Summer of the silver toes

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By Rachel Johnson, Staff Writer

It’s summertime and “Jaws” stories abound.

Before I moved to the coast more than 10 years ago, I didn’t have the same respect for the ocean as I do now. I didn’t know the intricacies of the waters and its inhabitants. It is important to take precautions with the ocean just like you do any other place.

While I am certainly no expert now, I have learned a thing or two. One of my personal summer rules is no metallic nail polish on my toes. Well, OK, my toes are silver right now but that will change before I take a swim in the ocean.

About nine years ago, I wore a silver toe ring and silver metallic toe nail polish all summer. That summer it seemed every time I got in the ocean, something nibbled on my toes. In fact that year I even pulled a crab out of the water with my big toe.

In all of my life I had never had such a problem with attracting small ocean critters. I just couldn’t figure it out. That summer when I was walking along the shoreline with water up barely up to my ankles, I’d feel a pinch and something was nibbling on me.

I have always been a bit apprehensive about swimming in water where I can’t see what else is lurking. When the slightest movement of water lets me know a fish or something is nearby, I am the first one to shore.

Maybe this apprehension came from when I was a kid swimming in my uncle’s lake with my cousins. We got out and watched giant alligators cruise by looking for a feast. We got out of the water every day by 3:30 p.m. to sit on the dock and watch these massive creatures patrol the water. It was eerie to me the way they could be so still and disappear beneath the water, just watching, waiting.

Truth be told, I was terrified to get in the water after that—especially a lake in Florida. The ocean, on the other hand, was a playground for me. I never had the guts to try surfing because I thought that was where the big sharks lived, but give me a boogie board and I was set. I’d play for hours in the water.

That is until the summer of the silver toes.

I kept getting nibbled on. And then somewhere I learned that the metallic glint of my toenail polish reflected in the water and looked like a fish. The fishies in the sea thought I was a fishy, too.

When the realization hit me, it was a major light bulb turning on in my head. It made so much sense. Now before I go in the water, I take off all silver jewelry. I think a nice red toenail polish is safer option.

The rule I learned as a kid about gator-feeding time has turned out to be tried and true for the ocean as well. In fact, I rarely get in the water after 3 p.m.

According to the experts, the rule of thumb is no swimming from dusk to dawn, but I know I get the munchies some days a little earlier than dinner time. I think it’s reasonable to say the fish and sharks could feel the same way.

Also about six years ago, I was swimming with a group of people off the north end of Carolina Beach. (Now I know this is breaking several swimming safety issues being near an inlet, but at the time I didn’t know better.) It was about 3:30 p.m. on a hot sunny day.

I felt it first. The water near my ankles moved in a way that let me know something was swimming. Terror struck and I began to run. As my foot began the upward and forward motion of the first stride to get out of dodge, I felt it.

Teeth sunk into both sides of my ankle.

Of course I screamed like a big old sissy, scaring the other 400 people on shore and in the water. To this day I still don’t think I have ever moved so fast. I was to shore in seconds, blood dripping down my ankle.

I’d been bit.

Something tried to make me lunch. Breathless, I looked down to double check and make sure my foot was still attached.

It was. And to my relief, the bite was more of a graze. The teeth never clamped down into my skin. Immediately everyone on the beach began to say it must have been a shark.

This simply wasn’t true. There was something in the water, but I am certain it was a misguided fish.

Yes, I had marks on both sides of my ankle, but they were more like scrapes. My own pets have given me worse scratches before just by walking across my arm.

For a while the thought of the incident scared me, but it hasn’t kept me from returning to the ocean. I’ve also been stung by a jelly fish and I keep going back.

The way I figure it, the more you are in the water, the higher your risk of encountering a sea creature. They live in the water; it is their home. We are their guests in the water.

As long as I use a little awareness, I feel pretty good the chances of encountering a wild beast at sea is pretty slim.

I have a few personal rules I follow when it comes to swimming in the ocean. None of them are scientific.

First, I never, ever swim alone or at night. I always watch the water before I enter it. I look for rip currents. I watch where the birds are feeding. I look for fish jumping. The way I figure, if a fish is jumping, something bigger must be chasing it. I’m not taking that chance; my feet will stay on the shore.

I try not to swim during the dinner hour. And I don’t have silver toes!

The ocean and its creatures aren’t to be feared, but to be respected. Learn all you can about the waters. Its unique pace never ceases to surprise and amaze me.

Be safe this summer, have fun and pay attention to the water.

I haven’t taken the “Who are you swimming with?” class at the Museum of Coastal Carolina” but its on my list of things to do this summer. I can never learn enough about the ocean and its many dwellers.


Rachel Johnsonis a columnist and a staff writer at The Brunswick Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or rjohnson@brunswickbeacon.com.