My parents live on a beautiful Gulf barrier island off the northwest Florida coast. Marine birds frequent the area including the ridiculous plovers running furiously from the last lick of each wave, and the preposterous, large heron that alights on my parent’s porch each morning even though they live a few blocks from the beach. Somebody named him Fred.
He appeared silently one morning while I sat there eating breakfast. The sun shone through his long, sharp beak making the blood vessels inside show like small rivers. His bright orange eye fixated on me a little too intensely though, so I quietly moved a few feet away, taking my bowl of Cheerios with me.
A little later, I walked to the beach with my goggles and a shirt. The light is so bright everywhere on this island you get the sense that it could penetrate even the coldest of hearts. Past the sprawling Banyan, the palms, the tall conifers, and the squat, leafy shrubs, I emerged on the brilliant white beach lining the waters of the Gulf.
I had to squint as the sand seems to blast pure white light into my eyes. I held my hand over my face to make a temporary shadow. I walked down to near the edge and sat down. A couple in their seventies walked by, probably on their daily morning stroll.
Two kids were on their hands and knees nearby as they combed the beach for shells. Just offshore, a lone brown pelican glided swiftly, a mere inches above the surface of the water. I took off my cotton t shirt and placed it next to me on the fine powdery sand. I replaced it with a thin rash guard with an emblem on the chest like a superhero.
Earlier I had wondered if I would actually get out to the water to do this. But I am inspired, regularly, by this place. I walked to the edge of a young sand spit shaped like a ponytail swishing out into the water. I looked to the north, imagining for a moment all the habitats that line the Gulf, from this tropical haven to the panhandle, along the southern states’ wetlands and bayous and estuaries, and all the way to the Texas coast.
I waded in and spit on my goggles. The water was chillier than I wanted it to be. I looked at my pale feet kicking up sand in the clear water below. When I was waist deep, I put on the goggles and dove in softly.
The first thing I saw was the invisible energy of the waves mirrored in the sandy bottom. The symmetric ridges cast small underwater shadows. As I swam, a ray moved away from me. Sand burst off its wings as it stirred. Schools of fingerling translucent fish darted here and there. A few sand dollars lay half-shrouded in the sand, and buried clams sent up lines of tiny bubbles. Around the bend, at the main fishing pier, sons and daughters often catch jacks, grunts, scamp, and the occasional shark.
I push through the water and where it gets deeper and a little darker, I momentarily think about the beasts that may come and eat me. A five foot blacktip shark slicing through my soft liver with a shrug. A few of its gray-white razor teeth delving deep into my burgundy organ. My puff of blood briefly clouding the clear water. I realize how irrational that thought is for hundreds of reasons, but I still entertained it. It makes me smile into the blue.
I knew the current would make for a fast and easy swim going north, so I rode that up and turned around within sight of the towering pines about a half mile up. I ended with a strong pull against the powerful sea. I worked hard to get back to where I started. When finished, I sat on the sand enjoying the burn in my muscles and the sound of the water.
I looked briefly for any trace of our bikes from last night. We had watched the sunset at the tiki bar a mile or so down the beach. For the daily event, people sat at the tables stuck in the sand or they sat on the sand. Everyone turned their faces to the setting sun and grew quiet.
In the smoldering afterglow, we rode rusty beach cruisers home along the water’s edge. I had wondered if riding bikes unnecessarily erodes the beach -- probably not great for the beach -- but thought the impact was minimal between the fat tires and the hard packed sand.
I gathered my shirt and goggles and walked off the beach past the spot where my sister years ago took all her wedding pictures. I remember she was laughing as she pulled up her white dress to avoid the waves at her ankles. I walked back through the neighborhood feeling capable and content. I glanced for Fred on the porch, but he had moved on.