Saturday, May 15, 1999

Galveston Seaweed Landfall

May 15, 4pm , high tide on he shore of Galveston Island. This was the seawall area, with families and couples and ambitious surfers taking advantage of the beach and the sun and the water. I was up on the fifth floor of the San Luis looking out over the water between sessions of plot work on a new novel, when off in the distance, I saw three odd-colored brown patches in the gulf. I watched from time to time, and abruptly, I realized that the closest patch was close. It was huge, about 3 acres in size, and it was going to come ashore right here.

I grabbed the binoculars and took a closer look at the brown patch and the people watching it. It just missed the breakwater to the left. The patch was oval, enlongated as the waves started breaking up the edge closest to the shore. The wind and the tides were moving the patch to the right, and inwards towards shore.

People were watching it, but most continued whatever they were doing. The surfers did take a look at it as it limited how far back they could swim before catching the next wave.

The texture of the patch was interesting, like a patch of grass, only rippling from the waves beneath it. All through the patch, there was evidence that many items, such as 4X4 timbers, were trapped in the patch.

As the patch moved on, finally making landfall, people started paying much more attention to it. Children quit playing with the sand and water and started picking clumps of the seaweed out of the water, the more experienced of them checking for the creatures that lived in and among the floating mass. One mother was hauling in a 4X4 to shore so that she wouldn't have to worry about it hitting her two small children.

By the time it was half in, it was clear that the whole patch was going to hit between these two breakwaters. The other two patches out to sea moved on south out of the picture.

I abandoned binoculars and plot outline and headed down to the water for a closer look.

Up close, the seaweed was composed of little clumps, from fist-sized to large enough to fill a salad bowl. Together, they covered the water's surface with hardly a break between them. The waves were pushing a long pile of the things up onto the sand. In turn, the pile of foliage was providing a barrier to the waves.

Just in shore of the mat of brownish foilage was a line of beads, the air-bladders that had come loose in the action of the waves. They were each about half pea sized and they popped as you walked on them.

It was fascinating, walking along the beach, looking at all the debris that the mat had captured over time. In addition to the timbers, there were coconuts, long abandoned shoes, glass and plastic bottles. There were a more than the expected number of chemical light tubes caught up in the weed. Had this mat of seaweed been marked by some passing boat, or had the seaweed caught up the results of some nighttime scuba expedition?

It was something of a game for me to take a look at some of the items, like a coconut or a shoe or a piece of timber and see just how many barnacles had attached to it. At a guess, it could tell me something of the age of the debris, but it also made a difference how rough the item was.

The kids and the hundreds of seagulls were after something else entirely. The seaweed mat had been an ecosystem that contained its own set of animal life. In addition to the barnacles that rode the driftwood and old shoes, the weed had been the protective home of crabs, shrimp and something I had never seen before. The boy with his plastic pail full of them called them mermaid purses.

By the time I had walked from one breakwater to the other, there was no clear beach to swim from, and the beach chair rental people were packing up. The shaved-ice concession was driving up the ramp and you could tell that this beach was done for the day. Even the man with the kite was reeling in.

But maybe it was all premature. I headed back up to my 5 story lookout perch to write this all down before it faded in memory and from where I can see, things have changed again.

The tide is going out, and there is now something of a beach in between the beached mat of weeds and the surf. In the middle of the beach, there is still a floating mass of the seaweed, maybe hopeful of riding the tide back out into the open water, maybe not. The gulls are still working hard, browsing the salad bar, but the kids are gone, perhaps tired of the novelty, perhaps because of the fading day.

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