In Plain Sight

Treasures on the beach.

By Melissa Heres, Waterfront Assistant, The School for Field Studies

The beach has always been a special place for me, linking the land we traverse every day and the incredible ocean environment that looms below. This link, if it could talk, could share so many stories. The stories of how rocks have eroded over their journey from mountain tops to the beaches to create sand. Or the story of how parrotfish gnaw at coral and leave behind digested white limestone, creating beautiful mounds of white sand beaches like those found in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Taking a close look into shallow waters reveals a treasure trove of tiny discoveries.

Walking along these beaches, we can find little clues that can tell their story, if we only stop to listen. This includes anything from shells and coral skeletons to cameras and plastic. This is a journey you can take at any time and at your own pace. Let’s stroll along one of the Turks & Caicos Islands’ beautiful beaches and explore the wonders we can find.

Our journey begins with the beautiful white sand. Although our sand doesn’t come from faraway mountain tops, its journey is no less extravagant. Those beautiful beaches that are so characteristic of the Caribbean are likely composed of calcium carbonate, or limestone, and weathered-away bits of the limestone islands. As rain and storms wash over the land, they slowly erode away the rocks and minerals that make up these islands, which can end up as sand on the beaches.

But how does limestone find its way onto the beach? This limestone actually plays a huge role in our oceans and is one of the magical links between those mysterious depths and our morning beach walks.

Animals such as corals, mollusks and echinoderms (think sea stars, sea biscuits and sand dollars) rely on calcium carbonate to build their shells or skeletons. After these organisms die, their shells or skeletons can be eroded by wave energy and end up as sand. More interestingly, parrotfish actually use their specialized beaks (hence their names) to eat live corals as a snack, digesting the coral tissue and processing the now-pulverized coral skeleton as waste. Those of you coral lovers, like myself, might be wondering if parrotfish are bad for coral reefs, considering they spend all day eating coral. In fact, they also eat a lot of macroalgae, which is detrimental to reef health, and allowing parrotfish to thrive is vital to keep our reefs beautiful.

Moving down the beach, we can keep finding treasures. The most obvious find for a beachcomber might be the beautiful shells of gastropods. Although the following list is far from comprehensive, it will give you some insight into what you might find on the beaches of the TCI and the stories they can tell.

Conch shells can be turned into musical instruments.

Perhaps the most well-known and identifiable shell you might stumble upon is the queen conch shell. With its recognizable rosy pink interior and flamboyant flared lip, this conch isn’t just good eating—it’s featured prominently on the TCI’s national flag. Many of the conch you will stumble upon are likely “knocked,” where a hammer and chisel have been used to open a rectangular mark in the spire to extract the conch meat.

Scallop shells come in a variety of colors and sizes.

Easily confused with queen conch are milk conch, as their exteriors might look similar to someone unfamiliar with conch. Milk conch, however, tend to have thicker lips that don’t flare quite as much. These conch also lack the characteristic pink interior and instead have a milky white interior, hence their name.

Scallops can come in all kinds of beautiful color variations. They can be differentiated from other shells by their distinct auricles, or ear-like projections on the right and left sides of the shell ligament.

Flamingo Tongues
Flamingo tongues are beautifully orange and white colored creatures underwater. Once dead, however, their shells are a stark white because their coloring comes from their mantle, a thin layer of tissue that covers the shell.

Tests & Skeletons
Besides shells, there are a variety of other links between land and sea that can be found. One example are tests. Tests are the interior, calcified skeletons that are created by sea urchins, sand dollars and sea biscuits.

Especially when finding sand dollars, it’s important to make sure that they’re not alive! Live sand dollars often have hairy projections, while dead tests of sand dollars will lack this hairy tissue and will feel like a hard bone-like material. Also, live sand dollars tend to be dark grey, whereas their tests will be a lighter grey color.

You might also come upon coral skeletons during your walk. Live coral is always attached to a sturdy substrate and is covered by a thin layer of tissue, with their skeleton underneath it. Corals are actually animals and are also carnivorous! When these corals die, however, their tissue disappears and all that is left is their skeleton. Small indentations, or corallites, were the backbone that protected the coral’s polyps. Oftentimes it is actually possible to identify a coral species based on its skeleton.

Beach treasures can be turned into art.

Sea Glass
Sea glass is a common sight on TCI’s beaches. Varying in color from green to brown and even the occasional purple, this sea glass is sought-after for jewelry and other decorations.

As a staff member at The School for Field Studies Center for Marine Resource Studies (SFS CMRS) on South Caicos, I’m met with a lot of questions concerning what students find on beaches, rocky shorelines and in the water. One of the most fulfilling aspects of this job is watching these students grow. As the semester progresses, students become more aware of what they might find in the marine environment. Not only are they learning about what they find, but they are becoming invested in preserving the wonderful world that lies beneath the waves and they begin educating each other about marine life. My hope is that they take the knowledge they’ve gained from the small island of South Caicos and spread it back home to their family, back at school to their peers, and around the world—just like ocean currents would carry a shell.

A final thought to those of you inspired to find your own treasures on the beach. Please respect the ocean and marine life and return your collection to the sea after your walk (except sea glass, which can be brought home without any negative effects on the environment). Shells can provide homes to different marine creatures, so it’s important to assure they have protection from predators. Also, make sure that whatever shells you pick up aren’t inhabited by anything, such as a roaming hermit crab. If there is a stowaway, place the shell back where you found it in order to let the creature continue its day.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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