OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Crab Chaos and Human Creativity

An ephemeral work of art, by an unknown artist, which consisted of a magnificent spiral arrangement of shells discarded when crabs molted, on Shi Shi Beach of Olympic National Park in Washington State, USA.

The coil

Nature is rarely orderly and tidy–and to a naturalist, that is part of its charm. On the other hand, an artist can sometimes use natural materials to bring order to that chaos, with marvelous results.

As we walked down sandy Shi Shi Beach among the beached seaweed, swarming sand fleas, a dead and stinking sea lion, and a zillion crab carcasses, two National Park Service rangers greeted us.

Crab parts on the Shi Shi Beach, with the dramatic sea stacks of Point of Arches in the distance

One said “Everyone is asking about all the crabs along the beach. They aren’t actually dead bodies; they are the molted shells of crabs that have outgrown their old bodies and discarded them.”

Dungeness Crab parts rolling in and out with the waves 

So it wasn’t mass suicide or a toxic oil spill or global warming that killed a million crabs. In fact, it was just an ordinary yearly molt that we were privileged to see, and the crabs of the deep were still alive and enjoying a growth spurt as they muscled their way out of their old exoskeletons and ate their way into new and larger clothes. Meanwhile, the discarded crab parts moved gently in and out with the waves in a spectacular jumble that left every beach visitor wondering–until they learned the truth,

I had thought about putting a few of these crab carapaces into an arrangement to photograph, but someone with grander ambitions and more time beat me to the punch. On our way back up the beach, we encountered a spiral of crab backs (known as “carapaces”) that looked at first like a giant ship’s rope that someone had neatly coiled. When I walked up to it, I stared in utter amazement and surprise at the fleeting work of art that someone had created. Executed with technical perfection and a fine artistic vision, the crab spiral celebrated nature, yet it did so within the very human needs for order and art. Line, texture, and repetition of forms were among the artistic elements employed. The crab spiral was an ephemeral masterpiece by an unknown artist!

The crab spiral as we found it, left by an unknown artist

Detail of the arrangement of crab carapaces

It would have taken the artist hours and hours of exacting work to create this ephemeral work; notice how uniform the crab backs are in size and shape

The setting, with Point of Arches distant

Karen Rentz repeated this backpacking trip two weeks later, and found that the Crab Spiral was no more. High tides had claimed it. Nature’s love of chaos beat back the human need for order, but I got the photographs that illustrate what the human imagination is capable of, even on a remote wilderness beach.

For those interested in the intersection of nature and art, the acknowledged master is artist Andy Goldsworthy. You can see an excellent selection of his work at Andy Goldsworthy.

With the careful placement of these barnacles growing naturally on a molted crab shell, nature looks to be playing the trickster!

Shi Shi Beach is a wilderness beach within Olympic National Park. It stretches over two miles in a gentle, sandy crescent, ending at the dramatic rocky sea stacks and arches of Point of Arches. We backpacked along the beach, and on this Fourth of July weekend we guess that there were 60 tents sharing the beach and the adjacent forest. Hikers need to be aware of the tides, which can have an amplitude of over ten feet and can affect hiking and tide pool exploration schedules at Point of Arches. Hard-sided food containers are required for backpackers (to keep away marauding Raccoons), as is a wilderness permit from the National Park Service and a recreational permit from the Makah Indian Reservation. Parking for backpackers is $10 per day at a private residence near the trailhead.For more information about Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches, go to Olympic National Park: Shi Shi Beach.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Author: leerentz

BS and MS in natural resources, with early career work as an artist and nature center director. Became a full-time photographer in 1990. Sells photographs at art shows nationwide. Publication credits include National Geographic, Alaska Magazine, National Wildlife, Audubon, and scores of other magazines, books, calendars, and electronic media.

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