Salt Life

The taste of sea salt on my lips. The squawk of seagulls as they swoop over the beach. Waves crashing on the shore, washing up taupe and white seashells. These are the sights and sounds of the salt life. Life rights itself strolling along the salty shoreline searching for the perfect shell. Time stands still. It heals the broken parts of me and centers my soul.

Humans that are attracted to water are referred to as “blue mind” people. This term was first coined by Dr. Wallace Nichols, a marine biologist and writer. People with a blue mind feel a sense of peace around the water. Roaring waves lapping up on the beach, the trickle of a creak flowing over pebbles, or the gentle ripples on a quiet lake; it doesn’t matter as long as it is near water. Being by the water gives us the opportunity to escape our busy, hyper-connected lives and revel in solitude. It provides our brains with a sense of rest from over simulation. People that are drawn to water seek knowledge and understanding. When we are near this blue space, we close down the extraneous stimuli and give way to a meditative state of mind.

I am in my happy place when I am outdoors. I love the mountains, trees, and desert, but nothing heals my soul quite like being by the water. I suspect there are a lot of us “blue minded” people out there.

” When you see water, when you hear water, it triggers a response in your brain that you’re in the right place.”

Dr. Wallace Nichols

Salt water sea life

We live in the chilly Pacific Northwest. We get deer, turkey, and even the occasional moose roaming through our yard on a regular basis. That is our normal. The salt water provides a whole different type of animal life here in Florida. One of my goals on this trip was to see a manatee, so we made a point to visit a couple manatee observation areas.

The first was the Manatee Observation & Education Center in Fort Pierce, Florida. There were only about four manatees hanging out there, but we got to look over the edge and see them up close. Such prehistoric looking creatures, these gentle giants of the ocean. According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission, one of the biggest dangers to manatees are watercrafts. One in every four adult manatees have evidence of 10 or more watercraft strikes. Sadly, 20-25% of manatees are killed by boats every year.

The other place to view manatees is at Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center at Apollo Beach. The water coming off of the electric company warms the salt water near it and the manatees come there to hang out in the warmer water in the winter. There were probably fifty of them just floating along, relaxing in the warm water. Smart animals.

I would really like to see the large tortoises that crawl up on the beach to lay their eggs at night. Unfortunately, it is the wrong time of year for that, so I had to settle for a smaller version. Honeymoon Island State Park is home to over 200 gopher tortoises, so we headed up there to walk the park. We were fortunate to see one lumbering along and then slide into his burrow. Gopher tortoises dig burrows that are 10-30 feet deep and have a large turn around spot at the end of them. They kindly share their burrows (both current and abandoned) with up to 250 other animal species. The snakes that share burrows with some of the tortoises actually help to protect them.

Salt water play

As I mentioned in my previous post, Living Like the Locals, we are staying at a marina while we are visiting Florida for a month. The marina has several kayaks available for residents to use and they invited us to use them during our stay… for free. I jumped at the opportunity. Kayaking through the estuaries was on my list of things I wanted to do while we were here. When you quietly paddle through the salt water, you get to see the mangroves and water life up close and personal.

One of my favorite ocean water activities is, what I have dubbed, “wave bobbing.” I jump into the waves and let the buoyant saltwater bob me around. It probably looks pretty funny for a lady in her 60’s out there bobbing in the waves like a ten-year-old, but fortunately, not worrying so much about what others think is a side benefit of aging. Joy overrides concern for other people’s opinions of us. I just hope they don’t mistake me for a manatee!

Some people can walk, or even jog along the beach unencumbered. And then there are those of us that are shell seekers. We can’t stop ourselves. I tell myself that I have enough shells, my pockets are full and yet… I can’t stop from looking down and gathering just a few more. Caspersen Beach in Venice, Florida is an exceptionally good beach for finding seashells and sharks’ teeth. As a matter of fact, this beach is considered the shark tooth capital of the world. Yep, hunting for shark’s teeth is a hobby here. The converging currents at this particular beach bring in sediment that have a lot of fossilized shark teeth in them. You just have to dig through the sand and shells to find them. People purchase fancy metal sand sifting tools to hunt for shark’s teeth. You wade into the water, scoop up a bucket of sand and let it wash through the sieve. Then you are left with larger shells and hopefully, a shark’s tooth. These fossilized teeth are typically black and have three points.

Mr. U was captivated by it. However, he was too cheap did not want to purchase an expensive tool to use for only a couple of days. Instead, he bought a white plastic colander at the dollar store. The thing actually worked. We found over 45 small shark’s teeth with it. I am sure that we were quite a sight, me bobbing in the waves and Mr. U hunting for shark’s teeth with his dollar store reading glasses and colander. Oh well, what do we care – we are retired and on vacation.

After a full day at the beach gathering shells and shark’s teeth, we “rewarded” ourselves with a cold drink and some grouper bites at Sharkey’s beach restaurant by the pier. Retirement life is good.

Travel: Living Like the Locals

Whenever we travel, it seems like we are always trying to see and do as much as possible in the limited time we have.  We typically spend a couple nights in one place and then pack up our bags and move on to the next destination – anxious to see and experience everything we can.  It has been wonderful, and it has allowed me to see almost all 50 states, but it doesn’t give us time to really sink into the lifestyle.  It was time to change that. This year we decided to spend enough time in one area to get a feel for how the locals live. 

We have always come up with a pile of excuses for why we can’t travel to one place and stay there for an extended period.  Excuses like, we still have so many other places we want to see, fear that we might get bored staying in one place too long, it would be too expensive, and most significantly, I would miss being away from family and friends too much.  But we aren’t getting any younger, so it was time to set those excuses aside.  It was time to jump off the indecision boat and just do it.  We agreed that it needed to be somewhere warm and sunny and in the continental U.S.  So, we traded in our winter snow boots and parkas for sandals and shorts and we booked a rather unique stay at a marina just outside of Sarasota for a full month.  Not as risky as moving to Costa Rico to live the expat life, but still a venture for two pale northerners to do in the middle of the winter.

On a very cold, very early morning the first of February, we boarded a plane to head southeast, about as far across the U.S. as you can go.  After twelve hours, two delays, one missed connection and an extra flight, we stepped off the plane in Tampa Bay.  Miraculously, our luggage found us.    After another hour in an Uber, we arrived at the gate to the marina that we were going to call home for the next month. 

When we were planning this trip, we decided that we wanted to stay somewhere that we could live like the locals.  This ruled out an all-inclusive resort, condo or even a house.  We wanted to be in the thick of the salt life, and not in one of those marinas with million-dollar boats, but a marina where the old salts live on weathered sailboats. We wanted to mix with people that are living a raw life, closer to the bone. We wanted to hear their stories.

The people that live at the marina are mostly older men, some couples and a few younger guys escaping social norms and pressures.   All of them are kind and friendly.  On our third day here, we decided to sip our morning coffee in the sunshine at a table on the marina dock.  Before long one, then two, then three locals pulled up chairs to chat for a while.   These old salts had a world of living etched into their leather smiles and a lot of stories to tell, peppered with a little gossip about the marina residents. They lead a slower life.

“…I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos…”

Excerpt from the Mexican Fisherman and Investment Banker Story

The marina owner, Willy, is an eccentric old salt with a big heart. His wife passed away a couple years ago, but he is surrounded by people that love him. He is the center that this marina life revolves around. He works hard and plays hard. His lovely daughter runs the office at the marina. Willy hosts parties at his house for the marina residents on all of the major holidays, as well as the super bowl. He and his daughter kindly invited us to join them this year. Why not? It was a great opportunity to watch the game while visiting with some of the locals and enjoy some delicious food!

The spread at the super bowl party.

Willy and some of his cronies built a very large boat themselves which is moored at the marina, and they proudly gave us a tour. To help pay for the ongoing maintenance of the boat, they take memory balls out to the ocean. These are also known as eternal reefs. After a loved one is cremated, their remains are put in an urn and placed in a concrete memory ball. Then the family goes out on a boat for a ceremony and the dropping of the memory ball into the ocean for a final resting place. These balls are made of environmentally safe concrete and help to preserve the marine environment as fish and sea creatures make their homes in them. I had no idea.

Mr. U trying out the captain’s chair.

Part of our living like the locals experiment was to travel the area without a rental car.  We planned to use our own two feet, the bus system, and the Sarasota trolley.  Our first few bus trips went smoothly.  The next trip we missed the last bus back and had to get an Uber.   The next trip we ventured north on the bus to Bradenton and then transferred to another bus to get to Anna Maria Island and then the trolley.   I felt like a pinball in one of those machines where you bounce back, hit a wall, bounce in another direction and eventually you end up at your destination.  We wasted a lot of time waiting for transportation to arrive. 

The bus north was a sad commentary on humanity.  At each stop we would share seats with the downtrodden, the disadvantaged, those that were born into an unfair lot in life and those that made some really poor choices.   Each person was trying to survive in a world that had often been harsh to them.  It made me realize what an insulated life I lead.  I am clearly made of weaker stuff. We opted to get a rental car for the next few weeks. 

The locals that live at the marina are a community that take care of each other. They are a family that has bumped into each other by a lifestyle choice. One of the older marina residents has end stage cancer. He still lives on his boat but is getting worse by the day. Everyone checks in on him frequently and they bring him groceries when they are making a trip to the store. It made me acutely aware that, while we may choose different lifestyles, we all share a common humanity.  A need to connect and look out for one another.  Isn’t that what life is all about, no matter where you live?