I’ve never lived by a sea or ocean before. But for a few weeks this winter I am. And not just any salty expanse but the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean around Puerto Rico. It’s not hurricane season so, in the few days I’ve been here so far, the waves have crashed with careful, well-mannered regularity. Right now, I’m on the Atlantic Ocean coast. The water is warm and blue. Walking along the beach I find myself covered with a salt film both from the lapping waves and the salt in the air. The temperature has been perfect and the sun a beautiful gold. Proximal to the sand and rocks that meet the water are coconut trees, marking where the beach ends and the rest of the island begins.
As I walk along the rocky bits of the shore crabs scuttle so quickly that they’re hard to see – their shell patterns match the sea plants and the design the sunlight creates as it dances with the waves. Pelicans hover above the water, make a diving plummet with a smack as they break the water’s surface, rest on the ocean’s surface to swallow the fish they caught, and then take flight to follow the wind off the water to only scoop around like a boomerang and head back out to fish again.
People sit on the beach and hangout in the water. They listen to their loud music, dig holes in the sand, throw rocks, and drink alcohol (mostly beer). I walk along the junction between the water and the sand – sometimes more on the side of the sand and other times more on the side of the saltwater. The waves fill the gap between me and the seemingly infinite ocean. Sometimes I’m taken by surprise when a large wave barrels to shore and splashes up against my legs and catches my shirt in its spray.
Where there are tidal pools, I look down at the ruby red sea urchins with deep crimson spikes – their colors remind me of the colors of fresh and dried blood or, perhaps more appealing, the colors of red I’d expect royalty to wear. There are little fish that dart around in the tidal pools; they’re the color and pattern of sand. There are sea plants that look like little green balloons. There are shells hiding live creatures whose names I don’t know. Some of the bigger pools have sea anemones. I peer into each tidal pool, eager to see what it keeps in its mini-sea haven.
I love the sound of the waves and the smell of the salt water against the sand. It’s new to see coconuts. But, in this serene backdrop I can’t help but notice the broken glass and plastic bits, bottles of all varieties, cans, and all the other trash humans on the beach have failed to pick up…or humans elsewhere tossed in such a way that their trash found its way to the beaches where I wander now. I walk barefoot in the sand, but it’s almost a bad idea because so many people have broken their beer bottles.
The creatures and features of the ocean are no less beautiful with the trash present, but I imagine how it would be paradise without the plastic bottles there as a reminder that so many places I love are being filled with trash. Will this beach be swimmable when my grandchildren are alive? There must be a better way. There must be a way to keep this beach with its crabs and sea urchins for the generations to come.
As I turn up the road between where I’m staying and the ocean I see heaps of bottles, cans, Styrofoam, plastic bags, and other discarded single use items on the side of the road. They create a scattering of litter among the snake plants, palm trees, mango trees, papaya trees, pothos vines, and other plants of the tropics. Is there another way or is it already too late to return our natural spaces to paradise?