I get to Cedar Key at about 7:30 pm. The sun, a red ball over the island town is dropping so fast that even though it's there when I pull up, it's gone behind the tree line before I can hop out and shoot.
My 20 year old Columbia photographers vest is loaded with the following:
1) A couple of plastic garbage bags in case I screw up and have to swim back to shore in the dark. At least my camera gear will be dry.
2) One Nikon 300 mm lens, one Nikon N65 with 28 -75 lens.
3) 3 rolls of film.
4) 2 head lamps, my new lightweight LED lamp, and an older lightbulb type for backup.
5) Extra batteries for both.
6) My wallet for body identification if things go bad.
7) A 24 year old Silva Ranger compass. Even though the evening is perfect and there's not a chance of fog...I've been in sea fog where I could not see 6 feet in front of me. The thought of a fog white out, at night, on a sandbar a halfmile from shore as a spring tide roars in was enough for me to grab it as an afterthought.
I slip on the vest, sling the camera, and walk out to sea. The sun has set now, but a golden afterglow reflects off the wet mud of the sandspit. Wading across the first slough, a southern stingray slips past me and reminds me to do the stingray shuffle. After crossing the shallow channel, I'm on the sandspit proper and it is as high out of the water as I've ever seen it. It seems to stretch to Texas in the diminishing light. Time to switch on the head lamp.
Much of the life on the sandspit lies beneath the surface. Lucky for me, these subterranean sea creatures leave tracks and trails just like I do.
The first trail I follow, leads me to a suspicious lump in the mud. Plunging my hand into the mud rewards me with a white mollusk, a moon snail. Moon snails are predators who hunt other smaller mollusks living in the mud. When out of their shell, they cover it so that all one sees is a whitish muscle, the shell is completely hidden. These seem to have another mission in mind besides finding food, their trails end in collar-shaped egg masses.
Time check...8:00 pm. The tide will drop until 9:04 and then come rushing in pulled by a special alignment of the sun, earth, and moon. I still have a good hour to walk out to sea before turning back. The mud beckons and I slosh on.
This mudflat is anything but flat. It's entire surface is riddled with burrows, dimpled with tide pools, punctured by tubes, and crisscrossed with prop scars from captains who found the bar by accident. Parchment worm tubes are everywhere. These worms live in a U-shaped tube with the bulk of the "U" buried in the mud and only the open ends exposed. When the tide is up they create a current which pulls detritus and plankton into the tube for their dining pleasure.
The washtub sized tide pools are probably horseshoe crab excavations. Each one I come to is supporting an assortment of tiny hermit crabs, shrimps, and a few small killifish. Near one of these dimples, a burrowing anemone has it's tentacles out feeding. There's a long tube extending out of the anemone. That seems really strange and I'm not sure if it's part of the anemone or some mud denizen being eaten by the anemone...it looks the same color as the anemone...hmmm. I touch it and it retracts into the anemone. Okay, that's a new one for me...I've never seen an anemone with a hoover tube before.
This place is mollusk city, there are razor and quahog clams buried in the mud, some partially exposed. There are channel whelks, crown conchs, moon snails, and lightning whelks creeping through the ooze. Along the wet shoreline of the sandspit, I find two crown conchs mating. Hard to tell who is leading that dance...snails are hermaphrodites.
After photographing the embracing conchs, I turn and look back at the restaurants and bars of the Cedar Key waterfront off in the distance. When I do, I am astounded at a pink full moon just risen above the dark gulf waters. I had been so focused on the mud and the tiny circle of light from my headlamp, that I had failed to notice that rising beauty. For a moment I straighten up and absorb the beauty, the perfect cool land breeze, and the lap of the waves.
Time check...it's 9:10 pm. I force myself to turn around even though there's probably 1000 feet of sandbar stretching seaward in front of me. I am not in the mood for a night swim and the lights of Cedar Key are distant enough for one who's run out of low tide. Reluctantly, my muddy sneakers head back toward dry land.
It's a long way off and I snake across the bar to cover different territory as I walk back. The walk back rewards me with a large crown conch...the largest I've ever seen. He gets lifted for a picture like so many other creatures on this perfect evening and then is returned to the mud.
All night long I have had this wonderful place to myself. None of my crew could come due to soccer, work, a boyfriend's birthday so I have come alone. My family knows I could have easily been a hermit and that Dad is not lonely when he's alone...so mostly they don't worry about me, but certainly having them along on so beautiful a night would have added to the magic. They have been here at night with me before and have experienced other nights like this. They cross my thoughts now, because ahead, in the distance, I can see a bobbing flashlight and hear excited young voices.
A father and his two young children are working their way out as I walk in. They are asking " What's this?, why does it do that?" He is answering and guiding...we are still a hundred yards apart, but on a collision course. Angling toward them, I plan to meet up with them and mention the now rising tide.
When we're close enough, I say hello and the kids show me their treasures. The little girl has a large whelk shell and in it are other shells she's picked up along the way. We chat and agree it's a great night to be out here. She has a moon snail shell, so I find a trail and pull up the living moon snail for her to see who built the pretty shell. Nearby in a water filled dimple I tease a big blue crab with my Jeep cap. She tries it with her flashlight and squeals in delight when the crab clacks his claws against the light.
I casually mention that I turned around and am heading in because the tide has started coming in. As I hoped they turn around too and head back to shore.
As we approach the shore, a thin sheet of incoming water is flowing over the sandspit.
The dad and his kids split off and head towards their car. The little girl is still talking excitedly and I hear her say to him," That was fun...it's like there's secrets in the mud."
From the mouths of babes ladies and gentlemen, from the mouths of babes...