staked out our tent high on the beach in front of the foredunes
and away from the Sargassum to avoid insects. Since
the powdery sand had been firmly packed down by the previous week's
storm surge, the tent was easy to anchor. After setting
up camp, we sat down to dinner and discussed plans for the following
day while listening to the gentle roar of the surf, the wind in
our faces. I had planned to circumnavigate San Jose Island,
but Ron convinced me that we should take a more leisurely route
and enjoy the wildlife along the way. As darkness closed
in, I lit a small lantern and we walked down to the beach.
Crouching near a sandy tide pool, I waved my hand
through the water. Greenish sparks of fluorescent
light flashed--the telltale sign of millions of tiny bioluminescent
plankton. Walking farther down the beach, we came across
dozens of ghost crabs feeding on Sargassum, their long-stalked
eyes mounted on fist-sized carapaces. Tangled, shiny brown
algae strewn about the beach by the storm held corrugated shells
of sea pens, white, disk-shaped sand dollars and sharp-spined
The next morning, we awoke to a bright sunshine and
scattered clouds with a gentle breeze. After loading the
boats, we paddled out through four-foot surf and headed back toward
the Aransas Inlet. As we rounded the north jetty again,
we encountered a pod of ten to 20 bottlenose dolphins. Their
gray dorsal fins broke the surface, and we could hear their sharp
breathing sounds. Paddling closer, I could see that several
had scarred or partially missing dorsal fins, probably from scuffles
with fishermen or boat traffic At the back of the inlet,
we turned north along the Lydia Ann ship channel and stopped for
lunch on a long narrow beach on the leeward side of San Jose Island.
The squawking cacophony of of birds echoed across the landscape.
Farther up the beach, hundreds of cormorants were dwarfed by dozens
of brown and white pelicans A few willets, curlews, and
black-necked stilts ran up and down the beach nervously on thin
legs, stopping occasionally to probe the sand with their long
beaks. Nearby, a brilliantly white great egret with a yellow
bill and black legs stood on a marshy bank, patiently fishing
in a tidal stream.
Dark storm clouds began moving across the islands as we
contined down the channel to the Lydia Ann Lighthouse. Next
to the red brick lighthouse, a huddle of small weathered wooden
buildings with wide verandas rose above the surrounding marsh.
The lighthouse was built in 1857. A fierce storm in 1917
had nearly destroyed the the facility, and the present buildings
were built at that time. The lighthouse was closed in 1954
because of high maintenance costs. In 1970, the lighthouse
and surrounding buildings were severely damaged by Hurricane Celia.
Prominent Texan Charles Butt bought and restored the facility,
refitting the light with an antique fresnel lens. In July
1988, the light was recommissioned. Today, its fixed white
light is visible for about 10 miles. The old buildings around
the light are now private residences and off-limits to the public.
Gusty winds and tall columns of dark, ominous clouds moved
in from the southeast and pelted us with a brief rain squall.
Surf and weather conditions can change rapidly in this area.
The rain and wind helped cool us down as we paddled north into
Aransas Bay. We stopped on a beach on San Jose Island, adjacent
to Mud Island. The upper part of the narrow, fine sand beach
was littered with a six-inch layer of crushed scallop and oyster
shells. In the marsh behind the beach several pairs of black-headed
American oystercatchers squabbled noisily as they wandered along
the tidal flats. The flats were covered by the low-lying
pale-green leaves of saltwort and glasswort. In the distance,
large blue herons and great egrets stood motionless by shallow
ponds on the flats. Within minutes of our landing, the clouds
gave way to hot afternoon sun.
After our break, we continued into Aransas Bay. Paddling
across a shallow cove, I was startled when several silvery striped
mullet leaped from the water in front of my bow and landed several
yards away. There must have been a larger predatory fish
afternoon wind coming out of the southeast at 10 to 15 miles per
hour made the emerald bay waters choppy. We scanned the horizon,
looking for an island to camp on. When we turned around, we
could see an island with large white beaches glinting in the sun
to the southwest. We turned into the waves in the direction
of the largest beach. By evening, we reached a large sand-and-shell
beach that formed a broad, flat bar. Behind the beach we could
see a large pond with several small tidal creeks trailing off into
the distance. I paddled along the shoreline to survey the
island. The sand-and-shell beach quickly gave way to muddy
shore about two yards wide, bordered by large bushy vegetation.
Hundreds of striped hermit crabs in knobby variegated whelks and
oyster drill shells scuttled along the shoreline.
Ron and I setup camp on the sand-and-shell beach. As
darkness fell, we were eating dinner when several large barges passed,
their large flood lights scanning the area for navigational hazards.
Shining a flashlight into the water adjacent to shore, I noticed
a foot-long jellyfish--sea nettles--drifting by. Catching
one of them in a clear plastic jug, I used a flashlight to illuminate
it. Its pulsating bell and long tentacles looked like a fine
glass sculpture glowing brightly against the darkness of the night.