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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Star Sand Beach - Iriomote-Jima

Apparently one of those must-see beaches that have made a top 5 list is the Star Sand Beach on Iriomote Island - part of Okinawa, Japan.

Irimote Island (西表島 Iriomote-jima) is the second-largest of the islands in the Yaeyama-chain after Okinawa itself. The island is 289.27 km² and has a 2005 population of 2,347.

You can't fly there, but you can get there by ferry from Ishigaki (an island west of Okinawa) - a 31.4 kilometer ride that lands on Uwahara Port.

Tourism is pretty big here - some 600,000 people will visit in a year, but it also has an agricultural economy producing pineapple, mango, sugarcane, fishing and pearl farming.

While you and I might enjoy walking barefoot through the warm sand, odds are pretty good we wouldn't want to do so here on Iriomote.

That's because the beach is covered in kajillions (my estimate) of tiny little star-shaped granules... which the Japanese call 'hoshizuna' - but aren't shells.

They are, in fact, little star-shaped exoskeletons of foraminifera organisms - made of calcium carbonate - that used to live on the ocean floor. And they are tiny... little more than five millimeters across.
These creatures on the beach are dead... so it's kind of a weird thing when you think of that... but when alive, they prefer the warm, shallow waters of the area... but after a typhoon blows through, the winds and waters wash the exoskeletons up onto the beach.

Despite the morbid thought I've brought up, the Japanese actually have a nice little myth about where these five-point stars things come from.

Legend has it that these little things are the children of the stars... a union between the Southern Cross and the North Star. These children were born in the waters off Okinawa, but were killed by a giant serpent in the area... with just their skeletons left for all to mourn over.

It's cool, romantic, sad and morbid all rolled into one little tale.

The star-shaped forarms - Calcarina Sp. - are similar in structure to the top of a clam, but they use extra cell material to form chambers underneath. According to, the five and sometimes six-arms on the organisms help them move from place to place and store diatoms which they eat.

Cooler still, is the fact that these fossils are some of the oldest on the planet - maybe not these ones, but there is fossil evidence that they existed 550 million years ago... which kicks ass to me considering I have a couple of trilobite fossils that are 200 million years old. I have a lot of weird collections, I guess.

Anyhow, molecular evidence also suggests that these creatures existed 800 million to 1.2 billion years ago.

If you are lucky, you might have to peer close to find some that are still alive... in the shallow waters anchoring onto algae.
Star-shaped forarms, Calcarina sp., on an algal substrate.
You've probably seen these creatures if you've gone to souvenir shop at a beach resort... and seen tiny shells and whatnot in those miniscule little bottles about 2.5 cm (1-inch) tall that people buy to take home the beach with them.

I was given one, once... and I'm sure many of you were, too... and I casually got rid of it... unknowingly tossing away the dead children of a beautiful constellation and a guiding star.

Andrew Joseph

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