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"Are You a Mermaid?"

That was a first. I never had anyone "recognize" me before. What an amazing day!

It’s always been a thrill for me to turn people on to the simple things they walk by and don’t even notice, like the phenomena of an ecosystem and the stories of the wildlife of a beach. Generally, if you get too close to me on the beach, I’ll go ahead and blurt it out to you anyway, but mostly I'm able to control myself until I'm on one of the beach walks I’ve been leading for many years in several locations throughout Cape May County.

This one night, though, was pretty special. I met the group at Wildwood Crest Library and as we walked down to the beach I start pointing out things along the way: the fact that the barrier islands didn’t look this way 200 years ago; at that time we would be walking through a maritime forest, now it's an endangered ecosystem. I point out the plants at the edge of the dune: some were brought here and/or used in colonial times, and most are important food for birds and other wildlife of the dunes.

As we get to the open beach, with a large stretch of sand to the water’s edge, I challenge the group to look for the “PARTS” of the beach: Plants, Animals, Rocks, Trash, and Shells. As we walk along, they fill their buckets and I talk about beach dynamics, the colors in the sand, and identify the gulls and other birds along the shoreline. When we get to the water’s edge I pull out sieves

and look for the “sandpipers’ buffet” in the wet sand of the swash zone: colorful coquina clams, amphipods, and mole crabs (also called sand crabs). Walking along the beach we discuss what causes the waves and how they show where the sandbars are. Sometimes we are treated with a pod of dolphins going by, or ospreys and terns diving for fish.

Then I write P A R T S in the sand and have everyone sort their findings as I rinse out the buckets and sieves. What kinds of Plant parts have we found? Seaweeds mostly, but sometimes parts of dune or marsh plants or driftwood. Animal “parts” are usually feathers, crab shells, a fish bone, or a drawing in the sand of a print seen along the way. Rocks can be from the fill dirt used to stabilize the dune path for emergency vehicles, or from someone’s stone “lawn”, a chunk of brick from a house that got washed away long ago, or coal dropped from a barge when there used to be nothing but fishing and whaling villages on the island. The only natural “rocks” in the area is the sand. Unfortunately, Trash is all too commonly found and we discuss microplastics and the 4 R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle, and rethink. We end with Shells. Most common are oyster shells, scallop shells, mussels, slipper snails, occasionally a channeled or knobbed whelk, and always surf clam shells.

Many surf clam shells have holes in the umbo, or hinge area of the shell. “This means it was murdered”, I tell them dramatically. With eyes wide and mouths agape, I’ve got their attention as I explain how the moon snail licks a hole in the shell and “spits” into it, digesting the clam into a slurry, kind of like a clam milkshake to be slurped up. Yum!

At the end, we gather up the trash and head back towards the dune path and the library, soaking in the salty ocean breeze and the last rays of the sun as it sets along the way.

This one night I had a mother and her very young daughter join the walk. The daughter was a about four years old, with golden Shirley Temple ringlets and wearing a summery sun dress. All along the walk she would tug her mother’s arm, cup her mouth with her hands, and whisper to her mother - pretty typical of a shy preschooler.

At one point the mother said, “Well, just go ask her yourself!” as she nodded my way. With that the little girl came up to me on her tiptoes and cupped her hands around her mouth and whispered to me, “Are you a mermaid?”

“Why, yes, I am a mermaid!”, I said a little taken back. “And you are too!”

Her big brown eyes widened. “Do you know how I know?? Only real mermaids can recognize other mermaids.”

She looked at her mom with an astonished expression.

“She saw your shell necklace and it made her wonder”, Mom explained.

I made my necklace by crocheting a variety of shells and bones with some old kite string. It goes with the earrings I made by threading shells with holes onto a couple earring loops, and my gyotaku fish print shirt I made with a real mackerel.

“It’s time to make your own shell necklace", I told the little mermaid. "You’ll know what shells to use, they’ll find you. They are the ones with the holes all ready for making a mermaid necklace. Just like that clam shell I showed you.”

She just beamed and skipped off down the beach with little golden curls bouncing in the breeze and catching the golden rays of the setting sun. In a few minutes, she came running back to me. “I found one! I found one!”

And just like that another mermaid was sanctified into the world. She and I both had an amazingly wonderful and memorable day.

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