Edge of the Tide

Michael Viney on beachcombing in this special excerpt from the latest edition of Irish Pages

The length of Ireland’s coastline must now, I suppose, be nearing some kind of exactitude, as Earth is scanned obsessively by robots in the sky. But everything depends on where you pace it, and at what moment.

Tide lifts and falls; foam reaches up to lick one’s boots or curl around a rock. For the beachcomber, the boundary of land and ocean is more a state of mind than  any line drawn in the sand. I have been walking the tideline, on and off, for much of my life, each visit a reminder that Earth is very big and I am, in its cosmos, very small. 

The town where I was young – Brighton, on the English Channel – had a shingle beach, seasonally overlaid with thousands of striped towels and prostrate bodies. But in winter, with the stones washed clean and gleaming, it was possible to step back into theVictorian passion for pebble-collecting. 

A small, old-fashioned shop off the seafront dazzled me with semi-precious lapidary art: carved and polished onyx, jasper, agate, chalcedony, citrine, carnelian, amethyst – such mystical, ravishing names, and their glowing beauty, implicitly, the gift of the sea. 

Crunching along beside the waves, I made my choice from the millions of potential gems, and, emptying them out at home, tried to lick them back to life. Nothing in my education matched our pebble beaches to the story of the Earth, but in the crashing of  breakers, the hiss of rolling stones, I did make some connection with the planetary world. 

Ireland, too, has pebble strands, from the great storm-beaches of the west, terraced with bleached grey ostrich-eggs of limestone and quartz, to the gentler ridges of the south-east, their pebbles sifted and polished from  the debris of ancient glaciers (among them, blood-red jaspers swept down the Irish Sea from the granites ofWicklow and Down).

There are agates in the old red sandstone quarried by the waves at the tips of Cork and Kerry headlands; amethyst, still, in the quartzites of Achill; aquamarine in the granite of the Mournes. But, living now above a strand in south-west Mayo, my windowsills are crowded with the different flotsam and jetsam of a sandy shore: sea-urchins, crab shells, bird skulls, the vertebrae of dolphins, their curves instinct with the energy of other lives. 

The two kilometres of Thallabawn strand lie open to theAtlantic swells just north of the fiord of Killary Harbour, remote enough from human disturbance to let the otter commute between the waves and the little lakes behind the dunes. 

Most of the sand is made of shells ground small, so that three-spot cowries, like rolled-up finger-prints, stand out in their wholeness in a shattered mosaic (“the dry shells, the toe- and fingernail parings of the sea” in Michael Longley’s image). The tiny fragments are blown across the dunes and rain down onto the flat, grassy machair beyond. 

Here, their calcium is magically recycled into the shells of abundant land snails, some striped in bright yellows and browns and others the big, dark snails that gardeners know. In winter, long lines of these are wedged into the leeward cracks of driftwood fence-posts in the dunes, their shells sandblasted to delicate shades of blue. 

Rachel Carson, a marine biologist now better remembered for blowing the whistle on pesticides than for her revelatory books about the sea, once tried to buy the only specimen of the lovely, ocean-drifting violet snail Janthina in a shell shop in North Carolina. Rebuffed, she waited on luck, and “later I found an empty shell, light as thistledown, resting in a depression in the coral rock of Key Largo, where some gentle tide had laid it”. 

Reading this, I knew her joy, having come upon two of these beautiful, translucent shells, resting within a pace of each other on the tideline. It was a privilege all of a piece with Janthina’s random lifestyle, since this mollusc travels the surface of the ocean hanging upside down (as we would see it) from a silvery raft made by trapping the wind in bubbles of mucus. 

It lives on the chance of colliding with, and eating, a little blue jellyfish called Velella, or by-thewind sailor. Sometimes cast up by the million on Ireland’s Atlantic shores, this, too, is an ocean drifter, propelled by a little rainbow-coloured sail that it hoists to catch the wind.

The odds against snail and jellyfish colliding on the open ocean seem enormous, yet they do this with sufficient frequency to be bonded as predator and prey.When by-the-wind sailors drift ashore, Janthina occasionally arrives with them, but snail and jellyfish first meet, far out on the ocean, by bobbing blindly against each other, like toy boats on a park pond.

Infinite chance, infinite time: part of one’s pact with the rest of natureis accepting a scale of events quite at odds with our own pell-mell progress. 

It is a couple of decades since two notable storms, tail-ends of hurricanes, left our strand littered, end to end, with hundreds of washed-up fish. Most were the species from rocky ground out towards the islands – muscular congers, tiny cuckoo wrasse like drifts of pink goldfish, black tadpole fish that no one ever sees.

Others we gathered for the freezer: ling, hake, pollack. A scientist friend, a marine biologist, theorised that they had drowned from the shock of sudden change in temperature as masses of water were overturned offshore. Perhaps, but it has never happened since, in any other storm. But a couple of decades is scarcely a flicker on nature’s millennial meter, and words like “often” or “rarely” are purely human calibrations. Rarity itself is so often merely a measure of who’s around to see. 

The more extraordinary events along the shore were once received as part of nature’s ordinary chaos, the result of cyclic plagues, random storms, and so on. 

Today, they are not only more likely to be recorded, but scrutinised for hints of human impact, climate change and altered patterns in the ocean. We no longer feel sure that what we are watching is “natural”, and mass strandings and mortalities become runes to be read for the future of the planet. 

What was to be made of a great winter arrival of cuttle-bones (those oval, chalk-white buoyancy aids at the heart of the squid’s inshore cousins)? I had seen very few since my English Channel childhood, yet in 1996 came thousands, swept along the south coast and up the west of Ireland. 

Two winters later, it was little amber-coloured jellyfish, a pelagic ocean drifter, luminous by night (hence its name, Pelagia noctiluca). Arriving by the million, and in every size, it left some beaches glazed in marmalade from Clare to Donegal. In 2007 the same creature, herded around Ireland by winds and currents, fatally enveloped cages of salmon off the Glens of Antrim in enormous, pulsing swarms, ten metres deep and kilometres across.

It is in winter that I go beachcombing most hopefully, sure that a solitary trudge beside the waves must deserve some unusual reward.Wind lifts the sand in long, pale skeins that hiss around my ankles, and leaves flat stones and shells balanced on little mushroom pedestals. Some distant skeins resolve into flocks of sanderling, dunlin or little ringed plovers: miniature waders stirring ahead of me, swirling about, and settling intently in my wake. Turnstones shuffle seaweed in the scribble of the tideline. 

Among the weed, abundant plastic, much of it cosmopolitan: French fish-boxes, Canadian milk-crates, Spanish trawlerballs,American lightsticks (fluorescing lures attracting tuna or squid to the baits of long-line hooks ). The long-distance items come hairy with hydroids, minuscule animals dressed as ferny plants, or sprout clusters of goose barnacles, nodding on rubbery necks. They all smell intensely of the sea, a dark-green odour whose chemistry shapes the clouds and is thus one of the planet’s primal fragrances. 

At the furthest reach of the tide, along with the lightsticks, lightbulbs, arms and legs of baby dolls, ubiquitous polypropylene pellets, settles a sparse harvest of tropical drift fruits and seeds – the “sea beans” treasured by generations of beachcombers. Botanically, these are “peregrine disseminules” of jungle vines and bushes.

Their arrival on European coasts has been discussed for at least four centuries: the first Irish record of Entada gigas, the prominent and robust “sea bean”, dates to 1696. “It is very easie to conceive,” wrote Hans Sloane, the Irish-born founder of the Chelsea Botanic Garden, “that growing in Jamaica in the woods, they may fall from the Trees into the Rivers, or by any other way conveyed by them into the Sea.” 

He posited a westerly trade wind “for at least two parts of three of the WholeYear, so that the Beans being brought North by the Currents from the Gulf of Florida, are put into these Westerly Winds way and may be supported by this means at last to arrive in [Ireland and]Scotland”. 

Sloane’s theory, written when the currents of the oceans were scarcely understood, is strikingly accurate. Perhaps a score of species of tropical plants have seeds capable of staying afloat in salt water for about fourteen months, the least time it takes a small object to drift across to Europe. 

Beachcombers are drawn on in unquenchable hope of surprise, its nature happily undefined. In successive winters, years ago, I came upon the eighth and ninth specimens ever found in the world of True’s Wonderful Beaked Whale, Mesoplodon mirus, rarest of the smaller whales that hunt squid in the deep Atlantic. 

It was a bumper demonstration of chance,made all the more absurd by hinging on the exact conformation of the animals’ two front teeth, its only dentition. This had to be verified, of course, by distant scientific authority, but I was stepping in the sandy footsteps of Frederick William True, an American mammalogist who came upon his prize on a shoal in north Carolina in 1912, and named it “wonderful” in Latin. 

Nothing so museum-worthy has drifted my way since then, for all my forensic attendance at cetacean remains. Ireland’s first Architeuthis would be nice: the spectacular giant squid of deep ocean, with tentacles metres long and eyes the size of hub-caps.

The beachcombing naturalist carries two visions of the world in the head,matching mortuary detail to vigorous images of life. In winter, like the fox, and often in its close-stitched footsteps, I wander from one dead seabird to the next, lingering perhaps at one so immaculate and pristine it seems to have closed its eyes the moment before. 

Where else can I see how the brilliant beak of a puffin grips a whole feed of sandeels for its young, or spread the huge wing of a gannet to feel how it gathers the air? Even the kelp that litters the strand carries in its glistening curlicues the swirl and flow of the undersea forest, the messages sent throbbing landwards twice a day. 

Michael Viney, naturalist and writer, lives in Carrigskeewaun, Co Mayo. His acclaimed column,“Another Life”, appears weekly in The Irish Times. His book on life in theWest of Ireland, A Year’s Turning, was published in 1996, followed by Ireland: A Smithsonian Natural History in 2003, both from Blackstaff Press. His most recent volume, co-authored with Ethna Viney, is Ireland’s Ocean: A Natural History (Collins Press 2008).

This articles and the image 'Coiled radula of Patella vulgaris' by Stephen Lowry are both taken from the latest issue of Irish Pages, The Sea, available now in the Bookshop at Queen's, Eason's, WH Smith's and all good bookstores. 

The Irish Pages debate 'On Historical Fiction' takes place Friday 27 February 7pm, Linen Hall Library as part of the Belfast Book Festival. Check out Culture Live! listing for more information.