The ocean was less angry the day the kids decided to trade in their surf boards for snorkel masks and fins. I was nervously counting bobbing heads and snorkel tubes from my personal plot of North Carolina beach when a cry caused my heart to leap into my throat. My kids and their friends ran dripping toward me yelling and kicking sand as they came. My moment of panic faded to curiosity as I realized they had made a find. They were bringing it in a bucket to show me.
On the bottom of the pink plastic sand pail were five tiny sea creatures the color of sand, sloshing from side to side in sea water. Lacking a degree in marine biology, I named them baby hermit crabs and it’s possible that’s exactly what they were. We watched as the water in the bucket settled and the tiny crabs began moving around on the sandy bottom. Before long, the biggest one started bullying the others. We watched as he grabbed a smaller crab in his claw and physically removed him from his shell. As the now naked lesser crab scurried around to find a new shell to protect his fragile shrimp-like little body, the larger crab tried on his shell. With a maneuver similar to docking the space shuttle to the space station, the larger crab swiveled his body from one shell to the other to try it on. The poor little naked crab was left vulnerable because the big crab wasn’t letting go of his old shell. The kids watched, thankful there were no predators in that pink plastic pail and a plan began to form.
I can’t remember who’s idea it was to jump in the car and head to the gift shop down the road but soon we were all back around the little pink pail with a small brown bag of sea shells dyed vibrant unnatural colors of purple, fuchsia, and teal. A small hand dropped three fancy shells into the pail, plop, plop, plop. As the water settled, the crabs began to investigate and then to frenzy. It was like a bridal sale at Filene’s Basement. The crabs were fighting over the new shells and trying them on. We started to nickname the crabs and comment on the proceedings.
“Look, Speedy Sam stole Mini Mike’s purple shell and Mike would rather fight naked than put on Sam’s old brown shell!”
Oh how we laughed. This went on for over an hour before we lost interest one by one. In the morning, a group vote determined we should take the crabs back to the beach and return them to the ocean. We were pretty sure they needed whatever microscopic stuff lived there to survive. So, we tipped that pink bucket into the tide and said good-bye to our prima donna pets in their Technicolor seashells. I still wonder if our fashion intervention and their vanity were detrimental to their survival in the sea. Did playing dress-up make them more appetizing to their predators?