One of the greatest things about living in Florida is that you can go to the beach whenever you want. Florida has more coastline than any of the rest of the contiguous 48 states, so there's nowhere in Florida that's much more than an hour's drive from the shore. Besides, Florida's beaches are frequently picked as among the best in the country.
When I take my kids to the beach, they do more than just splash around in the water. They always want to search for cool seashells. Once, while I was helping one of them who was still learning to swim, the other wandered off to hunt for shells. Suddenly he began yelling. "What's wrong?" I asked. "This one squirted me!" he said, holding up a gigantic lightning whelk. "That's because somebody's still in there," I said, showing him the mollusk's foot. We took a picture of it, then put it back.
A lot more than just seashells wash up on Florida's beaches, of course. Cleanup crews go out every morning to pick up hundreds of pounds of seaweed, and they also find things such as a part of a rocket, a cow's head, an engine block, and 1,000 pairs of shoes.
As you stroll a Florida beach, you might find anything, from wild boar carcasses to a severed leg to a giant Lego man. Bales of marijuana, aka square grouper, still show up from time to time, though not as often as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. Sometimes you even see the boat it came in on. Millions of dollars' worth of cocaine washes up on the beach, too.
Whales beach themselves with some regularity, although the cause is usually a mystery. One biologist I know cut one open for a post-mortem exam and nearly drowned inside the carcass. I suspect he looks at the world differently from the rest of us. Dead sharks have turned up here, which make sense since Florida is the shark-bite capital of the world.
Like the St. Augustine monster, some of the stuff that shows up on Florida's beaches catches the world's attention—for instance, a baby grand piano that mysteriously appeared on a sandbar near Miami. The explanation for how it got there turned out to be a classic Florida story in itself: The stunt was the brainchild of a 16-year-old as a project for his art school application, but after he and his brothers lugged it out to the sand bar one night, they forgot about it—until the media jumped on the strange story.
The most recent found-on-a-Florida-beach frenzy was caused by the ginormous eyeball that one Gino Covacci spotted while strolling on Pompano Beach last fall. Websites around the world went nuts over Covacci's find—did that big blue eye come from a whale? A giant squid? Cthulhu? Less than a week later, state biologists revealed the answer: It came from a swordfish. How it got there, though, remains a bit of a mystery, since no swordfish have been seen sporting an eyepatch.
So when you visit Florida and stroll on our beautiful beaches, enjoy the view, but keep a lookout. You're liable to stumble across all kinds of strange creatures—although by far the strangest are the Floridians.
Craig Pittman covers environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. This column originally appeared in Slate.