To finish the old year on a high note, and to see in 2017 as we mean to go on, we went on a family camping trip after Christmas to the Paracas National Reserve on the southern coast of Peru. The empty desert landscapes of this protected area are not for everyone. But for me, the tender shades of sand, the uncluttered horizon, and the endless hiss of waves on the shore acted as a balm for my troubled soul (one word: Trump).
We’ve been coming to Paracas, and one beach in particular, for decades. One of my favourite pastimes, apart from sipping a cold beer while watching a sea otter or pod of dolphins frolicking in the bay, is beachcombing. This year, my daughter joined me often, thus doubling my pleasure. And we found lots of treasures.
There were polished shards of sea glass in turquoise and greens.
There were the robust “tests” or shells of sea urchins, perfect in their five-fold symmetry, in colours ranging from delicate pink, pale sage, lilac, and aubergine.
There were fan-shaped valves of scallops, two as orange as the sunset that flooded the sky on the second evening, but they also came in slate grey and violet, or patterned.
And I found open pairs of clams, their hinges dried and locked into position. The larger ones were bleached white by the sun, or perhaps by age, while the smaller ones were shot with brown.
One old shell was entirely covered in barnacles. Unrecognisable.
When Saba cried out in delight, I knew she’d found something special: a collection of five mermaid’s purses or egg cases, whether of skate or shark, I don’t know. Feather-light, the long threads of their horns were twined in a tangle of old fishing line.
We were startled to discover remains of small lobsters -the tail ends only, with hints of lavender and teal-blue. My husband, who has been coming to this beach for forty years, long before we started camping here with our own kids, says he's never seen these before on Peru's southern coast.
I suddenly developed an appreciation for the shield-shaped carapaces of crabs, in chalky hues of peach and apricot and rose, some with lichen-like encrustations. There were dozens on one small stony beach. Cast-offs from fishing nets?
On that same beach we also found a multitude of tiny desiccated crabs, fragile jewels with an ivory lustre. Their husks lay in drifts across the pebbles and I marvelled that they survived intact in such harsh terrain. The kids named the beach Cremains (crab + remains).
All these finds were well and truly dead and dried, victims of nets, or of the snatch of the tide, or of time. Now they are in my study, on my desk, and when I look at them I think of our trip, of searching the shoreline with Saba, of the peace of the sea.
PS. I have been told by a marine biologist friend that the egg cases belong to the shorttail fanskate (Sympterygia brevicaudata), a frequenter of shallow water and almost endemic to Peru.