Sand, Sharks, and Shearwaters

A couple weeks ago, Revere Beach held its 12th annual International Sand Sculpting Festival, which if you haven’t been, is a festival definitely worth a visit. You can watch professional sand artists creating beautiful, elaborate, very large sculptures using nothing but sand and water. Plus there are food trucks (an impressive lineup), vendors giving out free stuff, live bands, and fireworks. I learned this year that there is an amateur competition, and since sand sculpting happens to be a hobby of mine, I decided to enter the adult division (there were also divisions for kids and groups). I made a snazzy life-size hammerhead shark chasing two fish:

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I took a short course in sand sculpting some time ago, and since then I’ve found it a fun thing to do on the beach from time to time. As a marine ecologist, marine animals are, of course, my favorite things to make. Plus beachgoers inevitably stop to watch, and it becomes an opportunity to teach them about marine life.

There are a certain number of tools and tricks for making nice-looking sand art. For example, using plastic or metal blades to carve forms, using a straw to blow away loose sand to make clean lines, and roughening up the sand around the sculpture to create textural contrast and make the sculpture stand out. I made the shark fins by piling up mounds of water-saturated sand and carving them away. Of course, the professionals get to work for 24 hours with a hose and a mountain of special, trucked-in dune sand, while the amateurs get the sand on the beach, the water in the ocean, and only 4 hours, so the pros do have that advantage.

There are about 10 species of hammerheads, ranging from the large-and-in-charge great hammerhead, to the harmless (and I think adorable) bonnethead shark, which eats mostly blue crabs, and which I used to see down in Florida. A bonnethead did circle me once in the field though, while standing in knee deep water in a seagrass bed, which was mildly disconcerting. With the exception of bonnetheads, hammerhead sharks, like many sharks, are threatened by overfishing. As far as why I made a hammerhead though, I mostly just thought it would look cool.

While sculpting on the beach that day, I also happened to notice a number of very cool birds flying around. Manx Shearwaters, which besides having an awesome scientific name (Puffinus puffinus), are ocean-going seabirds that aren’t often seen from land (although they do forage closer to shore than other shearwaters). Several of these birds were flying right along the Revere Beach shoreline, and sometimes over the beach itself, the rest of the beachgoers totally oblivious to the stunning and relatively uncommon sight zipping over their heads for which you didn’t even need binoculars. Yes, in addition to marine ecology, I am also an avid fan of birdwatching. As with all of natural history, I find that if you know what to look for, you’ll discover there’s a lot more going on around you in nature than you might think.

In any case, it’s summer! The next time you’re at the beach, try taking a putty knife, a straw, and a bucket and making some sand art!

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