On the Waterfront

Thursday, and Friday, August 1-2, 2013

(With apologies to Marlon Brando.)

Thursday morning I packed up early, left Hunstville and drove down to Galveston Island State Park to spend a couple of days at the beach.  The ocean has always been very therapeutic for me, and my stress has been so high these past few months that I felt a great need to return to the sea.  In my teens and twenties – an extremely turbulent and difficult time of my life when I contemplated suicide often, I frequently found solace in midnight trips to the ocean simply to sit in the surf at night and cry.  The water washing over me always felt like the embracing arms of a great goddess, soothing and caressing and washing away my pain as she shared my sorrows and burdens and lifted them from me.  I have not been to the sea for comfort like that in many years now, but while my life is no longer the constant searing darkness that it once was, still I felt a need to return once more to the ocean for comfort.

I arrived and the difference between this new park and the previous one could not have been greater.  There were no trees, and the sun beat down brightly and hotly.  There was a constant wind, though, blowing in off the Gulf of Mexico, and this served to keep things cool.  Galveston Island State Park is not like Huntsville.  The facilities are spare and basic.  The RV campsites have no sewer hookups, but they do each have a nice covered picnic table.  The area I was in had no shower/restroom building, with only a porta-potty for those who were camping in tents.  The rest of the park facilities are very basic: the interpretive center is small and out of the way, and the park office/store is little more than a large shack on piers.   Still, all the basics are there and staying at the park was quite pleasant.

After parking and hooking up, I went down to the beach for a swim.  I had forgotten to bring any sunscreen with me, so I got a bit burned under the harsh summer sun, but floating in the warm waters of the Gulf was exactly what I needed, and I stayed out there for some time letting my tensions melt with each passing wave.  I met lots of new friends – well, OK, I disturbed lots of hermit crabs as every shell I found and picked up with my toes had one living in it.  They were all crabby about being messed with, of course.

From out in the water, I got a good view of the seagulls and pelicans diving into the water catching fish, and I noticed a few things.  The seagulls tended to be more acrobatic about it, sometimes diving straight in, sometimes hovering at the last moment, and sometimes skimming the surface and grabbing with their feet.  The pelicans, on the other hand, always followed the same pattern: from about 30 feet up they would point their head down when they spotted something, draw back their wings to stop themselves in the air, and then dive down head first, doing a little spiral as they fell so that they were facing the other direction when they entered the water.  Then they would float for a moment or two before taking off again.  It was rather neat to see these behaviors repeated over and over.  I wish I’d had an ability to take photos of it, but I would have needed a boat to get my camera safely out far enough to observe it.

After coming in, I had a nap and then some dinner.  By then it was dark and the stars were out, so I finally set up my telescope that I had brought with me.  It’s an Orion Starblast 4.5″ EQ – a basic, but quality, beginners scope, powerful enough to get some nice views, but small and light enough not to be a burden to carry around.  The first thing to catch my eye was Venus, but as any astronomer, amateur or professional, can attest, Venus is rather boring to see in a telescope, so I moved on.  I didn’t know what else was visible since I have not been keeping track of the sky lately, but I saw a bright “star” along the ecliptic (the plane of the solar system) and turned my sights on it.  At low power it showed a clear disk, and so was obviously a planet, but it seemed elongated.  A higher magnification confirmed my suspicion that this was Saturn.  It made for a beautiful sight, though it was still rather small even at my highest magnification, so I suspect that Saturn is on the other side of the Solar System right now. (Checking online, I see that we are about 3 months past opposition, so we are still moving away for now.)

The wind was rather brisk, making the views at high magnification rather shaky, so I settled into my chair for some naked eye viewing.  Scorpius and Sagittarius were the most prominent constellations in view, with Cygnus chasing them.  Clouds were moving in slowly from the east, though, and the north was partly obscured by clouds and the glow from the city of Galveston.  As I watched I saw a few shooting stars, and once my eyes adapted to the dark fully I began to notice fainter things.  Turning my telescope to them, I enjoyed views of M4 and M7.

M4 is a globular cluster of stars and was the fourth object cataloged by Charles Messier in his famous list of faint, fuzzy things that are most definitely not comets.  Messier was interested in finding new comets from his Parisian observatory in the late 1700’s, and he and a friend compiled a list of things in the sky that could be mistaken for comets at first glance, but which never moved or changed appearance.  Some of these were nebulae – gaseous clouds in space – while others were star clusters, and at least one – M31 – was another galaxy entirely.  Sadly, my view of M4 was rather poor.  At higher magnifications I could just begin to see a little structural detail, but my small scope simply does not have the light gathering ability to resolve this cluster as anything more than a tantalizing fuzzy patch in the sky.

M7 on the other hand provided a rich and rewarding view.  It is an open cluster of stars, relatively nearby in the galaxy, and it was revealed as a rich assortment of gems gleaming in the darkness.  I wish I’d been able to take a photo of it, but I’d forgotten to pack my camera attachment kit, and the wind made the telescope too unstable for photos in any event.

All told it was a pleasant day and an even more pleasant night of sitting in the ocean breeze watching the depths of the Universe pass before me.  Needless to say, I slept very well that night.

The next day was almost a repeat of the first – swimming and star gazing – though I did take some time to walk up to the park store and buy some sunscreen.  I also walked on the shortest trail in the park, named rather unimaginatively “The Short Trail”, and saw a bit of the island ecosystem, which is rather more diverse than it’s flat and apparently featureless vista would lead you to believe.  Freshwater ponds and brackish tidal pools support different kinds of aquatic and bird life, and there were lots of different plant species that I didn’t recognize.

All told, being on the beach was a wonderful and relaxing end to my vacation. and I was able to drive back to Crosby Saturday morning feeling refreshed and greatly relieved of the horrible stress I’ve been living with.  I hope this feeling lasts!

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