day I also found a couple of large ones any competitors would probably have found first.

The California market squid (Doryteuthis opalescens) have made their presence known by their egg cases washing up. Despite the zillions of dying squid embryos on the beach, I'm happy to know the squid are here.

Big skates (Beringraja binoculata) washed up in the form of several cartilaginous skulls, a dead individual and a mysteriously detached mouth. Evidence of a longnose lancetfish (Alepisaurus ferox) washed up in the form of a single section of toothy jaw.

Pyrosomes, AKA sea pickles, are tubular colonies of tiny animals called "tunicates" that live within a gelatinous tunic. They are normally tropical but turned up in 2017 during the so-called warm blob in such density that commercial fishermen and researchers off Oregon complained of not being able to use their gear due to fouling. I wonder what their return might mean.

By-the-wind sailors (Velella velella) have washed up a couple of times already this year. Those are the bright blue tentacled thingies with the little sail on top. And at the same time our old friend the vagina salp (Thetys vagina) was washing up along with other small salps with less iffy names.

Pro tip: When oceanic animals like these are washing up, be on the lookout for interesting flotsam. For example, I found a freaking glass fishing float washing up with them. It's probably Japanese in origin and has likely been floating around in the ocean for decades. It even had some barnacles and stalked hydroids living on it.

By the way, we don't actually recommend beach volleyball for inducing labor. A nice walk on the beach is probably better. Alternatively however, my mom says my brother John "Cannonball" Kelly had a cleaner and more elegant birth thanks to her then interest in competitive springboard diving.

Biologist Mike Kelly writes science-based satire as M. Sid Kelly. It's available at Eureka Books and for Kindle. He prefers he/him pronouns.

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