I’ve trapped the power of the sun beneath my skin, feel it radiating off my shoulders and sticking to my cheeks in patches of blotchy pink blooms. It has kept me warm through the night, but will soon reveal its true master as black fades from the sky. Announcing the approaching sun, the horizon bleeds a radiant red. Streaks of gold, orange, and salmon stream above the ocean, illuminate the clouds, dissolve into blue while the fiery blaze begins to rise. As its rays intensify, they meet my skin with burning resolve; a hot, stretched, prickling sensation digs its nails into my shoulders and face. I cover them in a beach towel and feel immediate relief, though the fabric against my burns causes problems of its own.
I remain outside, parted from the soothing cool of air conditioning and aloe, determined to make the most of this dawning moment—when shells are ripe for the picking, washed up overnight and turned visible by day. Some of my most precious shells have been found just as daylight breeches this sliver of planet called Topsail Beach. But before I can continue my journey, I must leave my phone behind; there are waters to be tread before finding the best locations, and I am not willing to risk the safety of my device.
Pushing through the oncoming currents, I reach a part of the beach best known for its shell deposits. There, I find treasure troves of countless Cockles, even more Arcs, Netted Olives, Keyhole Limpets, Periwinkles, Turkey Wings, Coquinas, Cat’s Paws, Angled Wentletrap, Scallops, Clams, Angel Wings, Atlantic Lady Slippers, Bittersweets, Eastern Oysters, Cross Barred and Imperial Venuses, Turrets, and even the shell of a banded tulip snail. I scour the sand for pearly glints, shades of red, yellow, orange, purple, and pink—like a sunset made solid and scattered through the beach.
Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse a vibrant blue. But I am more experienced than to fall for such a trick; any extreme blues almost surely mean plastic, and I will not go out of my way to be met with a Mounds candy wrapper. I am given pause, however, when I see that same blue repeated once, twice… Looking up from my feet to scan the beach I find, to my surprise, a scattering of cerulean disks, increasing in numbers as one after the other floats from sea to land.
Taking a closer look, the disks appear like some flattened jellyfish, with a silver coin set in gooey blue gel, and translucent tentacles sprawled out over the sand like a child’s depiction of the sun’s shining rays. Later this evening I will learn that, despite its common name of “Blue Button Jelly,” the Porpita Porpita is not a jellyfish at all. Rather, each is its own colony of individual polyps, linked together and serving unique functions to keep the mass a functional unit. Kept afloat by a gas filled chamber that makes up the majority of their unified body, Blue Buttons drift aimlessly along the tips of waves, their destinations completely determined by the elements that engulf them.
I wish now that I had risked my iPhone plunging headfirst into the sea so that I might snap a shot of the blue dotted sand and colonial hydrozoan that seem a hybrid between some elegant alien and a sweet gummy snack. Thinking that I might bring one back to be photographed later, I dig my fingers beneath the sand and scoop up a mound that has, perched on its back, a perfect Porpita. But, departed from its resting place, it soon begins to crumble. I know that by the time I could return, the Blue Buttons would be made ghosts by the rising tide; so, I collect my shells, take one final glimpse, and begin my trek back home.
Carolina Seashells, by Nancy Rhyne
Southeastern and Caribbean Seashores, by Eugene Kaplan