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Offshore storms provide for interesting beachcombing

Combing the wrack zone on Boca Chica Beach. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Published in the McAllen Monitor May 6, 2023

Story and photos by Anita Westervelt

Offshore storms – perilous perhaps for those at sea – kick up a treasure trove of intrigue for devoted beachcombers to find, identify and marvel over.

The City Nature Challenge 2023 has come and gone, and hearty congratulations to all Lower Rio Grande Valley citizens who observed and uploaded species of nature to the database.

The beaches called to me this year and they didn’t disappoint, offering surprises from creatures to sea beans from faraway places. With undersea turbulence, wind and wave action there’s always a chance of finding something different.

Although somewhat common to see, Portuguese man-o’-war, Physalia physalis, is always a fun find. They are quite striking when freshly beached, blue float intact with pink edged sail. Their cnidocytes, the stinging cells in the tentacles retain potency long after the creature has been washed ashore – ready to be photographed but not touched. They are not jellyfish but closely related; they are a species of siphonophore.

Portuguese man-o’-war. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

A most unusual critter was the next find. It measured just over six inches long; the iNaturalist Smartphone app identified it as a mottled sea hare, Aplysia brasiliana.

Mottled Sea Hare. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

A sea hare is a marine gastropod that has a small, underdeveloped flimsy shell that lies within its mantle, which is a flap on the back that covers the gills and other internal organisms, according to Their tentacles are prominent and resemble rabbit ears. These creatures are found in sheltered coastal waters where there is an abundance of algae; they often hide in seagrass, sand and mud. Their wing-like extensions on their sides, called parapodia, allow them to glide and swim through the water. They are herbivores and feed on algae, seaweed and other sea plants. Their predators include starfish and larger gastropods.

Sea hares can live up to one year. They lay their eggs and then die not long after, which is how they come to be washed up on the beach.

Mottled Sea Hare, a marine gastropod. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Along with unique sea life, Boca Chica Beach had more sea beans than I’d seen on a single beach trip. Sea-beans, also known as drift seeds, are seeds and fruits that are carried to the ocean from land via freshwater streams and rivers, according to The seeds and fruit drift with ocean currents, eventually washing ashore far from their native lands.

Typically, hamburger beans, sea almonds, troolie palm, sea heart beans and coconuts show up on our beaches. Something identified as possibly a butternut was sitting on the sand with sea whip and other wrack.

Troolie Palm Sea Bean. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

And what turned out to be a sea bean that must have experienced an incredible journey was identified as fish poison tree, Barringtonia asiatica, a species native to mangrove habitats from islands of the Indian Ocean. The trees are grown along streets for decorative and shade purposes in parts of India, according to Wikipedia. They have pink and white shaving-brush shaped blooms and large, distinctive box-shaped fruit that is water-resistant and extremely buoyant.

Fish Poison Tree Sea Bean. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)


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