By Scott Shalaway
IF YOU are heading to the East Coast for vacation, try getting to know the shore’s wild side. Begin with a look at the physical environment.
Take the wind, for example. It shapes the seashore, even on still days. Ocean winds that may originate thousands of miles away propel the waves that beat rhythmically and incessantly upon the beach. To live in the surf zone, creatures must anchor themselves to the bottom, swim strongly or float aimlessly.
Coastal breezes can make or break a week at the beach. Sea breezes moderate temperatures under a blazing sun and keep coastal temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than just a few miles inland. But land breezes blowing out to sea bring deer flies, horse flies and biting green heads. On a bad day, relief is found only back at the house or under the protection of towels, hats and insect repellent.
Another physical feature that dominates every seascape is the tide. Powered largely by the gravitational pull of the moon, tides peak and ebb twice each day. But the rhythm of the tides is not constant from day to day. In fact, the schedule advances 50 minutes each day, due to the rate at which the moon orbits the earth. Yet, as surely as the sun rises each morning and waves pound the beach, so do the tides rise and fall.
Within this dynamic world of wind, waves and tides live myriad species of wondrously adapted plants and animals. Some, such as laughing gulls and horse flies, are obvious and sometimes annoying. But most are inconspicuous and must be searched out.
Visit the beach at sunrise. There are always a handful of early risers who gather to watch the sun rise. But because the horizon is so precise on the coast, the sun makes a surprisingly hasty entrance.
At home, the ragged tree line gives sunrise a leisurely feel. At the beach, though, it almost seems to pop instantly above the horizon. Turn your head for an instant, and you might actually miss it. And the colors of the morning sky are as stunning as a glorious sunset.
Horseshoe crabs invade sandy beaches in mid-May to lay eggs, but any gathering of youths at the water’s edge usually means one has made a late appearance. These harmless crustaceans have roamed the seashores for millions of years, and their eggs sustain the millions of shorebirds that move up the East Coast every spring.
Among my favorite beach crustaceans are small egg-shaped critters that seem to vanish from the sand without a trace. They are Mole Crabs, ghostly creatures that appear and disappear in the blink of an eye as they burrow into the wet sand. Watch for them while building sand castles.
Speaking of apparitions, if you get to the beach before dawn, you may glimpse a Ghost Crab dart across the sand to its burrow. Colored to match the sand they live on, Ghost Crabs blend into the beach when they stop moving.
And no description of the ocean would be complete without mention of jellyfish and clams. Nothing can ruin a day at the beach faster than an influx of jellyfish from a storm the previous night. Their stinging tentacles cause an itchy rash that can last for several hours. In open water, these stinging tentacles paralyze small fish and other prey that wander within their reach.
To find live clams, on the other hand, just dig beneath the small holes that dot the sand at the water’s edge. The holes are the tips of syphon tubes through which flows the oxygen-rich, food-rich water that sustain the clams. With any luck, you’ll find such wonderfully named species as Quahogs, Coquinas, Razors and Jackknives.
And if you’ve been living right, you may glance out at the horizon and see a school of dolphins frolicking just off shore. Add a flock of Brown Pelicans, which I was lucky to see at the New Jersey shore last week, and you’ll be tempted to think you’ve arrived in Margaritaville.–Pittsburgh Post Gazette