Last week, on a very windy day well before storm Ophelia arrived, we visited Leas Foot Sands, one of the small coves clustered around Thurlestone Bay in South Devon. Thurlestone Rock, a stone arch or “thirled stone” is a prominent local landmark located in the Bay. As well as being a popular attraction for canoeists and wild swimmers, the Rock gives the village of Thurlestone its name.
When we reached Leas Foot Sands, we stood and gazed across the water at the elemental scene. A gusty, gale force wind blew from the sea, a powerful natural force affecting everything in its path. It had been hard enough to walk there, buffeted as we were from side to side and, now, above the beach and just about able to stand, we felt specks of sand flick across our faces. The sea was a uniform grey under the overcast sky, but the wind created many white horses offshore and a sense of agitated movement. Chunky waves continually attacked the curving apron of yellowish-brown sand, each one finishing in a foaming mass of white water that mingled with the wind giving the air a moist, salty essence.
At the southern side of the beach, the sand and rocks were coated with a slightly unsavoury looking, brownish foam. I remember being alarmed, some years ago, when I first saw this spume on a beach in Cornwall and feared effects of detergents. I now know that it is a mostly natural phenomenon, caused by a high wind interacting with organic matter from marine phytoplankton.
A few hardy plants grew at the back of the beach beyond the strandline, bringing welcome colour on this mostly monochrome day. Brash yellow and white daisy-like flowers of sea mayweed bobbed in the wind and pale lilac blooms of sea rocket kept safely close to the sand along with their fleshy green leaves. A few pink lollipop flowers of thrift struggled on exposed cliff edges.
Further down the beach, bands of dark seaweed stretched in broad arcs parallel to the shore. The thickest band of seaweed was the result of the morning’s high tide; here the seaweed sparkled, seawater dripping off dark fronds as the tide receded. Mixed with the seaweed were various colourful examples of plastic waste, mostly bits and pieces of fishing tackle or rope, but I also saw an old plastic yoghurt container, a bright green plastic straw and several smaller shards of plastic. A bright pink balloon-like object clung to a flat stone nestling among the damp seaweed. I wondered if this was some kind of joke as it vaguely resembled an inflated condom but I abandoned that idea when, further along, I came across several similar objects. Hazel put me right, telling me that these were Portuguese Men O’War, very colourful but dangerously stinging organisms that float on the sea surface trailing long tentacles, until driven in by high winds. There have been reports of swarms of these colourful creatures on several beaches along the south coast and warnings that the number will increase with storm Ophelia.
Behind the wet strandline was a sparser band of dry, black seaweed, presumably resulting from sporadic higher tides. I started looking around this sector digging up the sand with a garden trowel to see what I could find. This was too much for a woman who had recently arrived on the beach with her child and friend.
“What are you looking for?” she asked me.
“I’m trying to find plastic nurdles, have you heard of them? “ I replied
“Do you mean those small bits of industrial plastic?”
“That’s right, but I can’t find any here” I continued.
“I suppose that’s good” she suggested.
I carried on looking but was unsuccessful. Hazel, however, found six of the lentil-sized plastic pellets, a mixture of grey and blue, on the other side of the beach. Earlier in the year, someone had reported collecting hundreds of plastic nurdles from this beach; perhaps we were unlucky or perhaps conditions had changed.
Marine plastic pollution is one of the major environmental challenges of our time and something I want to return to in future posts.