THIS week marks the unofficial beginning of "off-season" in Florida. Students who flocked to crowded beaches during spring break have returned to school. Retired Northerners who winter here - the proverbial snowbirds - have loaded their cars and headed home. Now "Vacancy" signs dot beachfront motels, and room rates are suddenly easier on a tourist's budget.
The late-spring lull becomes particularly evident on the beach. An hour or two before sunset, only a few people stroll along the water's edge, combing the white sand for shells, scanning the horizon for ships, and watching pelicans divebomb for dinner. Beach walkers who stay long enough will be rewarded by the sight of a giant orange ball sinking into the Gulf, painting the sky with a burst of pinks, lavenders, and reds.
Beaches remain one of the most changeable and irresistible landscapes on the planet. Every day, tides and weather alter the color of sea and sky, and the contour of sand. Equally unpredictable is the free-form sculpture of seaweed, shells, and sponges cast ashore by storms and currents.
Increasingly, though, what catches the eye of an off-season visitor are not the variables of nature but the permanent changes wrought by man - by wrecking balls and cranes. A tourist who has not walked this beach for a year can only react with dismay at the increasing density - more construction, less open space. One lot that was vacant last year now holds six luxury townhouses. Elsewhere two beach cottages have been lifted from their foundations, ready to be moved to make room for condominiums. Mile aft er mile along Gulf Boulevard, street-side vistas of sand and water are largely obstructed, thanks to developers eager to build high-rises and condo owners eager to buy rooms with a view.
Other changes are equally unsettling. Even now, nearly two months after a destructive March storm stalked the East Coast from Florida to Maine, remnants of damage remind beach walkers that waterfront development remains an act of daring.
Tiles have been blown off the roof of one lavish beachfront house. Shingles have been torn from the roofs of others. A picture window shattered by wind remains boarded up. Hurricane shutters are being installed everywhere.
The effects of coastal overdevelopment and the fragile relationship between humans and nature also become apparent at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in nearby Indian Shores. Here an average of 15 to 20 injured pelicans, herons, egrets, and other birds are admitted every day. Ninety percent of those injuries result from acts directly or indirectly related to people. Indirect injuries, sanctuary workers explain, result from development of coastal areas that the birds consider home. Glass windows in tall bu ildings, power lines, automobiles, pollution in the water - all take their toll on birds.
Beaches erode so slowly from the sea that the eye doesn't notice, nor do beach-goers always gauge the speed with which beaches are shrinking from the land side as builders move in. One of the early ecological bumper stickers read: "Save Our Seashores." Now that message seems to have been buried under many other bumper stickers since then saying "Save Our ..."
In all the emotional debate about preserving spotted owls and forests, there is little talk about another endangered natural resource, beaches and coastlines. Forests at least are renewable. When trees are cut, others can be planted. But when beaches go, either through erosion or development, they are lost forever.
What happens when the toddlers now playing on this beach grow up and return with toddlers of their own? Will any open space remain? Or will a giant stucco wall of condos block their view of beaches, and will menacing "No Trespassing" signs block their access to them?
Beaches have always been the most immaterial and transient form of dry land. But it is not too late to save these fragile borderlands if enough seafarers and landlubbers join beach walkers in recognizing that there is nothing on land or sea or in the air that can substitute for the delight of these shell-strewn paths that touch all three elements and make them one.