It was a lovely, early morning on Baker Beach in San Francisco. I was walking along, with few others on the beach and the majestic Golden Gate Bridge before us. It felt like just another glorious day in paradise until I spotted something: a stingray—stuck on the sand. It might have been a Pacific Cownose Ray, but whatever it was, it was quite a surprise. At first, I thought “How wonderful!”, but my thoughts quickly migrated to how sad it was to see such a magnificent animal out of its element. I took it for dead—but then saw it move. It was alive! It was occasionally flapping, though it was also apparently dying. In this state, as with much of nature toward the end of its cycle, the creature was both beautiful and ugly, both terrific and terrifying, awesome and awful.
I knew not to touch it, with its stinger periodically swinging back and forth, but also knew that it needed to be saved. Spotting a little city vehicle by the dunes. I immediately ran across the beach over to the two workers, who were cleaning up garbage, and explained the desperate situation, trying not to pant too much. They seemed to take it all in, yet there was little reaction and almost no movement, certainly no movement toward solving the crisis. But they finally agreed to come over and “have a look.
I ran back to the shore, where the stingray remained, and waited, now with a few other onlookers, for the little vehicle and the two workers to slowly putt-putt over. They didn’t actually take very long, but it certainly felt like eternity. A ray or a fish out of water probably feels akin to a person stuck underwater; even a minute can be an extended period of suffering. Just when I thought they were going to get their gear and spring into action, they took out an old dustpan, a large garbage bag, and a pair of very-worn work gloves—handing them to me. I certainly didn’t mind helping out, in fact I wanted to, but I was surprised at their delegation of responsibility and unsure how best to use these meager implements to save a life.
I quickly realized it wouldn’t be easy with these inappropriate tools. The handle of the metal dustpan bent with the weight of the stingray and wet sand, while the black plastic garbage bag kept folding on itself and I couldn’t slip it under the ray. I continued to wear the gloves, but wasn’t sure why. I needed to switch gears.
I used the dustpan to scoop ocean water to pour onto the stingray, who was drying out, suffocating, and clearly in distress. The prospect of seeing this beautiful being die on the beach, right before us, and then to be pecked at by the shore birds or attacked and bitten by the lone dog there, was unsettling to say the least; the prospect of saving it, and seeing it rejoin its ocean community, pushed me forward.
I again asked the workers for a shovel. Seemingly nonplused, and as if they had never heard or thought about that possibility before, they casually said there was one not too far away. I used the time they were gone to keep pouring water on the stingray, as it was looking up at me with its big, round eyes. Each bulging eye, the size and look of a dark marble, seemed to be a planet in and of itself, a world within it I could only imagine.
There is no way to know what the stingray was thinking, but I’ll never forget that look. Sensing its fear and pain, it made me think of the millions and perhaps billions of other beings that are violently snatched from the seas each year for food, with many tossed back dead or dying as “by-catch”—another instance of “collateral damage” in our self-defeating war against nature.
Returning minutes later in their little vehicle, I borrowed the workers’ long-handled shovel, scooped the stingray up—it was quite a bit heavier than I had expected—and brought it into the ocean. Some mixture of excitement, pride, and fear washed through me along with the water over my cold, wet feet. In some ways, I felt completely alone, performing a sacred task; yet, I was, simultaneously, intimately connected to the entire world. In spite of everything—including one’s life and death—the Pacific waves kept pouring in and slipping out.
I so much wanted to help this mysterious creature return home. Luckily, the tide was coming in, so nature gave us a boost. A wave came and washed over the ray, like the generous hug and kiss of a parent, but the stingray didn’t appear to move much. Thinking it might be wounded, diseased, or worse, I was dejected.
Perhaps, even after my best efforts, it wasn’t to be. At least, I thought, the ray would be back in the ocean to complete its cycle there—the way it’s supposed to be—instead of on the beach. Another wave came in, again washing over it. After getting over its shock, and perhaps regaining its strength, the stingray finally flapped and swam away to freedom. I felt so good cheering it from the shore, knowing that it was going to be a great day.
Dan Brook, Ph.D. teaches sociology at San Jose State University. His ebooks are at https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/brook. More info about him is available on his about.me page.