Monday, August 29, 2005

Katrina in South Padre

I started out wanting to talk about how crazy surfers were, since they always seem to want gigantic waves so they can do their artsy suicidal thing. I still think they’re slightly off their bonkers, but have a new-found respect for them. See, the lower US Gulf of Mexico is not like the Atlantic or Pacific because there is no clean “long period swell.” Instead, the whole area, maybe half a mile out to sea if not half the Gulf, turns into a foam washing machine. There are three, hour, and yes, five sandbars and getting out to the “mack” waves is so brutal. So, bless their hearts, they surf around and inside jetties when the hurricane waves come. And the locals seem real safe and have crash boats because they know surfers can get rolled bad in 20-foot stand-up waves.

Hurricanes Cindy, Dennis, and Katrina sent some nice waves down here but being a body and boogie surfer, I wait until it has cooled down a little, like below six feet on the beach break without all the riptide and blown white/brown foam. Right when the surfers bemoan having no waves and the fun is over is when I head down to the beach, knowing I’ll get some rides over 80 feet long. Some of these waves are so powerful that I literally eat sand when I stopped on the dry beach! Just don’t tell the surfers that, because they’re more into “art” than distance.

Using a digital camera and not really knowing how to use it resulted in a poor picture, which is why I shot more beach than surf. But suffice it to say the water was up to the dunes and there were some interesting gully-washers and riptides – those waves on the horizon are probably over 15 feet tall. Pretty awesome.

P.S. those little waves in front of the camera were from the riptide coming off the beach and are not related to the waves crashing on the shore ... about 300 feet out where it looks all calm in between. Your humble photographer was standing in three feet of water and almost got swept off his feet with the undercurrent.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Pinkie the Plumeria

One of my favorite islander blogs, other than here on our sand-spit, is up in Rhode Island. She posted “Friday is love letter day” because everything was getting too heavy. You know, the dog days of August tend to make one grumpy. So I’m going to leave y’all with Pinkie the Plumeria.

Most plumerias flower for maybe a week or two, but Pinkie here has been at it since mid-May … and getting better each day. I wish I could bottle the smell and send it to y’all. Imagine that, a blog with a delicate frangipangi fragrance! Enjoy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Bay Behind the House

As a student of local stuff like geography, I decided to write about a stinky old muddy bay. One of the more interesting geologic formations in the US is the Lower Laguna Madre Bay near South Padre Island, Texas. It is the only hyper-saline bay system in the US, at least from what I’ve learned so far. In theory, the environment would be so harsh that nothing could live. However, from Port Mansfield down to the town of South Padre Island, there are more fish per acre than about anywhere. It is trout and redfish heaven, with reports of catching over 100 per day not uncommon. What’s the deal?


OK, that’s a mouthful but think back in school when they said that the simplest cell that could make photosynthesis was “blue-green algae.” Gosh, this turns out to be a complete misnomer, because cyanobacteria are simple bacteria, not algae. It is present in most waters but down here in the Laguna Madre it is the ruler of the ecosystem. The nice thing about cyanobacteria is that is can convert nasty things such as ammonia and nitrate into nitrogen and oxygen. The nitrogen is “fixed” so aquatic plants can use it and the oxygen is dissolved so fish can breathe it. When oxygen gets low the fish start dying, as has been recently seen to the north of our area. But we have our cyanobacteria. We don’t have that fish-kill problem except during heavy freezes or during red tide.

The only bummer is that the boogers form dense mats of their stuff, some of which dies and some of which is eaten. The result: black nasty mud. The more I learn about this the more gross and complex it seems. The black sediment forms a layer under which other chemical reactions occur to release stinky sulfur compounds, which is why low tide usually smells so bad.

But back to the story, the cyanobacteria are even more important because the average depth of the Laguna Madre is only about two feet. The entire bay system is over 30 miles long and varies between several hundred yards and three miles wide. Except for a few shipping channels and dredge spoil islands, it is almost flat as a table. A truly remarkable landscape, I intend to keep studying it. Some fish for dinner would be good, too!

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Boogie Report

We just joined a group called Surfriders; in fact we were there for the first meeting of the South Texas Chapter. The name obviously infers that surfers would be the main emphasis, although we had people more known for beach walking, sand castles, swimming, kayaking, kite boarding, and boogie boarding there. Surfers tend to be an aristocratic lot, where everyone else is considered a “sponger.” Well, I am sure Surfriders will accommodate us spongers, since we have the same preservation goals and don’t mind a get-together party every now and then.

Myself, I like body surfing and boogie boarding because big waves are relatively rare down here on South Padre Island, and if they are big, they’re too choppy and dangerous. Plus, the place where we usually go swimming is called Bougainvillea Circle, or more simply “Boogie Circle.” Thus the Boogie Report.

The surf predictions were 1-2 feet today, which I can see if you’re a snobby surfer. But lo, when we got out to the second sandbar we had some 4-6 foot waves. It was incredible, with at least some 40-foot rides, one maybe 60. One wave was so powerful I lost my jams (my bathing suit), which fortunately had not floated off to the nearby ladies. I didn’t bring along my boogie board, more technically known as a body board because of its design and 45-inch length (and not to mention expense), although I wish I had.

All in all, it was a perfect boogying session … until the kids all showed up wanting to do the same thing. I don’t know what it is; my wife tends to attract all kinds of stray cats, dogs, kids, and even bugs. Not a good idea to spear some kids coming off a 5-foot wave going 20 MPH. About 45 minutes was enough work-out, anyway. In all fairness to the surfer reports, you really can’t tell the entire day’s surf at eight o’clock in the morning, with all the shifts of wind and current. But it rocked today!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

A Trashy Pilgrimage

The wild end of South Padre Island is to the north. The town is located on the southern 7 miles of a 34-mile beach. So get out there you drive up Route 100 and get on the beach at County Access 5 or 6. Work was slow on Thursday so I hooked ‘em out to the wild beach with my new digital camera.

My, how the beach had changed over the years. It used to be a suicide run to get through the loose sugar sand and then down by the dark, compacted sand next to the surf. In the old days there would be an old man in an old truck, sitting there grinning, waiting for yet another car to haul out of the sugar sand - $20. Well, all that is changed now. The county uses heavy machinery and water trucks and has paved miles and miles of beach like a two-lane highway. No, not as in paved with asphalt, but there absolutely no chance of being stuck anywhere. Plus, Hurricane Emily has sculpted the beach in a very strange manner, creating a berm just next to the shore.

The easy driving made it easy for my main target of inquiry, trash, as in beverage containers, plastic bags, shoes and sandals, old tires, restaurant wrappers, and so forth. I did see some cool birds and need to get better with the camera because every time I’d sneak up on them they’d poop and fly away. That’s a tune for a different day, since I was on a mission from God just like the Blues Brothers.

First thing is that the area between Access 5 and 6, about 2 miles, is actually groomed very well. It was obvious that beach rakes on tractors were used to clean up the mess. “Not too bad” I thought to myself. There were hundreds of vehicles parked in this area and it didn’t look all that bad in the least. I was surprised. Acting on “the call of nature” I stopped and headed up to the dunes for a pee. That’s where I discovered that every plastic bag on the beach had blown up into the dunes, like tinsel covering a Christmas tree. It was so quiet you could hear the bags – Walmart blue, HEB white, and all kinds – rustling in the wind. This was not a happy discovery because blowing plastic is one of the most difficult things to remove from the beach. And, one could not fault the County for not policing several hundred acres of dune that may or may not have blowing plastic.

After passing Access #6, where the road is currently blockaded on Route 100, things kind of deteriorated because there were no more trash cans and the beach raking stopped. The road was still good, though, so I pressed on another 6 miles. From what I saw, trash was very spread out and not dumped in piles anywhere. There was much less plastic up in the dunes (OK, I had to go the kitty box after driving another hour). My impression was like one piece of trash every 10-20 feet or so – a sandal here, a dead soldier beer there, some trailer trash over here. It would have been nice if people dumped in one nice fat pile instead of using the broadcast method! I think all the wind and waves had something to do with it though.

On the way back down the beach I planned to stop at two places. One looked like a landfill near an area of high dunes about 2-3 miles north of Access #6. It turned out to be just a bunch of stuff washed up from the beach, including some major hookey that looked like it belonged on a shrimp boat. The other site was a pile of what the beach rake had collected, much closer to town. As would be expected, most of the pile was seaweed mixed in with beach sand. But there was is significant amount of trash in there too, since obviously the backhoe operator can’t hand-pick all the trash out of his load (they rake it until it gets to be a big mess and then use the front bucket to pile the stuff up). Not much was visible, however until you started rooting like a pig. And yes, I did get some weird looks! I was glad the cops didn’t catch me like that.

I covered a little les than half of the 26 miles of beach at the wild end of the island. At my average speed of 15-20 MPH, even my short jaunt took several hours, including several stops for pictures and the nature thing. It was a mixture of fun, relaxation, and disgust.

Friday, August 05, 2005

The Screamin' Whistling Bug

There’s a kind of bug down here that whistles like nothing I’ve heard – you can hear it for miles. I’m thinking maybe the cicada but I’ve heard a ton of those up by Austin and elsewhere. No, these sound like those whistling firecrackers or a very high “C” note, maybe about 90 decibels.

At first I thought it was a car alarm or a smoke alarm gone freaky. “Why doesn’t somebody unplug the poor thing” was my first reaction. Then on started up in the field next to our house: click, click, click-click-click weeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Another down the road joined in, making a surreal sound in otherwise quiet South Padre.

Well if anyone has any ideas please let me know, since it’s obviously mating time for whatever it is, and it’s driving me crazy.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Crystal Clear Green-Blue Waters

Clear, blue-green surf today. Many of the surf reports have been saying “clear green-blue waters” for days but today you could see your toes and the shells five feet down. There was a little eel grass left from Hurricane Emily but otherwise the beach was immaculate. No jellyfish or seaweed. Sure, the forecast said 1-foot waves, but we were catching 3-4 foot waves on the second and third sandbar. We were catching 30-foot rides just body surfing. It was a blast!

This only happens during the dog days of summer, when the tides and winds and riptides are so gentle and there is no mixed-up turbidity. The funny thing was there was no bait in the water, since it was so gin-clear. Clear, green-blue more like.

On a positive note, the current appeared to be setting from north to south, which means the Mississippi Current might be starting – maybe bringing back oodles of big fish, hopefully. It was just a touch but you could feel it. Usually the Mexico Current goes from south to north the rest of the year. Anyway, that’s what the guys at the Texas Invitational Fishing Tournament (TIFT) would like to hear – the largest fishing tourney in Texas for 63 years, bay and offshore. Solid bluewater is only 18 miles out and closing back in, which is great.

But I could be mistaken, since last year the current budged south for a few days but then it was ripping at 3-4 knots the other way, even worse 20 miles out to sea. But for now, the luxury of having Mediterranean waters will do just fine. South Padre green-blue, that is.