Picking Up The Pieces

When we find ourselves in the Santa Cruz, CA area we inevitably end up at  Lighthouse Field State Beach. The official “State Beach” encompasses a 38-acre (15 ha) area including parking areas, grasslands and hiking trails on the East side of West Cliff Drive as well as the beach itself to the west.

Map of Lighthouse Field State BeachWe are far more interested in spending time on the actual sandy beach area immediately North of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum and on the west side of West Cliff Drive though.

Satellite photo of the Lighthouse Field State Beach Area Locally this is known as a great off-leash dog area and the beach area itself grows and shrinks depending on the time of day and the tides. Interestingly, the official state website mentions in their “Dogs Allowed?” area “Yes (but) Dogs not allowed on beach.”

screenshot from official California state website show dogs not allowed on the beachAnd yet father down that same page in the “Image Gallery” the last picture shown is two dogs romping on the beach at sunset and in the full image gallery I see two other pictures showing dogs on the beach so… sending a bit of a mixed message there.

Photo by Brian Baer. Courtesy of California State Parks, 2019

In general, most of the times we are here the litter issue is not that bad… a kid’s sand toy left behind, a single doggie poop bag forgotten, a wrapper from some overly-processed “energy bar” or the like. This set of visits though (we had romps on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday – December 19th, 21st and 23rd) there was an obvious and abnormal abundance of plastic and extruded (EPX) or expanded (EPS) polystyrene foam pieces strewn mostly at the high tide mark along the length of the beach. Although it is a trademarked brand of DuPont I’ll use the term “Styrofoam” throughout this post since it is regularly used in the United States as a colloquial term to refer to expanded polystyrene foam much like many people say “Coke” as a generalized term for cola or “Jacuzzi” for any hot tub. Plus it has less letters to type.

Styrofoam has many “good” uses but once it is in the marine environment it begins to break down into smaller pieces and becomes another part of the ongoing, increasing problem of single-use plastics. It is not biodegradable although it is susceptible to photo-oxidation. Once that process starts the material gets brittle and continues to break down physically. Those smaller, floating pieces look a lot like food to numerous species of birds, fish and other marine animals. Eating plastic is bad. The more they eat the sicker they get. It can fill up their belly making them think they are full even while deriving no nutritional value from it. It can physically block other digestive structures. They can be slowly poisoned by the toxic chemicals as it is being broken down in their stomachs. All bad.

UPDATE: I have recently found information regarding a new, efficient and cost-effective method to recycle Styrofoam so that makes me happy.

Some sad, disheartening pictures if you’re up for it.

So… Styrofoam in the ocean and on the beach is bad. Way worse than, say, an aluminum can as one example and on these few days a principle driver in getting me picking it up for about an hour each time.

Each day we were there I spent the first 20-30 minutes supervising Gia and waiting for her to undertake her inevitable beach poop so I can clean it up like a responsible dog owner. Many times she chooses to lighten her load directly in the Swash zone so I have to be close, be paying attention, have a bag readily at hand and hurry over to grab her leavings before the swash and backwash wash it away. During that time I also usually find an orphan poop or three and so pick those up as well. My Poop Karma is high. Frankly I personally wouldn’t want to be doing any water sport at that beach as I can only imagine the stupidly high levels of fecal coliform bacteria contamination directly offshore both from the dog visitors as well as the hundreds of Southern Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris), Pacific Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) and California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus) in the area swimming and pooping as well.

Post poop Gia found enough doggie friends that she was off running and chasing without much need for my direct supervision.

Dog on the beach, lighthouse in the background on a clear, sunny day
Coming Back To Check In Between Romps

With her attentions deflected I could focus a bit more on doing what little I could to clean up. While not technically one of the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace, leaving an area in better/cleaner shape than when we arrived is part of our Standard Operating Procedure, wherever we are. So, on all three days, I took out an extra Mutt Mitt (I buy them by the case and would be hard pressed to find a piece of clothing I own with pockets to not have a couple extra bags stashed away in it) and started the process: Notice it, bend down, pick it up, put in bag (if Styrofoam or other garbage), continue. After an hour and the equivalent of several hundred toe touches later I ended up with these prizes.

Picture of garbage collected from the beach, mostly styrofoam pieces, plastic and spent tennis balls
Tuesday’s Haul
Thursday’s Catch
Picture of garbage collected from the beach, mostly styrofoam pieces
Friday’s Thankfully Smaller Collection

The largest, silvery piece on the left of Friday’s small collection is obviously the burst/exploded remains of a phone Lithium-ion battery.

Many of the pieces are seemingly thin Styrofoam that was once a “Cup of Noodles” type container. The orange pieces look like expanding spray foam. Still other pieces had a much smaller cell structure than typical Styrofoam. You can see that several of those types of foam pieces are glued to a piece of (balsa?) wood. I also picked up a few large pieces of what were obviously the remains of surfboards, Boogie boards and skim boards. As this beach is a 5 minute paddle from Steamer Lane on a path between The Point and Seal Rock and also a popular spot for boogie boarders, skim boarders and body surfers this makes sense.

Sadly, several hundred toe touches does not equate to several hundred pieces of trash. This is due to there also being uncountable small, whitish pieces of shell throughout the beach area. At first glance it is hard to differentiate small shell piece from small Styrofoam pieces and so, once I pick up a small piece and find it is hard shell I toss it back onto the beach and kick a bit of sand over it so I don’t waste additional effort on that specific piece a second time.

Yes, it is essentially a “Dog beach” and so tennis balls are obviously an item to be lost, buried or forgotten. When people are around I ask “Is this your ball” and hand it back if they answer in the affirmative. That being said, as far as the beach and wildlife are concerned, tennis balls are garbage and get chewed up and broken down into smaller garbage and so I pick them up and dispose of them properly. If they are still in one piece and holding air we have several “Ball Crazy” dog friends they get trickled down to otherwise they end up in the garbage.

Also in attendance was some nice lumber. Numerous, long 4x4s that either fell off a ship and ended up on shore or were stolen from the construction area directly across the street and brought down for bonfire duty.

Six long pieces of 4x4 lumber propped up against the ice plant covered bluff
Just There For The Taking

I was tempted to grab them (lumber is expensive these days) for any number of projects that we could undertake up at our family cabin in Boulder Creek but decided that the effort would be too much to haul them off the beach, up the steps, across the road to the parking area and then lash them on top of the roof rack all by myself one at a time. They were up against the bluff Tuesday and Thursday but were gone by Friday so somebody made out.

Besides plastic and Styrofoam garbage there were also some of the usual culprits (a few aluminum cans, flip flops, nails from idiots burning pallets on the beach, a couple socks) and on Tuesday a whole lot of plywood pieces and a few pressure treated lumber pieces. Again, both are useful things when used as intended. None of those uses are floating in the ocean or laying in the sand on a beach. Both have nasty chemicals involved in their manufacturing processes and finished products. None of them are a good thing in a marine environment and so I picked those up too.

I didn’t (and don’t) dare hope that my efforts would make a long term dent or difference but I did notice that each day my collected amount was smaller than the previous day. What I do think of my little efforts is somewhat along the lines of the famous quote from Karen Davison: “Saving one dog will not change the world, but surely for that one dog, the world will change forever.” In this case, somewhat cleaning up one beach (or campsite or trail or…you get the idea) will not change the world, but surely for that one little area and the creatures that live in it and those of us that visit, it has changed for the better.

Plus, my middle-aged body got some unplanned exercise in as gentle but repetitive stretches so that’s another plus 😉



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