You walk along the same beach every day. At least that’s what the map tells you. But the thing is it’s not the same beach. Every day it’s different. The sea is sometimes blue and green, a clear crystomint where the waves gently break. Sometimes it’s untidy with huge breakers sending blow-back spray into a grey sky. Sometimes the breakers roll in, loaded with meringue foam after the rivers have flooded. Sometimes pink sunrise clouds are reflected in the wash.
At daybreak the sand is cold, but the sea warms your bare toes and you resent the fisherman on a milk crate who forces a detour back onto sand. The sun is just peering round the headland, and the sea catches its light on the triangles forming as the tide comes in and then retreats on itself.
You’re never alone on the beach. Above, a sea eagle rides the air, or is harried along by cheeky magpies. Seagulls nestle in sand hollows, or forage along the margins. Or squabble. Or glide in above their shadows to land daintily and then stumble a few steps to stasis. A pardalote, twigs for nest building in its beak, eyes you cautiously and doesn’t enter its burrow until it thinks you’re not watching. Oyster catchers and plovers scurry and shriek. Occasionally an emu strolls along at the edge of the dunes, pecking at sea-rocket and staring loftily at you if you dare pause near him. Once, you’re startled to see a surfing swan: it flies round the point, lands on the water and rides the waves to shore, not once but four or five times. After fierce weather the delicate skeletons of shearwaters lie along the tideline. If you’re lucky you spot a pod of dolphins stitching the water and occasionally a whale spout close in.
Another day, the sea’s done battle with cunjevoi, wrenching it up in great clumps, exposing its purple flesh. You turn over a stranded lump and long tentacles with lines of suckers wave around. You’ve disturbed a brittle star. The bright orange of crinoids often stands out amongst uprooted seaweed or cunjevoi. One shameful day you notice a purple moon jelly, despatch its image to friends – and then realise it’s the base of a bottle, although on other occasions your ID is spot on. Often you spot a minute bivalve taking a stroll and carving a moving furrow in the damp sand, and occasionally the beach is thick with bluebottles, not individual creatures you’re astonished to learn, but colonies, each part specialised.
The tideline is marked by different stories: pumice from volcanoes erupting thousands of miles away; after flooding, ash from hillsides scarified by recent fires; lines of casuarina needles and leaves when the winds have been wild; shells one day, pebbles another, sometimes little more than shell grit, sometimes quite large; huge uprooted lumps of seaweed, still attached to holdfasts, testament to heavy seas.
You begin the mammoth task of identification. You become familiar with shells. Suddenly you know that if you turn over this half bivalve with the purple-pink inside, you’ll find an exterior of brown and cream ridges. On a good day you can even greet it by name. This hirsute one is a mussel. The beautiful mauve one exuding bubbles of foam is, you learn, Janthina, classified as plankton since it lives an unattached life in the ocean and the foam is its float.
Gradually you make connections. That leathery curve isn’t seaweed: it’s the egg-collar of the moon snail. That tessellated mauvey-pink clump of ovals are the egg capsules of the cart-rut shell. Those small pieces of shell that look like butterflies are pieces of the armour plating of a chiton. One day, you see a piece of the armour plating just before a wave rolls over it. You rush across and curl your toes around it, renewing your grip through three surges. When you finally pick it up, you hold the biggest and most colourful plate you’ve ever seen.
Occasionally you collect the tests of sea urchins, mainly mauve or cream with the elegant patterning of the sockets of their spines, some of them spherical, some flat: once you even find one with Aristotle’s lantern, the mouth apparatus noted and named by the philosopher, intact.
After heavy seas the beach is littered with seaweed. You begin to differentiate and rejoice when you find familiars at home in rock pools.
You leave the beach for the pleasures of rock face and rockpools, different at each end, different each day. If you’re lucky you might see an embroidered sea star and at a very low tide some of the seaweed you usually meet desiccating on the beach.
This is what you might see with your own eyes along Potato Point beach. If you want a deep-time view, which can be comforting in a time of climate-anxiety, you can indulge in a geology crawl: the beginning of the sandstone of the Sydney Basin at Wasp Head; the granite of Bingie Bingie; the sea-floor chert at Narooma Pinnacles; and dramatic dikes and dark basalt between 1080 and Pooles.