Treasure or Trash

ftprbchCombing TCI’s Beaches
Story by Marsha Pardee Woodring
Photos by Pamela Leach

Arise and awake. Slip out to the beach at morning’s first light
and let the sand sift through your toes.
A new day, a new adventure has begun.
Treasures await those who truly love the surprises
the sea brings to land.

For some, beachcombing is more than just a leisurely stroll on the strand looking for patterned jewels of the sea. It’s a passion that exudes exhilaration at the prospect of discovering a new beach and all its otherworldly offerings. For this searching soul, the daily tides bring a cornucopia of delights, with no deference to whether the world considers it treasure or trash.

Some beaches seem to literally absorb the ocean’s flotsam. From tennis shoes to tires, it all floats in. Flotsam as opposed to jetsam. I like to think of jetsam as those things regurgitated from the belly of the deep blue like the sea glass that seems to erupt in a multitude of fogged but brilliant hues along the shores of certain beaches. In a strict dictionary sense though, both terms are used synonymously for the numerous nauticalized bits that are inadvertently jettisoned overboard.

It’s hard to say what makes a perfectly suitable beach, but we know it depends upon oceanic circulation and, of course, the passionate collector’s own personal bent. Some of us prefer a lightly spattered beach, speckled with seaglass, small portions of driftwood, and the teeny, tiny shells. Others want bales of weedline to rifle through, literally littered with flotsam and jetsam debris.

Whatever the personal preference, there is an abundance of both extremes in the Turks & Caicos Islands. With beaches facing nearly every point on the compass rose, they offer the gambit to those so inclined. The waters surrounding us are pushed and pulled by currents and winds vectored from every direction, transporting troves of treasures from origins unknown. These physical processes are further augmented by the affluency of the tides. Their intermingled effects, including the season’s temporal changes and lay of the land, directs the debris on a not-so-particular path.

rgdbchFor those with a nose on the scientific side, the following are a few simple factors. First, promise not to tell the tourists, but the waters surrounding the TCI are actually part of the Atlantic Ocean, not the Caribbean Sea. In terms of swirling water, this puts us in a gyre or closed loop system that circulates clockwise between the surrounding continental land masses. Several surface currents are part of this gyre including the North Equatorial Current, which sweeps by us in a westward flowing motion. The Florida, Gulf Stream and Canary Currents complete the loop but may interact with the Labrador and North Atlantic Currents in the north and the Equatorial Counter Current to the south. These, in turn, are touched by others in this mass of swirling soup.

Of course wind is a major contributing factor to these surface current patterns. Those lovely tropical trade-winds (found in the 20 degrees North and South latitudes) blow from the northeast in the Northern Hemisphere and from the southeast on the southern side of the equator. In the Turks & Caicos, we get to experience a bit of both. East is the prevailing theme of the wind rose, swinging from the north (east) more in the colder months and more southerly (southeast) in warmer times.

Then there are the tides to consider. Average tidal range here is one meter (three feet), but depending on Father Moon, some tides are stronger–pushing debris further and more forcefully onshore. Spring tides occur when sun, moon and earth are in line, a.k.a. our full and new moons. These tides are stronger than the neap tides, which occur mid-wax and mid-wane when the sun, moon and earth are at right angles.

Add a dose of seasonality, which tends to change surface wind patterns somewhat (and therefore surface current flow slightly), and the origins of a particular item become blurred in the brew. Toss in a storm a two on a good spring tide and a particular beach literally seems to breed.

One must also consider the level of protection afforded to an individual beach. If it is guarded by a fringing reef and expansive protective lagoon, such as Grace Bay on Providenciales, you’ll find little in the way of good sea bearing trash. (But, unfortunately, there is the daily debris left behind from our less considerate beachgoers.) Other islands, with their fringes close to shore or less exposed, have more to offer in the flotsam and jetsam realm. Those south and east facing beaches that have merely miles of bankside flats to overcome tend to do well in terms of collecting odd debris, particularly when the westward flowing currents are in concert with the southeasterly winds.

So you may never know what comes from where, but to many that is all part of the allure. Ah, but one can hazard an educated guess as to the original intent of the item in question. Some things are quite apparent: fishing gear, such as nets, buoys and the strangling bit of line. Freight containers lost at sea have actually added to the scientific body of knowledge on the patterns of ocean currents. By tracking loads of lost hockey gloves, tennis shoes and the like from the place they were inadvertently pitched overboard to where they washed ashore, scientists have been able to ascertain the many factors associated with the drifting seas. The horrible habit of ocean dumping has also contributed most notably to the baggage on the beaches, carrying a plethora of strange and exotic plastics among other things, that will likely roam the earth till its very end.

carryRegardless of their offensive origins, the beach litter bum revels in the briny delights. “Oh I could use this for . . . ” or “Wouldn’t that make a nice . . . ” are oft-heard mutterings of the truly dedicated. Next thing you know, you need a backhoe to haul it all home. Then you have to stop, pick and choose (that painful experience that nearly ruins the blissful day), until you stagger off the beach with your prizes clutched preciously to your chest, pockets bulging in your pants and wishing you knew how to carry things on your head.

I make a motion that those so inclined are furthermore known as the “Recyclers of the Sea.” After all, there should be some officious dignity for all these valiant efforts. The bounds that one goes to just to make it all seem purposeful. “Look honey, I found this huge light bulb today, if you could just mount it somehow, I’ll use it by my computer to inspire my writing,” or “We could paint up these old floats and sell them to tourists.” Obviously, there are numerous ways of justifying the habits of the junkyard junky (it’s FREE, for starters), and it’s truly all part of the fun.

I guess by now you have figured out that I am one of these beach litter kleptos, but I’ve come out of the closet and confessed my crimes. My soul is now purged of the piles of seaglass and shells I’ve absconded with over the years and the menagerie of this and that. My penance is giving you a few clues to the secrets of the swirling seas. You didn’t really expect me to tell you exactly where all the good beaches are, did you? Now that my conscience is clear, it’s time to head back for more. So maybe I’ll meet you out browsing our plentiful shores.

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Gary James at Provo Pictures (www.provopictures.com) used a drone to photograph this bird’s-eye view of Dragon Cay off Middle Caicos. It perfectly captures the myriad of colors and textures that make God’s works of art in nature so captivating.

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