Secrets in the Sand

Hurghada, Egypt

September, 2017

On the edge of the Red Sea, I stare across the mud and stone strewn flats revealed by the low tide. Unlike the deep azure waves sparkling just beyond the brown of the shallow waters, it is not pretty.

The brown sand lies thinly atop brown dead coral. There is little to delight the eye. I notice a cone shaped, knobby shell, a muted, dirty off-white a few feet away.

Stepping carefully across the centimeter deep puddles of water, avoiding the broken pieces of brown coral hiding in the brown sand, I squat and reach out to touch the shell. It rests stably on the sand and I tip it over gently, revealing a startling blue circle of aquamarine and a smaller arc of orange around the opening.


I see sand and perhaps a small body inside. I watch for several minutes but it does not move, even to shift itself out of the hot sunlight. I turn it back over.

Then, I notice for the first time, just to the left of my big toe a small, brown shell barely covered with water. I nudge it with my fingernail. It is broken, just a portion of larger shell. Underneath the broken piece, though, is a tiny hole in the sand at the base of small, water-filled depression. As I watch, a slender, pale arm reaches out of the hole, groping. The arm of a tiny starfish, perhaps wondering what happened to its shade. I move the broken shell back into position.

As I squat in the brown sand, with the wind riffling the shallow tidal pools, I hear for the first time, over the sound of the waves in the distance—pop. Pop. Pop. It sounds like someone cracking knuckles, one at a time. I stare around hoping to discover the source of this odd, random popping.

Motion catches my eye and I shift my position slightly. I wait, one minute, then two. Finally, I see a small fountain of water no more than a centimeter high. It lasts about 10 seconds and then stops. I wait. Two minutes, then three. Finally, another small fountain of water. A third time I am rewarded, then as I gaze with wonder at this miniature show, just between my spread feet I see a thin column of water shooting up from the brown sand, arcing perhaps 2 inches in height and distance. I laugh in delight.

Clams, perhaps squirting out the water they have filtered for food? I am reluctant to dig down to find out.

The dead, muddy moat between me and the beautiful waters of the Red Sea is, in fact, teeming with life. I see clear, miniscule minnows; an abundance of starfish; shells moving across the sand under the power of tiny, determined hermit crabs. All this, invisible until I squatted down, close and still and patient.

I stay for about half an hour in this one spot.

As I step back across the mud to the sandy beach, more slowly and more carefully than before, I wonder what I am missing as I move, purposefully, through my life.

I wonder how many tiny lives I have squished as I walk, unawares.

I wonder how often I have failed to see the beauty that lies beneath everything.

I wonder what makes that popping sound.