We chose the perfect day.
Of course, you’ll have a hard time convincing me there is anything other than a perfect day to walk five miles along the beach during the first few hours of sunlight, when the water and sand are awash in the orangy glow of a brand-new day. Even still, my most recent Boots On The Ground adventure, during which Houston Landing photojournalist Anto Tavitian and I walked the beach on Galveston Island, from 61st Street and Seawall Boulevard to the Pleasure Pier, exceeded my expectations.
We began at sunrise – a heat-curbing strategy we’ve embraced for every Boots on The Ground walk we’ve undertaken during this record-setting summer.
Our plan was simple: We’d observe the quality of the beach, looking out for loose trash and washed-up tar, while also eyeing the color of the water. I haven’t spent much time on this stretch of sand, despite living in Houston for the better part of a decade. That’s my fault – and my loss, I know now – due to listening to stereotypes about this beach in our backyard. I’ve heard, over the years, that the water’s dirty, the sand is dirty, the parking stinks, and it’s not worth the traffic just to brace crowds all day.
None of that felt true during our visit. So, shame on me.
We’d walked almost exactly a mile, cataloging small bits of trash, like cigarette butts and bottle caps, mixed in with washed-up seaweed and broken fishing lures, when we saw the first big question mark of the morning. A massive pipe cut through the sand, bisecting the beach before burying itself into the Gulf of Mexico.
I looked to our left, cataloging what I saw along Seawall Boulevard, in hopes of contextualizing this mystery pipeline. We’d just passed Tortuga Mexican Kitchen, and we were about flush with a massive Academy Sports + Outdoors shop. But why would either of those places have a pipeline to the Gulf?
“Seriously, what is this thing?” I asked Anto as he clicked away on his camera, and I continued scanning the seawall.
Then, as if he was summoned, Cain Bustinza caught my eye. Crouched over at a culvert to my left, where the pipe flowed under the boulevard, Bustinza appeared hard at work.
Turns out, Bustinza is a research fishery biologist for the NOAA Fisheries Galveston Laboratory, which sits just a few blocks off the beach. And it’s his job to maintain this pipe, which draws in seawater from the Gulf to provide the perfect habitat for turtles at the fishery. Back in the day, the lab was home to hundreds of turtles of various sizes. These days, Bustinza says, there’s just one medium-sized loggerhead. That means he doesn’t have to pull in as much water as at other points in his 26-year career with NOAA. One loggerhead needs about 500 gallons of water.
“When we were fully operational, I used to push 30-, 40-, 50,000 gallons of water daily,” he says.
Of course, he says, most people who see the pipe assume it’s there for something else: “People think someone’s flushing sewage out into the Gulf,” he tells us.
I don’t tell him that there was a cynical whisper of just that in the back of my brain a few minutes earlier. But I’m so glad that he’s busted that idea: Not only is this pipe not doing something nefarious; it’s actually working to help the environment.
Anto and I keep walking, tallying up the trash we find in its startlingly low quantities. As the morning rolls forward into the 8 a.m. hour, a few more people trickle onto the beach. We see the older men with their metal detectors – a beach mainstay. Couples cuddled along the jetties. They’re enjoying a beautiful morning that, thanks to Bustinza, we now know to attribute to a north wind, which always brings the cleanest water to the beach.
And the sand seems to be getting cleaner by the moment, as well. We watch as a white pick-up truck slow-rolls up the beach behind us, moving forward for a few yards before its driver hops out, eyes the sand, picks up a few pieces of trash and hops back inside the truck cab to start the process over again a few yards ahead.
By the time we reach our turnaround point, about 2.5 miles north of where we started, at a jetty just before the Pleasure Pier, the truck looks as if it’s about to turn around as well. Anto and I wave our arms and call out to the driver, only to hear our voices drowned out by the soothing lap-lap of the waves. So we take off in a jog.
We meet Freda Johnson, a beach technician for the city of Galveston. She works the early morning shift, cleaning the beach. And yes, she says, we did in fact pick the perfect day for our walk.
“It’s clean this morning,” she says. Despite record temperatures this summer, Galveston’s beach has remained busy. That is, until school started, signaling the end of summer for many tourists and locals alike. As a result, her early morning shift – which she says can often be the trashiest of the day, thanks to overnight beach parties – has been relatively slow.
“Some days are cleaner than others. Today is kind of sparse,” says Johnson, adding that Labor Day is “a different story.” She’s worked for the city for the past two years, and in that time she says she’s seen a general progression toward a cleaner beach.
Johnson turns around her truck, pointing southbound back toward 61st, and Anto and I do the same. We note that even the small deposits of bottle caps and fishing lures are harder to find on our walk back, thanks to Johnson’s work. We also note the steady string of blue trash bins placed every 20 yards or so from each other, which must further curb littering.
And I note one other thing: I wish I’d really taken the time to get to know this beach sooner, and see it for what it is rather than what I’ve allowed people to tell me it is. I can’t help but consider that I’ve lost a lot of time and opportunities here.
It only took me about 45 minutes to get here from my house in Houston’s East End. I could have done this several times this summer – putting my toddler in the car when it’s dark out and waking her up when we reach the beach at sunrise for a quick and lovely walk along the water in Galveston.