Beached bounty from afar

Outdoor Living

ALL ADRIFT Goose barnacles drift thousands of miles on ocean currents, attached to wood – or any other floating object that comes their way.

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

The after-storm sea was full – full of stout-stemmed oarweed torn free from the kelp beds and thick drifts of bladderwrack that kept the surfers ashore; full of crashing noise and sound, of excited gulls lifting and dropping between far-out waves, celebrating some marine banquet they had found.
A length of driftwood as long as a man dug into the sand as the surge of water that cast it ashore receded. We struggled, it and I, until it lay out of reach of the waves. It was sodden, and heavy, as thick as my leg and more clumsy.
The wood itself was dark, tightly grained and frayed over much of its length, though not so much as to conceal the crude workmanship that had made it roughly square. One end had been shaped to fit into some kind of socket, and about the middle a wooden dowel showed where else it had been fixed.
I wondered whose work this had been and how it had fallen adrift, for somewhere far beyond the roaring surf a fisherman or family man must be lamenting the loss of something labored over: boat; dock; house?
A cluster of goose barnacles clung to one end, where they protested weakly at being removed from their element. Their movements were so feeble I thought the greater of their number dead, yet on being prodded they one and all showed signs that life remained within those neat, white shells that adorned the end of each leathery stem.
These can be eaten; I have been assured this is so. Having been spawned and grown somewhere between the West Indies and here, far out at sea where the polluting hand of man has yet to fully reach, they might be among the purest of shellfish we could find.
They do, in fact, have a very famous relative, one with the name Percebes, the Galician gooseneck barnacle. Along the most exposed and inhospitable parts of the Galician shoreline hardy ‘Perceberos’, barnacle fishermen, risk their lives in clambering about the cliffs in search of these creatures, which sell for extraordinary prices in high-end restaurants.
I selected the best of my barnacles and used my thumbnail to remove its hold on the wood. Percebes he may not be, but Percy, as I named him, would surely help me understand what all that Spanish fuss is all about. And who knows? Once bitten….
I carried Percy and two of his companions in the palm of my hand as I made my way along the beach, holding them up by the neck and pointing out Clare Island and the rocks at Emlagh. Together we explored the tideline, threw stones into the stream, and found a coconut that must have originated close to their homeland, although they showed little enthusiasm for the discovery.
Friends and I have found the occasional coconut before, as well as a small variety of sea beans (which are sometimes referred to, rather dubiously, as ‘knicker nuts’). Despite our infrequent discoveries of washed-up coconuts there are not a great many official records. Either most of us take no notice or they are indeed unusual.
It seems that while a few may be carried across the north Atlantic by ocean currents more might be lost overboard from vessels actually bringing them here. The clue, says one commentator, is the presence or absence of the gooseneck barnacle. Those that have been in the sea for many weeks will have them, those that haven’t won’t. This one did. Besides, it is far more romantic to imagine a palm-filled Caribbean beach than a ship filled with pillaged forest material.
Percy and his friends were less than enamored at being brought home. Despite being laid in a damp cloth they became completely languid, lost their texture and refused to provide the least reassurance they were still healthy enough to eat. Perhaps I should have cooked them on the spot.
That winter beach was a far cry from how it had been on my last visit, when a gentle sweep of tide ferried rafts of flatfish to my baited hook. The sea had been benevolent, and as I watched the sun go down near midnight I knew I must go again. Why did I wait so long?
Now the world was changed. The midwinter sky closed quickly as a near-Arctic wind pushed me back to the car.
Still, we have the finest beaches in the world, and light inching into the day.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.