Beach Walker – Chapter 14
You can spot them half a kilometre off.
The ones who are going to march on past the signs, the striped tape and flimsy barriers, the single, exasperated volunteer. Some do it with a faux-pleasant smile and a little wave. Others do it stoney-faced, eyes front, blind and deaf. A few do it with a scowl and an expletive.
On one occasion the n-word wafted in the man’s wake, crisp and distinct in the morning air. Well, you’re a charmer for sure, I thought. I hope you don’t have a wife and children.
It’s interesting how people behave on an isolated stretch of beach when there are no witnesses within earshot.
Most do the right thing. Many are lovely, interested, want to know how the tireless, feisty parents and their tiny chicks are getting on. ‘How old are the babies now?’ ‘Oh, just one left? What a shame!’ ‘Can my little boy look through your binos, please?’ A young surfie dude with dreads and a cute smile brought me a coffee from the van in the car park. A couple with a scope and huge camera knew far more about hoodies than I did.
Some are … persistent. An elderly gentleman with his miniature poodle apparently decided that he had made a friend for life and was going to stay and chat the entire duration of my shift. I may have been a little vague about when I was next on the roster.
For a small but conspicuous minority, a short detour to help preserve an endangered species is too much to ask. An assault upon their ‘freedoms’, apparently.
‘I know, love, I know. I just don’t care,’ said one well-coiffed lady in Calvin Klein top, buttock-squeezing yoga pants and white runners, as I attempted to explain that the chick will starve to death if its parents can’t access the water’s edge to forage.
Well, that was honest. Bitch.
‘We’re careful not to be confrontational,’ Amanda had explained, as she babysat me on my first shift with the hooded plover nest watch. ‘It doesn’t do any good — and could be counterproductive.’
I explained that I’d worked with some of the most volatile and violent members of Australian society. Defusing conflict situations was part of my professional skill set. She eyed me doubtfully. Perhaps she thought I was going to wrestle miscreants to the sand and handcuff them.
Though the hooded plover nest sites are protected by law, the volunteers have no authority at all, just the veneer of officialdom which comes with a fluoro vest, a clipboard and a wide-brimmed hat.
I preferred morning shifts: the January sun was less brutal before noon. Though the morning joggers and dog walkers were possibly more single-minded than those ambling along later in the day.
This particular morning, Peter was on next, a stooped, polite man with the air of a retired school principal. He arrived ten minutes early for the handover, bless him.
The carpet of seaweed on the beach had doubled in extent since my last shift the week before. We gazed at the rubbery mass and pondered whether it was a boon or just another hazard to the long-suffering hoodie parents as they foraged.
‘My friend could tell us all about it,’ I mused. ‘He’d probably identify fifty species, give us the Latin name and the distribution of each one and explain what role it plays in the littoral ecology, how it was used by the Wadawurrung and other Aboriginal peoples …’
‘Knowledgeable chap, then.’
‘He is! I had no idea that seaw– , marine algae and vascular plants were so interesting and complicated. He’s compiled a longitudinal survey of species washed ashore on Bellarine beaches, going back fifteen years.’
‘I bet he’s a mine of information … Does he run field trips?’
‘No, no. He’s very … retiring. Keeps out of the public eye.’
‘Ah, I see. What about talks then, lectures?’
I shook my head.
‘Shame. Trying to get something together for the Festival of the Sea relaunch in March. Sounds like your friend would have a lot to offer. He wouldn’t be up for it, you suppose?’
‘Unlikely … No harm in asking, though. I guess,’ I shrugged.
As I drove home, I turned over Peter’s suggestion in my mind. It seemed an opportunity for Leonard to shine in a congenial, non-threatening situation. Establish bonds, integrate! Boost environmental awareness in the community! Any way I looked at it, this had the makings of a positive and beneficial undertaking all round.
I began to get quite excited.
Careful, Grace. You’ll need to broach it gently, catch him at the right time.
A propitious moment came later that week, down at Point Lonsdale reef below the lighthouse.
Leonard was teaching me to snorkel. It was a revelation: with mask, snorkel and fins I felt like a dolphin, gliding above the seabed, freed from the tyranny of air, able to swim forever without coming up to fill my lungs.
The main difficulty was walking into the water wearing fins without falling flat on my face. Leonard suggested backing in. I tried it and fell on my arse instead, disappearing in a welter of spray with huge blue feet waggling in the air.
Leonard creased up, snorting. Instead of taking his offered hand, I tackled him round the knees and in the tangle we both swallowed quantities of salt water.
After our snorkelling session, as we sat on the rocks, drying in the warm, late-afternoon sun, I raised the slightest, most tentative possibility of maybe …
‘They’re going to start up the Festival of the Sea again this year,’ I began.
‘Ah. Yeah, stopped during COVID. Even before that, trouble getting vollies.’
‘So I hear … Peter, one of the plover watch people, is involved in running it.’
‘Good on him. Lotta work.’
‘I mentioned that you’re a marine botanist.’
‘Ohhh yes?’ Leonard’s expression became wary.
‘He wondered if …’
‘Stop right there.’
‘But I was only going to suggest …’
‘You were going to try to rope me into something.’
‘But it would only …’
‘Okay. But …’
‘As you wish.’
‘C’mon, let’s get going.’ He gathered up his gear.
You don’t get off the hook that easily, matey boy. I was going to do Leonard this favour despite his best efforts.
Disclaimer: The people and events described in this story are entirely the product of the author’s imagination; they bear no intentional resemblance to real-life people and events. The locations are authentic.