Wednesday January 23, 2013 | 07:51 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

Why the beach?

What is it about the beach -- the coast -- that draws us?

To me, a beach is both a beginning and an end. Standing alone on the shore, salt in the air, therhythm of the surf breaking, the life we know just falls away. The solid ground beneath our feet, the landmarks and walls and roads and homes that guide our lives, the familiar -- those are all behind. In front, just yards beyond the lapping waves, the world we understand disappears. And the mystery begins.

As I write this, there are human beings living in orbit 250 miles above us. A rover on Mars is transmitting real-time data from scientific tests that it is performing. Yet when we peer out into the blue-green depth, we still don’t actually know what’s there. Only 5% of all of the ocean has been explored and mapped in any detail. We estimate that two-thirds of the species living in the ocean are still undiscovered. Sometimes the rarest of rare wash up on someone’s local beach. Sometimes the wild and wonderful wash up in Maine too.

(Red sculpin - a "sea raven")

The beach is a razor-thin border between two completely different Earths. Yet it’s also the tie that binds. Some of the most vibrant habitat in the ocean lies in shallow waters just offshore, fed by nutrients brought in by rivers and churned up from the sea bottom. Likewise, the salt marshes and wetlands that stretch out just behind so many of the world’s beaches, including Maine’s own, are among the most productive ecosystems in the world.

If you’re lucky enough to visit a rocky shore at low tide, you never know what may be there waiting for you to discover it. Pick your way through the boulders and outcrops covered in rockweed and knotted wrack. Turn over a cobble, and you might see something amazing.

Like a brilliant red gunnel/rock eel:

Or a nudibranch -- a sea slug, or shell-less snail (this beautiful one usually dwells in the deep, it was cast up live into a Biddeford tide pool by luck)

You may stroll the sand of a well-loved beach and consider yourself lucky to find an intact sand dollar shell. But the next week you may venture back to the same beach at the lowest of low tides; this time you may count hundreds of live sand dollars nestled amid the saturated sands of the low terrace.

The coast holds secrets. Answers questions. Poses new questions. It's a special place.

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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