A Starfish at Dawn

Something woke me up at 4am on Saturday. Light fluttered at the edge of my curtains by half past and sleep evaded me. I decided that now would be a good time for a walk. Living in a suburb of a big town has made my daily hour of outdoor exercise an interminable battle to avoid people. This was a good time to venture out. I wrapped up against the chill and embraced the cool air of the morning. The dawn chorus was in full song by the time I reached the park but not a soul walked past me. I reached the beach just as the red of the sun had faded into a warm glow to the east. Nobody was about.

The shoreline was sputtered with slipper shells, tawny curves that lay lifeless and empty. There, lying among them a starfish, as big as my hand, pale orange and bright against the cobbled backdrop.. I reached out to touch it, was it dead? Could it still have some life left in it’s edges? A tiny glimmer of movement in the pale tentacles. I grabbed a plastic glove from my pocket (we all carry such strange things with us these days!) and I gently picked it up and cupped it in both hands. It felt deceptively heavy, a beanbag full of weighty jelly protected by thick spiny skin. I walked along the groyne until the sea was deep on one side and very gently tipped it back under the water. It had a chance to survive, I just hoped it wasn’t too late.

When I returned I did a little research. This common starfish (asteria rubens) feeds on bivalves such as mussels and clams, no doubt the slipper limpets were a tasty treat. They aren’t fish at all but they belong to a group of sea creatures called echinoderms which means ‘spiny skinned’ and includes, sea cucumbers and urchins. They have no nose to sniff out their prey but use receptors on their skin. They pull the shells open with their arms and then, insert their own stomach into the shell. They use their digestive juices to break down the food and then reabsorb their stomach which is now full of ‘shellfish soup’. Mercenary little devils. I had no idea!

I’m not sure I could do this early morning constitutional every day but on this morning it was worth it. This walk was a peaceful celebration of the sea, the motion of the waves , gulls crying and distant, delicate birdsong. Not a car or airplane to disturb this morning meditation between myself and mother nature.

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