The Surprise of Tiny Purple Things


Texas beaches have their charm, but it can take time for Floridians, or Californians, or even nice people from Illinois or Montana to appreciate them.  Some never do.  Muddy waves and coarse brown sand aren’t as innately appealing as palm trees and turquoise lagoons.  Pickup trucks huddled at the water’s edge blaring an unearthly combination of Master P and Travis Tritt aren’t to everyone’s taste, and hundreds of people casting lines into the surf – or each other – can be a little unnerving.

But even on Memorial Day weekend, with the beaches packed, the coolers and propane cookers stacked three deep and children, dogs and drunkards running free, it’s still possible to find some enjoyment at the beach, a sense of a world that moves to its own rhythms beneath the cacophany of human life.  I don’t often travel to the beach on holiday weekends, but this year I took the opportunity to spend time with friends in Port Alto and Matagorda, two little towns close by one another on the Texas coast.

Matagorda was my second stop.  My friend and I spent most of our afternoon walking the water’s edge.  Passing through party-goers on our way to the pedestrian beach, we strolled down to the cut where the Colorado River flows into the Gulf.  Sometimes we stayed on the flat, hard sand.  Other times, we ventured like kids into swirling, spumy water that washed away our footing as waves pulled sand from beneath our toes before receding out to sea.

Walking along, we let our eyes skim the dunes, the tideline, the hard, reflective sand washed by the receding waves.  Like all Texas mid-coastal beaches, it was littered with Portuguese men of war, sargasso weed, a sea bean or two and the occasional bit of styrofoam.  There were shells everywhere: angel wings, bay scallops, lightening whelk, coquina, disk and duck clams.  Most were damaged from their tumbles along the shallow bars reaching out into the water.  But despite nipped edges, faded colors and the occasional hole, there were plenty of children ready to fill yellow, red and blue plastic buckets with their treasures from the sea.

Away from the water, little dunes had formed, with lovely sea-grasses anchoring them.  Pockets of fine white sand reflected the bright sunlight more brilliantly than the water, and strong south winds drifted the loose sand as it threw incoming waves against the granite jetty.  The tide was out, and the water so shallow sandbars were exposed nearly to the rocks.  As we edged our way toward the jetty and away from shore, my eye was caught by a bit of purple – a tiny dot of brilliant, intense color no larger than a pencil eraser.  I thought it must be plastic – perhaps a shard of child’s toy, or a broken fishing lure – but as I bent down to look, I saw it was a shell: a tiny, perfect snail shell. 

Whorled at the top, lightly ribbed around its sides and absolutely symmetrical, it was beautiful.  I’d never seen anything like it.  Calling to my friend, I said, “Look.  What is it?”  She’d never seen one either, and remarked on the deep, pure color.  Picking it up, we found  an equally tiny creature inside.  Neither of us is inclined to collect homes that still have residents, so after another moment of admiration, we put the shell back onto the beach, at the edge of the tide-washed sand.  Immediately, a tiny foot emerged and began to burrow.  Looking at the tiny purple speck trying to escape into the sand, there was nothing to do but laugh with delight at the huge determination of a creature so small it nearly wasn’t there.

Continuing down the beach, we speculated on what we’d just seen.  We remembered a shell had been used to make purple dye, but thought it was the whelk rather than a snail.  Besides, one tiny snail per lifetime didn’t seem enough to support the production of dye.  The discussion waned, and we’d begun to talk sailing when we suddenly saw another shell, caught at the edge of some sargasso weed.  This one was a bit lighter, and even smaller.  It seemed to have bubbles coming from its shell, and when you touched them, they didn’t break.

 It was only later, after I’d returned home and spent a bit of time with my friend Google, that I learned we had found Janthinas – common purple sea snails.  Finding them is unusual, because they have become pelagic, and live out their lives floating in deep ocean waters.  They can travel hundreds of miles, steered by the currents, but they make landfall only when they get washed onto beaches during storms or by especially strong, constant winds.  They range around the globe in temperate zones, and have been found in areas as widely separated as Australia and the Caribbean.  Near the US, they float on Gulf Stream currents, and have been found as far north as Massachusetts, but they are most common in southeast Florida and the Keys.  As my friend and I now know, they sometimes appear in the Gulf of Mexico.

Janthinas feed on Portuguese Man of War and Velella, or “By the Wind Sailor”, which has a floating sail which allows it to tack with the wind.  Some attach themselves to Velella, floating and feeding on the creature.  If Velella isn’t available, they float by building a raft of bubbles with air captured from the surface of the water with their foot.  The bubbles provide enough lift to keep the shell on the surface of the water, but if the raft is broken, the shell sinks and the animal dies.  Some species lay their eggs under bubble rafts, but the most common, Janthina janthina, broods its eggs inside its body until the tiny shells emerge and make their own rafts.  That’s what my friend and I found on the beach: a pair of baby Janthina janthina, “toddler” purple sea snails that had been forced to land by the winds and tides, separated forever from the sea which sustained their lives.

Colonies of Janthina as large as 200 nautical miles in length have been reported.  It may have been one of these rafts that grazed the beach at Key West in 1883 when Charles Torrey Simpson, Florida’s answer to John Muir, came upon a sea of violet-colored shells floating in on the tide and quite literally turning the sand purple.  Simpson, a wonderful naturalist and collector extraordinaire, filled his pockets, his hat, and his handkerchief with thousands of shells.  When he got back to his ship, he found he had 2,000 perfect specimens.

If I could have conjured Charles Torrey Simpson on the beach last weekend, I suspect he would have made the perfect companion for my friend and me.  His 1920 book, In Lower Florida Wilds, suggests that two thousand shells or two would have made no difference to him:

I do not want to investigate nature as though I were solving a problem in mathematics.  I want none of the elements of business to enter into any of my relations with it.  I am not and cannot be a scientific attorney. In my attempts to unravel its mysteries I have a sense of reverence and devotion. I feel as though I were on enchanted ground.  And whenever any of its mysteries are revealed to me, I have a feeling of elation.  I was about to say exaltation, just as though the birds or the trees had told me their secrets and I had understood their language – as though nature herself had made me a confidant.

But Simpson also understood one of the basic realities of life – mysteries are there for anyone to see, and nature reveals herself to those who take the time to look.  The shells that my friend and I discovered weren’t hidden.  They weren’t buried in sand, caught in driftwood, or tucked deep within piles of sargasso weed.  They were lying on the sand, in plain sight.  All we had to do was look.

 Annie Dillard, a keen observer in her own right, talks about the gift of sight in her wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises.  The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.  But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny?  If you…crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way?

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny.  But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.  It is that simple.  What you see is what you get.

Indeed.  More than computer jargon, WYSIWYG – “what you see is what you get” – is a naturalist’s rule of thumb, and a reminder to beachcombers, sightseers, and life-travelers in general that open eyes and an attentive spirit are prerequisites to the encounter with mystery.

The fact is that this very minute, on uncharted waters in uncounted oceans, great bubbling, purple colonies of sea snails are streaming and drifting their way through life, sent hither and yon by currents and winds.  Whether they’ll ever make land, as our little babes did last weekend, we have no way of knowing.  But something is coming, and I’m keeping my eyes open.





 © Text Copyright Linda Leinen, 2008
COMMENTS are welcome.  To read previous comments or post one of your own, please click on the tiny “Comments” link below.  Eventually, I’ll learn CSS and revise the template, but this note will have to do for the time being.

14 thoughts on “The Surprise of Tiny Purple Things

  1. I hope we find two, or I’m fighting you for one!

    I’m reading now about Charles Torrey Simpson – an interesting fellow. Part preservationist, part pantheistic evolutionist, part “let’s plant the danged thing and see if it grows”. This may require a more extensive field trip!


  2. Good morning, Oh,

    Thank you so much for stopping by again. It has been a joy for me to learn how to present photos with a bit of “flair”, and they do add a good bit, don’t they? A little framing here, a little bit of fog or color there, and they become a real part of the entry, not simply something “stuck in” because pictures are pretty! I’m so glad you enjoyed them.


  3. What you found is not just a penny…it’s a gem. What a beautiful piece of creation! Thanks for the images…visually and literally.

    Arti ~ One of the unexpected pleasures of increasing years – sometimes called “growing old” – is discovering that the surprised delight of childhood doesn’t have to disappear. There’s something new, every day. I’m glad you enjoyed this day’s little treasure!


  4. For me, one of the difficult and disappointing aspects of living alone is not having someone handy with whom to share life’s little daily pleasures. Although the purple sea snails may be common in their usual habitat, it must have been delightful to discover them along the beach. You have shared that delight, wonder, and information with us through your wonderfully descriptive writing and beautiful photos. Your personal pleasure comes through in your words, so your blog feels like sharing, rather than just good information.

    Morning, NumberWise,

    Isn’t it funny how perspective changes? When we’re kids and told we have to share, we think that what we have will be diminished – like that piece of chocolate cake. Now, I understand the truth that sharing increases joy and pleasure. I think that may be a good part of why I write – I’m like a kid running around with a snail shell (or whatever) in my hand, saying, “LOOK!” When people do look, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world!


  5. Good evening Linda. Ok, another item on my want-to-do list. Spotting a 200 nautical mile float of purple snails. What a sight that would be!

    If I remember right, I once remarked to you that I would never live long enough to do all that I wanted. You replied that I had all the time I needed, that I just had to decide on what to accomplish. Linda, there are too many ‘pennies’ in this world! One just as fabulous and fascinating as the next. Sorry, I sticking to the one-lifetime-will-not-be-enough train of thought. lol. Have a great weekend.

    Hi, Joan,

    Ah, yes. But, I think what I said (or, at least what I meant to say) is that we have all the time there is, and we only need decide what we want to do with it. “Accomplish” sounds a little too purposeful and blinder-wearing for me. There’s always the option to decide to go through life “barefootin’ it”, and seeing if we can’t find another penny! Let’s see… we’ve got Niagara and rafts of snails on the list now. Wonder what’s next?


  6. Hey Linda. Cool post on Simpson. I like the reference to how the annual cruises on his motor yacht sound like, among other things, a lost chapter in a John MacDonald novel. Incredible, the amount of research you must do before writing these posts. I’m impressed. Ken

    Hi, Ken,

    Glad you enjoyed it! In this case, nice comments from Floridians are especially delightful – I always try and get it “right” (and interesting) for the people who actually are part of the story. When Gamma over on WU told me she didn’t know about Mr. Simpson, I was thrilled.

    As for the research, I do poke around a good bit. I’ve always had a natural curiosity, and when I discovered Google – well, you can only imagine what things are like around here after midnight. A lot of intesting facts are just lying out there like those little purple shells, waiting to be discovered. I figure I might as well be the one to do it. I’m like Charles Simpson in that respect – I love to collect, but I collect facts and tidbit. And, of course, sometimes I hand pick, and sometimes I dredge!


  7. Hi Linda

    we haven’t spoken in a while, and I found your url on my stats today reminding me to call by. I loved this post, the quotes, and the images. As a child growing up in the Outer Hebrides, one of my greatest pleasures was beachcombing – you get completely lost in the little worlds you encounter as you comb through what the sea delivers….



    And isn’t one of the great delights the randomness, the surprises, the ever-changing nature of the gifts? No day at the shore ever is the same as another, and that’s part of the enjoyment!


  8. Tiny purple things! Gotta love ’em.

    Janthinas may have work to do. What with overfishing, global warming and formation of oceanic “dead zones” like the one surrounding the mouth of the Mississippi River, jellyfish blooms are becoming more common. In the Gulf of Mexico it is the moon jellyfish. Chesapeake Bay has trouble with sea nettles. The Black Sea was invaded by Mnemiopsis, a comb jelly. The China sea gives rise to swarms of monstrous Nomurai jellyfish which drift into the Sea of Japan and foul the nets of Japanese fishermen. In Australia and Hawaii swimmers must contend with lethal box jellies.


    True, and for all we know the janthinas may be saying to one another, “Smorgasbord!” There have been a few times in my beach-going life I would have rooted for the janthinas enthusiastically – flotillas of Portuguese men of war aren’t exactly enchanting.

    On the other hand, all discussions of the oceans are necessarily tentative at this point. Janthinas and jellies will have a bigger problem than each other in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. (I refuse to call it a “spill” any longer.)


  9. Except for “the occasional bit of styrofoam” your tone in this article was essentially upbeat and hopeful. Simpson alludes to his feeling of elation, nay exaltation, at discovering nature’s ways. I can identify with those feelings, which made me pause before I appeared as prophesier of doom and gloom.

    Now the Deepwater spill impels you to reply in kind, which makes it twice a disaster!


    To be frank, I’m still hopeful, if a bit less upbeat. But you have to understand – I traveled to Louisiana the day the rig exploded. I got to the bayous the day it sank. I traveled through the swamp, marshlands and bayous while the oil was spreading. And I knew about none of it until I got back home. A week without television or news can make some things a bit of shock when you finally confront them.

    I came home eager for a return trip. Now, the names of the places I traveled are in the news and I fear for them: Cocodrie, Montegut, Terrebonne, Houma. Finding a way to write about the beauty and joy of the trip will be possible, but it’s a delicate balance. For one thing, I’ve met and talked with people who already are being directly affected, and far more significantly than tourists who are wondering whether to cancel their own vacations.

    That’s probably why the story of Vanish John had to be the first post about all this. I had to start where I could start!


  10. Thank you for the info and insights on the little purple shells. My 12 year old son and I have just discovered walking on the beach after school and enjoying everything about it — from being out and about on our own to the cool bamboo 18′ piece of driftwood he turned into a fishing pole, a medieval battle weapon and two little battle swords for his sis.

    Yesterday we were surprised to find the beach covered in man ‘o war from toasted at the high tide mark to frighteningly juicy on the shoreline. We couldn’t help but to make popcorn each time we misstepped on one — this naturally became great fun as the fear factor versus the popping sounds added tension and laughter to the sport. We first saw the little purple beauties as nothing more than the holders of more unknown jellies, were the man ‘o war eating the snails? No, clever kid, knew right away that the firm foamy stuff coming out of the sea snail was of its’ own making and probably a sail for the snail.

    As we walked on towards the Light House we forgot about million the man ‘o wars and started spotting and collecting the snails, we couldn’t hold them there we so many so when we found a washed up plastic bottle we attached it with my keys and made an 8 oz snail container and filled it to overflowing (looked like purplish beer foam on top!) and then found an old cup from a thermos, barnacled handle and all, and filled it too. What fun we had, a mad moment of collecting pleasure!

    What a delight to find this article on the internet and learn about what we had found. My son took a few snails to his science teacher this morning, I can’t wait to compare notes. I love your insights and thank you for introducing us to such great thinkers like Charles Torrey Simpson, we’re heading to the library! Til the next time, remember that despite this mixed up world the wonder of children in nature continues unabated. With luck, this wonderment will lead to care; I have hopes for my son’s good deeds to come.

    Regards, Taima


    You’ve made my morning! And how lucky you were to find the masses of snails – it must have been quite a sight! I’m glad to know that it’s still possible to experience the abundance of nature the way Charles Torrey Simpson did.

    Here in Texas, we say “What goes around comes around”, and it surely did here. When I found my purple snail shells, I turned to the internet to figure out what they were. Now, you’ve found my essay about them through the internet. What a truly wonderful gift we have in the web, and how wonderful that people who’ve never met can help each other learn. Who knows? Maybe your son will teach his teacher today!

    You’re right about the children. They’re naturally curious, and open to the world. I can feel your son’s delight – and yours – from your description of your experience. The fact is there’s always something to see. The only question is, will we open our eyes?

    Thanks so much for telling me your story about the “tiny purple things”. I enjoyed it very much. It’s comments like yours that make this blogging business worthwhile!


  11. Thank you for your post, I am a genealogist who is distantly related to Simpson and found this while I was researching him. Love the quotes and photos.

    1. How wonderful! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I certainly enjoyed getting to know something about Simpson. Having someone like this as part of the family tree must be both interesting and gratifying. He left quite a legacy, that’s for sure. Happy research!

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