Monterey Bay Beachcombing

If you have trouble spotting wildlife out in the sea, then look at the sand instead. At Manresa State Beach there are plenty of washed-up treasures to hunt for.

Story and photos by Samantha Chavez

July 20, 2015––I step onto the wet packed sand at Manresa State Beach with my head bowed like a penitent. Towel on one arm, bag on the other, and phone in my pocket, I have everything I need to go beachcombing. The fair weather all week has been disappointing, since storms tend to wash up sunken treasures. But today the weather is cool and cloudy, and that’s all I need to happily walk a few miles along the shore. I turn my eyes upwards and notice two distant towers, the Moss Landing power plant, to my left. I pivot in place towards them and take off at a brisk pace. I keep my eyes glued to the ground, and my path makes gentle curves towards the ocean and away from it as I scan the beach for interesting items.

There are crowds of beachgoers near the parking lot of Manresa, but the farther I walk the faster the beach seems to empty. One of the first things to catch my eye are the clumps of kelp strewn about. They lay curled and still, like a dead sea beast, buzzing with flies and sand fleas. Kelp is a lot more interesting when you can name what you see rather than just knowing it as “the-thing-that-touched-my-foot-underwater-and-scared-me-out-of-the-ocean.” While I’m inspecting a small clump of eelgrass and feather boa kelp, I spy a spot of blue.

I drop my bag and crouch down, hardly believing my luck. I pull out the squishy, nearly transparent Velella velella and hold it up to the light. They’re often called By-the-Wind Sailors, and they use a small sail along their tops to catch wind and currents. They’re at the mercy of the wind, and lately thousands have been washing up on beaches along the West Coast. Most of the Velella that I see today look like little plastic chips, dried up and bleached by the sun. It’s common to see the wispy white flakes on the beach. But to see one retaining its cerulean color and its squishy jelly body when there hasn’t been a recent stranding is amazing. I pick it up by its sail and shoot more photos than I care to admit.

Scientists categorize the classic bell-shaped jellyfish with long trailing tentacles as Scyphozoans. Velella are closely related to Scyphozoans, but they belong to the class Hydrozoa. They are normally not considered “true” jellyfish because each Velella is actually a colony of numerous tiny organisms called polyps. The “true” jellyfish, on the other hand, are single individuals in their reproductive stage of life.

In any case, it’s usually more important to know whether something can sting you rather than what, exactly, it’s called. Velella velella don’t have stingers that normally harm humans. But it’s better to be careful when handling any jellyfish-like creature in case the stinging cells cause an unexpected allergic reaction. These thoughts cross my mind as I’m setting the little hydrozoan down and rubbing my tingling fingertips on my beach towel.

Hilltromper signup ad

As I continue my beachcombing I notice there are plenty of shells and sand dollars, but very few are “perfect” sand dollars, even though I set a low bar for “perfection.” (Any sand dollar that isn’t chipped, cracked, or broken in half I personally consider “perfect.”) Sand dollars are close relatives of sea urchins. In fact, sand dollars behave like flattened sea urchins that can burrow in the sand. They are normally deep purple, and their backs are covered in fine bristles. These bristles help them move across the ocean floor. They also use the bristles to guide microscopic food into the center of their body where their mouth is. The white sand dollars I find on the beach are all dead. The sun, the ocean and time have stripped away their color and bristles.

I’ve already found two “perfect” sand dollars and taken plenty of pictures by the time I see something truly troubling. An unaccompanied green plastic shovel sticks out of the sand. There’s no one around for a few hundred yards, so I assume someone abandoned it. I pick it up gingerly, resolved to make a trashcan its final destination. The little shovel comes in handy when I come across some mystery goop on the beach. It’s transparent and has the consistency of stiff Jell-O. A previous memory of poking a dead orange jellyfish off the coast of Washington stirs in my mind. I still have no idea what I’m poking, but my best idea is some kind of “true” jellyfish. Satisfied with my guess, I back away and continue my walk.

The relative peace and quiet of Manresa shifts as I continue my walk. There are crowds of surfers, sunbathers and families. I can already tell by the cigarette butts and food wrappers that this is a popular beach area. I stop to ask a state beach employee where I am by pointing to some stairs leading up the cliff and asking where they lead and learn that I have managed to walk from Manresa State Beach parking lot to the Manresa Upland Campground. It’s a nice enough place to turn back, but my final stop gives me an image I won’t forget. Strewn on the beach between two bright orange traffic cones, a sea lion pup rots with a tangle of netting choking its neck. I can’t help but utter an audible whimper. Its puppy face and small body are pitiful enough, but the intolerable net on its corpse leaves me dismayed.

I walk back towards the Manresa parking lot with my eyes to the sea. The blue sky smeared with white clouds reflects the azure ocean streaked with white wave caps. I feel like I can drink in those colors forever. I walk closer to the ocean until the waves are licking my toes, and soon enough they’re lapping at my calves. When I glance down to scratch my ankle I spot a half-buried sand dollar. A purple barnacle shell is firmly attached, and I can already feel a smile growing on my face. I pull it out of the sand, check it for cracks and squeak with joy. It is perfect and unique. A barnacle stuck on one side, a body that is still purple with the dyes of its former life, and not a single crack. Pictures won’t suffice. I take this one home.

Read Ten Tips for Happy Tidepooling
Read Manresa State Beach
Read Manresa Upland Campgrounds
Read Sunset State Beach