It’s Wednesday afternoon. Low clouds hang over Morro Strand, a three-mile stretch of beach north of Morro Rock. No kids, kites, or coolers. I focus on a different type of beachcomber. Hundreds of sand dollars have been stranded at low tide. Little purple spheres with a nearly imperceptible spiny skin covering a supporting skeleton. The flexible, hair-like bristles are called “cilia.”
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a book about tide pool creatures for young people, Barnacles Eat With Their Feet: Delicious Facts About the Tide Pool Food Chain. I remember most of it. Sand dollars are invertebrates, spineless cousins to sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and sea stars. In some places they’re called “sand cakes” or “cake urchins.”
The five petal-like holes are really pores that allow the flow of seawater and gas. In still water they stand on an edge, buried in the sand. It’s an awe-inspiring sight for anyone lucky enough to see it. In rough water sand dollars lie flat or burrow to hold their ground.
I toss scores of purple spheres into the low-rolling surf. They bounce, sort of like skipping stones. Wet sand packs my fingernails. My knees creak. There are simply too many sand dollars to save.
As a kid growing up in Southern California, I’d fill a plastic pail with their sun-bleached exo- skeletons. I’d soak them in the bathroom sink before lining them up on my windowsill to dry. Then I’d paint them with Elmer’s Glue to harden the shell—decorate and string them for Xmas tree ornaments and pendant necklaces.
I remember a childhood game, jumping on seaweed pods, delighting when they popped. It felt like dancing on a sheet of bubble-wrap. Only later did I learn that the balloon-like structures are actually the reproductive part of seaweed, receptacles getting ready to broadcast sperm and eggs into the sea.
Morro Rock looms large, now about 2 miles away. If I could draw, I’d sketch its steep sides and vertical crags, deeply shaded like eons-old wrinkles. The closer I get to the volcanic plug the more I’m struck by the contrast of colors. I wonder if the burnt-umber hue is lichen?
In 1542, Iberian explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo dubbed the 576-foot tall plug “El Morro.” In Spanish, meaning “crown-shaped hill.” Formed about 23 million years ago it was a vital navigational aid for mariners. My mind goes to sepia photos on the wall of a crusty old saloon in Cayucos. Aerial images show the rock completely surrounded by water.
Then, in the late 1800s it began to be chipped away, quarried, and blasted by dynamite. The Works Progress Administration used rock and sediment to build a causeway and breakwater connecting rock to shore. Morro Rock is now protected as a California Historical Landmark.
A seagull swoops down, scoops up a medium-size spicula clam, commonly known as a surf clam. Even at a distance I recognize the shell’s pale pink stripes. The gull flies upward, hovers, and drops the shell. I hear it hit the sand. Crack! Dinner. No wonder gulls like it here. Lots to eat in our mudflats, estuaries, beaches, and garbage dumps.
A mottled brown-and-white juvenile struggles to pick up a fat Pismo clam. Its bill is too short. I want to help, but then how will it learn? Curlews gather at the water’s edge, standing on a single foot to reduce the amount of heat lost through unfeathered limbs. Snowy egrets fish in the shadow of the rock.
Burnt-orange lichen is indeed evident, a low crusty growth creeping across sloping buttresses. I recall a ditty from childhood, “Alice algae and Freddie fungus took a lichen to each other. Their relationship has been on the rocks ever since.”
The normally crowded parking lot at the base of the rock is empty. Sturdy barriers have closed off the street leading in, as they are in all of our county’s state beaches and parks. The concrete-block restrooms are closed. Oddly, portable outhouses have been positioned on the sidewalk outside.
The late afternoon air, bitter and cold, pushes me toward a street that will eventually lead home. But first I’m drawn to an offshoot of a trail that’s new to me. A boardwalk runs along the backside of the dunes. From here, the rock appears to have leapt from a mass of native plants. They thrive in the dunes, adapting to direct exposure to the Pacific Ocean and a harsh environment.
California saltbush, a perennial herb, grows in clumps. The wooly, silver-green leaves of beach bur look like velvet. Local children have created artwork, colorful signs cautioning passersby to the nesting habitat of the Western Snowy Plover.
I’ve lived within minutes of this beach for 18 years and thought I knew it well. But I’ve never before felt this intimate with its subtleties, the incidental and essential. A buoy makes a moaning sound as it rises and falls on the far side of the rock. I listen to seagulls cry and carry on into the late night, their calls scratchy and hoarse.