We thought it would be a good idea to help beachgoers by passing on some facts we've learned over the years about what to do in certain situations that you may come across at the beach. We all know you aren't allowed to take glass on the beach, or bring your car or bike and plow through the sand, or take your dog sunbathing. But what should you do if you come across a live sea star or Florida fighting conch on the sand - should you hurl it like a frisbee back into the Gulf or leave well alone? Here is a guide to what you wanted to know, but never knew who to ask and what you should know, but were afraid of the answer...Shelling etiquetteThe majority of the seashells you will find on Marco beaches at or above the high tide line are empty and therefore can be collected. Collier County prohibits the taking of live shells and in most cases (especially bivalves), it is pretty obvious if there is an organism in the shell. The sniff test will also point to whether you want to add it to your collection or not, since just a small piece of its previous inhabitant can set off the search dogs at Miami airport fifty yards away. Some shells, like the giant Atlantic cockle, mate in tidal waters and should be left alone. Take a look at the pictures (right) of a lettered olive, fighting conch, banded tulip, crown conch and lightning whelk to see wonderful examples of live shells that must not be taken. It is more than possible that a hermit crab has taken up resi-dence in an unoccupied shell and sometimes they will go way back into the shell and make it appear empty. More than once we have left our collection of shells on the kitchen counter to return 5 minutes later to see one of them wandering off towards the blender!Live sand dollars, urchins and sea starsOn our many walks along the beach over the last twenty years, we have found live shells, sea urchins, sand dollars and sea stars stranded on an outgoing tide and wondered "interfere with nature or let nature take its course?" Nancy Richie, Envi-ronmental Specialist at the City of Marco Island, gave us great advice. "Don't throw any live sea creature back into the Gulf, but take the time to wade out past where the waves are breaking against the shore and place them in the water". Or, leave them on the beach where they will be somebody's dinner. They won't go to waste. Live sand dollars have "furry" surfaces and are dark brown or purple in color. A sand dollar that can be collected, not alive, is white, smooth and very fragile. Sea urchins have purple spines and move them very slowly and their beaklike teeth on the underside may be moving also. Live urchins of-ten hold shells and other debris over themselves using their suckered tube feet. Studies have revealed that this "covering behavior" is to protect against UV radia-tion. Some species are thought to be more vulnerable to sunlight than others. None of the urchins found locally are dangerous to humans. There are three types of sea stars on Marco beaches and a relative, the brittle star.
Again, don't throw them back in the water but walk them out beyond the breaking waves. A live sea star will be moving its many tube feet and its arms will bend slowly. Sea stars can regenerate arms that have been damaged and brittle stars can regenerate an entire animal from just an arm and part of their central disk! Birds, nests, eggs and youngMarco's Sand Dollar spit and Tigertail Beach lagoon are important habitats for shorebirds. In spring and summer the beach is a critical nesting and resting area for three of Florida's listed species: the least tern, black skimmer and piping plover. Many terns and other shorebirds lay their eggs in the sand. The eggs are hard to see and must be constantly guarded or a hungry predator will eat them. The eggs must also be shaded by an adult or the sun may overheat them. Do not enter any taped off areas and don't approach birds too closely. If birds appear to be dive-bombing you then it is likely you are close to their nest or a young bird. If you see baby shore-birds on the beach that seem to be abandoned, do not approach them. They are probably not abandoned at all, but your presence may be preventing the parent birds from returning with food.Flocks of birds on the beach are taking a well-earned rest and are conserving energy for the next leg of their global journey. Don't chase or disturb them, just to get a photo or to surprise them. In fact, if agitated by an unwanted intruder, the least tern reportedly has a nasty habit of hovering over the offender and defecating - so be warned! Sea turtle nests and hatchlingsUnfortunately, you are very unlikely to see Loggerhead sea turtles on the beach since they arrive under the cover of darkness and invariably their eggs hatch at night. However, it is possible that hatchlings can become disorientated and head towards lights from a condo rather than the Gulf and may be found wandering aim-lessly the next morning. About seven years ago, early one morn-ing, I came across 5 hatchlings at the pool of the Radisson Hotel (now Crystal Shores). They were secured until they could be released that evening. If you do come across hatchlings call Mary, the turtle lady, on 239.289.9736. She is on Marco's beaches early every day throughout turtle nesting season, and is responsible (with volunteers) for taping off the sea turtle's nests so that beachgoers don't accidentally inter-fere with them. See our article on sea turtles on page 108.Is that a breast implant I see before me?The Gulf waters are home to a number of jellyfish and their relatives. You will see them washed up on the beach espe-cially after storms and most of them have a sting which can vary from a detectable mild sting to severe blistering depend-ing on the extent of touch and the person's reaction. It is best not to touch any beached jellyfish since they can sting even when out of water.continued on page 92 91