This is a long post – but wait! – it also might be boring!
You didn’t read the title wrong, by the way. New York Pelagic went on location! It may seem like cheating, but hell, they’re my rules, I can break ‘em. And there is the little fact that New York shares many of its waters with New Jersey, so there’s that. And I’m the biggest Jersey booster, so there’s that too.
The last week of July, my friends and I rented a house in Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island in New Jersey. I grew up going to Long Beach Island. Usually a week with my family and an additional week with my best friend who lived there during the summer. I loved every minute of it. The place where one spent vacation as a child becomes a personal Shangri-La. It was magic then and it was magic this year with my friends. Of course anything is magic after enough gin and tonics, but the shine of the shore has not worn off for me.
It’s also not an overstatement to say that the time I spent there as a kid shaped the artwork that I make. I’ve written in the past about the impact that New Jersey has had on my work. It is the Bittersweet State, summed up quite heartbreakingly in the slogan that adorns the bridge in the state’s capital: “Trenton Makes. The World Takes.” There is so much nature there, and so much development, and the brutal, surprising, and bizarre compromises between the two are plainly on display. It is so easy to see what’s been lost, but also easy to see how life thrives there in spite – and sometimes BECAUSE- of it all.
Down the shore this contrast is even more marked. The shore is heavily developed. And the ocean is true wilderness. And there is no buffer zone between the two. Nature and all its relationships are laid explicitly bare. For a kid from the suburbs like me, it was the first time I caught food that I ate, and saw seagulls and terns doing the same. It was also the first time I noticed that there were different types of gulls, that there were smaller types, terns and sandpipers, and I remember the thrill of emerging from a wave as a black skimmer sliced through the water only yards from my nose.
Clearly a bottle toss and some BudLites™ were in order. If not for science-y artistic expression, then for nostalgia. So I packed up some beers, and my bottle, and my minstrels. I don’t go anywhere without minstrels. I wanted to toss the bottle at the end of the jetty at the inlet between Barnegat Light and Island Beach State Park. It’s pretty hairy in there and I wasn’t sure where it would go, but I was hoping that since the tide was running out it would head out too. It didn’t. It sort of carved a wide arch and seemed to be heading IN through the inlet towards the bay. Who knows. I’m just happy I didn’t lodge it in the blow-hole of a dolphin. We’d seen a whole pod only about 20 yards off the end of the jetty earlier that day. They were really wet and didn’t seem tired of swimming around at all!
This bottle has a Norther Fulmar in it.
The next day I took out a kayak because I wanted to head across to Island Beach State Park to do a bit of poking about.
I had seen Brown Pelicans all week. This I certainly do not remember from my childhood. There were adults and juveniles. Guide books still list their northern extent at about North Carolina, but they seemed pretty comfortable up here. The intercyberworldwide says they’ve been coming up here during the summer since some time in the 80’s, and that there was an abortive breeding attempt in the early 90’s. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are breeding somewhere on Island Beach State Park. Here’s one looking like a regular local:
On the way over I found this!
Their northern extent is also supposed to be around North Carolina. Stragglers can head up all the way to Maine, and during the summer it is not at all unusual to encounter tropical species that have been swept up with the Gulf Stream. But coming right on the heels of the pelicans, it seemed a little… fishy?
Here’s another introduced species in New Jersey.
No one knows for sure when they got here, but it seems they were in a larval stage in the ballast of a cargo ship containing hair extensions and Ed Hardy t-shirts that ran aground off the coast. It was believed that they wouldn’t be able to establish a viable breeding population because of genetic bottlenecking, but they seem to have beat the odds. The healthiest rookeries seem to be centralized in Seaside Heights and Wildwood, with stragglers distributed along the Eastern Seaboard. The photo shows two females “presenting.”
I explored the marshes and sand flats of the island. On these barrier islands slight differences in elevation, thus salinity, determine which plants can grow where. It’s like reading a chart looking at this type of habitat.
These islands look like other impoverished habitats, the desert, and tropical seas. The crystal clear waters of the tropics owe their clarity to the lack of nutrients in them. That’s why coral reefs are so important. They are the actual substructure for life. You can see a similar thing in the desert. A creosote bush will become a kind of anchor for a whole community of organisms, and the pattern of growth in a patch reef or a scrub desert, or a sandy barrier island is shockingly similar. Cactuses and corals even seem to echo each other’s forms.
There were a lot of birds. It was great to watch all the interactions of the terns and skimmers. I respect a good spaz, and the spaziness of a juvenile tern trying to get food from its parents – or any adult for that matter – is especially charming.
On the way back to my kayak I ran into a guy clamming.
I asked if he had had any luck. “Ha!” he said, “Thirty years ago, you’d have a five gallon bucket full in five minutes. Ten years ago, not so bad. Now?!” and here he held his hands palms up, shrugged, and looked around.
Just like every other corner of the ocean, life here is on a well-charted path of decline. An almost universal lament of scientists studying the natural world is that they’re just “documenting the decline.” And you certainly don’t have to be a scientist to notice it if you just decide to look. Like the guy clamming, I remember when this bay was teeming with clams. The friend I stayed with here as a kid lived on a boat in Ship Bottom, then in the lagoons of Manahawkin. Occasionally we would take out the inflatable dingy and row out to the bay during low tide. We’d clam around with our feet, simultaneously grossed out and in love with the oozy mud sliming it’s way through our toes, hoping to find clams but not slice those same toes off when we did find them. We’d load up a bucket then row over to a fish market on a pier. Exchanging our clams for clams, we’d then row to an arcade that was also on a pier and play skee-ball, essentially turning those clams into the same cheap plastic crap that is now floating around the world. Then we’d buy Wimpy a hamburger, fight Brutus, and rescue Olive Oil and Sweet Pea. But this wasn’t in the 30’s, this was the 80’s! It’s shocking to think how quickly things can change. Christ, and how old I’m getting.
Found this appropriately titled piece of trash:
So yeah. This could be pretty depressing. But it’s also what I love so much about these barrier islands. They’re changing and fleeting. Knowing them is more like knowing a person than a place. And like a person they won’t last forever. They are fragile, and they are delicate, yet they stand up and greet the enormity and power of the ocean. Just like the little birds that breed on them. Who knows what will happen to them, or how long they’ll last. Maybe even they know they’re in decline. Yet it doesn’t stop them. They keep flying, and fishing and mating and dying. Some feathers, some bone, a fist of muscle, and a beating heart that moves them forward through this world. These brave little islands. These brave little birds.