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There is a period in early spring when sunlight on beach sand is an elemental smell. “Basking” is a verb everywhere except here, when it becomes a noun. It is not a “doing;” but a “being,” a state. And lounging is an inheritance, not an evasion.

This must be what heaven smells like at the gate: clean, hypnotic, hugely present. It only happens in the morning about 9-10 when the chill and mists evaporate and “the bask” emerges from a wave spritzing up the sand. The sun is still gaining, and will end up being 75-80 degrees by noon. If it isn’t, “the bask” won’t show until the next day. Even then, by noon this sense will diffuse to a merely pleasant day. You have to be there at the right moments.

The word “beach” at his time transforms to something immense, the way grand canyon suddenly expands to GRAND CANYON when first experienced. The simple words are 6-inch headlines, magnifying fold on unfolding. The words don’t do it justice, but there are no better words.

When this happens even the scent of drying kelp on the beach has a sweetness to it, at least to me. Of course, not everybody stays this enraptured. Kelp on the beach has become a health issue in the last year or two.

This kelp issue pits purist against purist. There are the eco-purists that sing the many-sided value of wave and kelp deposits to beach ecology. Kelp feeds all kinds of burrowing intertidal critters and shore birds. It provides nutrients in the shallow water column for little things that feed little fishes that feed bigger fishes. And it all takes care of itself. It washes up and washes away. What could be holier than that?

And then there are the sunbathing purists less enamored of the kelp flies, smell of rotting vegetables, and clumped barriers to “lying out.” They tend to bring less macro-invertebrate and shorebird guidebooks and more collections of sun screen, sodas, sunglasses, new hats and swimsuits, potato chips, coolers, volley balls, Frisbees, and other beach survival gear. These hardy souls favor a more manicured stretch of sand

And to be sure, the latest news is that these masses of kelp mats are the source of the perennial high-coloform counts and warnings posted by county health officials this time of year. This occurs at the Santa Cruz Wharf and the Capitola Wharf, or Main and Cowell’s Beaches in “Santa Cruz and Capitola Beach at, guess where, Capitola. Why theses water-contact health risks should occur at this time has been a puzzle for years, with various fingers pointed at various probabilities. The most common finger pointed at the rivers as the source, and what could you do about that? Blame shifts upstream. It’s all Ben Lomand’s fault, or Soquel’s fault.

But a few bright biologists came up with a different notion and tested for it. They grabbed some kelp and put it in some tubs, added sunlight, and duplicated the coliform counts that have been the bother. Aha! This makes perfect sense. Kelp floating in the surf zone and heaped on the shore starts to break down, or decay. If there are days following a swell that brought the kelp to the shore where the wave action tapers off, there you have it, a briny soup of nutrients. Such patterns take place at both spots.

So what to do? It turns out to be a matter of budgeting equipment and staffing. This year Santa Cruz is using a shiny new red farm tractor with glorified rake and claw to comb the beach for tangles. Then it can scoop sand over it somewhere else on the beach, or cart if off in a dump truck. Another not-quite-so-shiny yellow sand sifter/grader can be seen chugging up and down these beaches lately smoothing and polishing the grand grains into nice expanses just waiting for toes to wriggle in.

The day following such fine work might see a new surf swell and freshly torn-up kelp deposited all over the manicure. Oh well, that’s what pencil pushers are for: dispatch the beach crew again. What could be easier with that?

So not to worry, this summer you can spend that dollar on a popsicle instead of a fly swatter when you visit the beach. Enjoy your swim.

Last updated: 4/29/2013 11:45:30 AM