What I Saw in the Ocean

In last week’s column, I promised to tell about two “noteworthy” things I encountered last month on St. Simons Island. The first was spotted early one morning as George and I sat drinking coffee on the porch of our rented beach cottage. It looked at first to be floating debris, which is not uncommon in the busy shipping channel.  But the more I stared at it, the less like driftwood it appeared.

“I think that’s an alligator,” I said.

“Nah. It’s just flotsam or jetsam. Gators don’t live in the ocean.”

“What’s the difference between flotsam and jetsam? I never can remember.”

“Me, either. Hand me the binoculars.” He homed in on the floating object, which—by this time—was clearly undulating. “Hmmmmm. I’ve never seen flotsam or jetsam do that.”

I took the binoculars and pointed them at the sidewalk that runs alongside the ocean in Neptune Park. People were gathering and pointing. A guy in an official-looking uniform was nailing up official-looking signs at every stairway that led to the beach. I was pretty sure that didn’t happen for driftwood sightings. I scanned
the ocean with the binocs. The object in question was clearly an alligator.

I hurried to the pier, where I learned that the Department of Natural Resources was on the way to capture the errant reptile and return it to the nearby brackish
marshes from which it had obviously wandered away. Thank goodness.

On the afternoon of that very same day, I was walking along the very same stretch of beach with daughters Meg and Leigh and son-in-law Matt when we came across a giant horseshoe crab. This is not unusual on St. Simons Island. Dozens of horseshoe crabs are left stranded on the beach whenever the tide goes out, most upside-down-dead and picked clean by the birds.

But this big guy was obviously alive and was struggling to make his way back into the ocean. Except that he was headed in the wrong direction. How could we help?

We decided to try to pick the crab up and toss him as far as we could into the water. But when we touched him, he flailed around and swung his foot-long, lethal-looking tail and burrowed deeper into the sand. It didn’t make sense to attempt this rescue without equipment, although I’d never heard of a horseshoe crab hurting a person.

But I’d never seen an alligator in the Atlantic Ocean, either.

I rushed back to the cottage and grabbed the dustpan and a long-handled metal spoon from the kitchen. In a storage closet I found a beat-up mop bucket and a left-handed rubber glove. Not the ideal tools for crab rescue, but they would have to do.

I arrived back at the scene to find the crab looking dried-out and despondent, despite my fellow rescuers’ attempt to dig a moat to keep him wet. Leigh filled the mop bucket with ocean water and poured it over him. Matt put on the glove and grabbed one of the crab’s prickly-sharp sides. Meg dug down into the sand with the dustpan and lifted the other side. I used the metal spoon to pry the crab’s front end loose from the grave he was digging for himself. Pushing and pulling and dragging, we made it to the ocean and scooted him into the churning brown water.

And wonder of wonders, Mr. Crab turned in the right direction and swam toward the channel. Don’t you just love happy endings?

(October 13, 2013)


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