Ranger Ann Wilson slid a large purple blob into my hands as she turned to run down the pier at Myrtle Beach State Park. "Here, hold this," she said. "They've got something good down there!"
As Wilson and a gaggle of children rushed to see the latest creature pulled from the sea, I looked down at my hands. A ball of goo, the size of a bowling ball and surprisingly heavy and solid, oozed between my fingers. The sunshine sparkled off its translucent, slimy flesh, and a flower seemed to sprout from the top.
It was a cannonball jellyfish, and something I had never before imagined I would end up holding on a bright summer day at the beach.
While South Carolina is famous for its gorgeous sandy beaches and warm ocean water, what swims in that water is amazing. And even more amazing than those sea creatures are the looks of joy and astonishment on your kids' faces as they get to touch and hold them.
There are lots of ways here to catch some of those sea creatures, too. So the next time you bring your family to a South Carolina beach, don't just look at the water. Get in there and try your hand at catching things. Here's how:
The cannonball jelly was just one of the many creatures we met at Myrtle Beach State Park's "A Crabby Experience," a catch-and-release crabbing program that gives visitors the chance to catch, see, touch and even hold some of the amazing sea life that swim along with us in the ocean.
That morning, Wilson taught the kids how to bait the round crab traps with delicious raw chicken necks. (Everything needed is supplied by the park.) Then, the children carefully lowered the nets down, down, down off the side of the pier until they were submerged in blue water below us.
The hardest part of the whole operation was the waiting. The kids wanted to pull up their nets just seconds after they dropped them. They dug deep into their patience, though, and were able to hold on a good 90 seconds before lifting their nets up to see if any crabs were tempted by our offerings.
Every few minutes after that, to screams of delight and excitement, the kids carefully raised the nets to see what had crawled in and was chowing down on chicken necks.
We caught several blue crabs, including one just about to lay her thousands of eggs, but so many other creatures as well: whelks, jellies, rays, hermit crabs and sea stars.
Wilson would whoop with delight right along with the children as she carefully and gently pulled the creatures out of the net and let the kids touch and hold their "catch." She explained what each creature was, answered the kids' million questions, and got them thinking and observing more deeply with the questions she asked them in return.
The regular fishermen on the dock love to help too, and they call out when they've caught something they think the children might find interesting. We got to see and touch Spanish mackerel, a toadfish (which looks just like its namesake!) and even a baby shark.
After a few moments of examining our catch, the kids lowered the nets back down, and Ranger Wilson returned the creatures to their home.
How do you return a cannonball jellyfish back to the sea? Well, it turns out you pitch it over the side. It flew through the air and landed in the water with a loud kerthwunk! and a giant splash. Just like a cannonball, and to the roars of approval from all the children (and adults) there.
Seining is an ancient form of fishing, in which two people slowly pull a huge, fine net, supported on two poles, between them through the water. Whatever little creatures are in the way of the seine get caught when the fishermen drag their net onto shore.
Huntington Beach State Park's Salt Marsh Seining Program is a great way to experience this primeval ritual. Rangers supply everything needed, and they patiently teach children how to walk carefully through the thick, black pluff mud that pulls at their feet, and how to hold the poles of the net just so.
It was not easy for the kids - it takes both a lot of coordination and strength to drag those nets through the water. But once they had their first glimpse of what they could catch, they returned unbidden again and again into the marsh to drag their nets through the water thick with invisible sea life.
And what little creatures they found! Turns out that calm water is teeming with life. Little minnows, translucent shrimp, just-born blue crabs, rambunctious hermit crabs and even a teeny-tiny baby squid, which sucked in water and squirted it out to propel itself around the portable aquarium tank and water-filled plastic bags in which the children placed their aquatic treasures.
The children held the bags up to the sun to gaze at their catch, and suddenly their faces were lit up, too.
The whole morning was just mesmerizing. It was one of those moments in time that is burned into a mother's memory.
The rising sun turned the calm water of the estuary into a blazing white stretch of light. The children walked side by side through the sparkling water, slowly and deliberately dragging their huge seine nets between them. A blue heron flew right over their heads, but they were so focused on their work that they didn't even notice.
It looked like a scene from a 19th-century French painting, but it was actually a morning spent learning how to seine at Huntington Beach State Park.
After learning how to fish the old-fashioned way, my daughter started begging her father to take her "real fishing." She had never been before. Real fishing to her meant with a fishing pole and catching sharks and swordfish.
"We have to wait for dusk. At dusk," he promised. "That's when the big fish bite. But it probably won't be a huge fish, like you're thinking. Those are usually out in the middle of the ocean," he explained. But she remained determined to catch something big.
When the ocean finally lit up with that golden light at the end of the day, the kids could be held back no longer. They galloped over to the Springmaid Pier from our room at the Springmaid Beach Resort and bolted into the bait shop. They emerged with a bucket of bait, tackle and fishing poles (everything you need for pier fishing is available for rent or sale right there) and ready to catch some real fish.
Springmaid Pier stretches 1,060 feet out into the ocean. When you stand at the end, all you can see are the never-ending swells and the line where the sky and water meet. Benches all along the sides and at the end of the pier make for comfortable places to rest while waiting for the fish to bite. Down the middle of the wide pier, porch swings make for even more relaxing seating.
My husband showed my daughter how to put bait on the hook, and over the side it went.
"Now what?" she asked.
"Now we wait," he answered.
As the sky slowly turned pink and then red, they waited. Every now and then, she reeled in her line when she thought no one was watching, but no luck.
They decided to move to another spot. Maybe that would help. They doubled up on the bait. She began singing to the fish and then dancing to her own singing. The waiting was hard on a 7-year-old.
And then, finally, the pole began to shake and the line went taut.
"Reel it in slowly, but don't stop," her dad advised.
And after what seemed to be ages, there it was: Mary's first fish.
And it was, just as she believed it would be, a baby shark. Alex pulled out the hook and she held it for a few moments, before she said goodbye and threw him back in.
Myrtle Beach has eight public fishing piers. Cast a line off any of them to reel in your own memory:
Cherry Grove Pier: http://www.cherrygrovepier.com/
Myrtle Beach State Park Pier: http://www.southcarolinaparks.com/myrtlebeach/introduction.aspx
Pier 14: http://www.pier14.com/
Second Avenue Pier: http://secondavenuepier.com/
Springmaid Pier: http://springmaidbeach.com/amenities/springmaidpier/
Springmaid Pier is currently closed to repair damage caused by Hurricane Matthew. It is expected to reopen in 2019.
The Pier at Garden City: http://pieratgardencity.com/