Monday, July 26, 2010


I find myself, again, standing at the edge of the water looking into and over the waves crashing towards me. I am humbled by the enormity of the ocean, and knowing something about it's complexity of physics, chemistry and biology makes me feel even more insignificant. I am but a speck on the vast edge of the sea, occupying much less area than a singe pixel of a satellite photo on Google Earth. That is tiny.

This overwhelming sense of awe and wonder washes over me when I walk the beach, just as the waves dying on the sand wash over my feet. It ebbs and flows, filling me with wonder at one moment, joy the next, then sadness born of the realization that I am merely an animal whose life is less than the blink of an eye in the scale of this world. I don't completely understand the sadness part; I think it's because I am so naturally curious, so filled with a thirst for knowledge, and knowing that I won't be here long enough to figure it all out.

I always stop and watch the sand in that zone on the beach where waves wash over it. A seemingly random set of patterns actually makes sense if you stop and watch for awhile. The water mobilizes the sand grains and the things mixed in with them; bits of rock, shell, wood, leaves and tiny living animals. As the water recedes, these things sort out by size, shape and density, except for the living animals - they seek shelter until the next wave. The resulting patterns are beautiful art works by nature (although, I know that "art" is something I can label because I'm a human).

The last time we were on this beach, I brought a small net and held it in the water as a wave receded. When I emptied the net into a bucket of water, the water came alive with tiny transparent animals, a kind of shrimp (Mysids, to be geeky about it). You can't see them when you watch the water swirling around your feet, but they are there by the thousands, along with other animals who make their living in the surf zone of the beach. Here's a photo of Mysids taken with the digital microscope I also brought last time (yep, more geekiness).

And then there is sand. Amazing stuff, sand. How many grains of sand are on the beach? We sat in the sand today, and I let hands full of dry grains sift through my fingers, trying to imagine how many there were. I looked at this photo I took of sand grains last time we were on this beach (yes, the digital microscope again).

According to the scale in the photo, a grain of sand on this beach is approximately 0.25 millimeters in diameter. A quick calculation, and I came up with this number: one cubic inch of sand from this beach has somewhere around 1,061,208 grains of sand. Each of these grains of sand was part of molten rock deep within the planet millions of years ago, came to the surface and formed land, was eroded or broken loose and carried by wind and water ultimately to the ocean, where it was cast upon the shore for me to walk and sit on. Talk about feelings of insignificance!

I am amazed, and again greatly saddened, by the fact that the human species has now altered the physics, chemistry and biology of the world's oceans. I'm not talking about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I'm talking about the effects of unbridled dumping of chemicals and trash into streams, rivers and oceans; emissions of climate altering carbon into the atmosphere; wanton depletion of stocks of fish. I could go on, but suddenly, I don't feel so insignificant anymore.


Additional reading -

ocean acidification article

Tuna's End

forage fish article

forage fish as cat food and animal feed