The summer ocean may be inviting, but we can never truly be at home there, Cape May Beach Patrol Captain Geoff Rife points out. Human beings are only visitors. 

The fish, the marine mammals, the crabs and other marine life are the ones at home in the ocean. 

Usually, most ocean life keeps well clear of the crowded area in front of the lifeguard stand, but there are exceptions: Crabs that grab a toe, minnows that scatter in the morning light, or the occasional ray that glides along the shallows, flapping like an underwater bird. And dolphin. 

Dolphins are the rock stars.

0 rock-stars-300Rife said Cape May beaches see more dolphin than others along the Jersey shores, in part because of its proximity to the Delaware Bay. Every time they swim by, beachgoers are on their feet for a better look at the marine mammals. Children run to the water’s edge and adults point, he said. 

Dolphins enjoy a good reputation among beachgoers, possibly because of warm feelings from the old Flipper TV show, or else because the shape of their faces make them always look happy.
According to Bob Schoelkopf, the founder and director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, the dolphins that can be seen from the beach are almost always bottlenose dolphin, although there are many other species that visit the area in the warm weather. Other kinds, like the common dolphin or the huge Risso’s dolphin, usually stay much farther way from shore. 

In the spring, the dolphin pods often have young among them, and that can make them very protective. Schoelkopf said it is against the law for boaters, jetskiers, swimmers or paddlers to approach dolphins in the water. That’s for the animal’s protection, but he said in a recent interview, it’s a good idea to give the animals plenty of space regardless. The animals can be 12 feet long and weigh hundreds of pounds, and despite their friendly reputation, will ram someone if they feel threatened. 

“I’ve been hit in the water and knocked out,” he said. 

As mammals, dolphin must surface to breathe, which means they are far more visible than the other marine life in the area, especially considering New Jersey’s cloudy water. That doesn’t mean it’s polluted, only that the waves stir up silt and nutrients. Most days at the beach, bathers can’t see their own toes. That means they usually can’t see what’s swimming next to them. 

There are exceptions. Occasionally the water is crystal clear, allowing view of the tiny minnows among the waves, and in the mornings, light shining through the waves can silhouette some of the other, larger creatures swimming near the shore. 

Sharks

0-sharks-in-the-waterSchoelkopf has seen sharks swimming through waves. Schoelkopf and others say most sharks at the Jersey Shore are not as terrifying as many believe. The smooth Dogfish shark, one of the most common in the area, could not harm a person. It literally does not have the capability. There are other, larger sharks to be found, including the Spiny Dogfish, the Sandbar shark, the Thresher shark and the occasional Hammerhead shark. For the most part, these are also harmless, although fishermen who catch one have to use more caution when trying to retrieve their hooks, compared to the smooth dogfish shark, which have only blunt teeth rather than the bristling rows of sharp teeth of other sharks. 

'Jaws' is a New Jersey story

0-love-the-taste-of-new-jerseyMuch more frightening, Great White sharks and Bull sharks also ply the waters off New Jersey. One huge great white, a 16-foot, 3,500-pound female known as Mary Lee, has been tagged with a tracking device, and has been tracked from New England to Florida. But several people interviewed for this story said there’s little to worry about from great white sharks in New Jersey. Bull sharks, however, are another matter. 

It’s been more than a century since there was a deadly shark attack in New Jersey, but in July of 1916, a string of horrific attacks left four dead, and one injured. A Great white or a Bull shark was seen as the most likely culprit, although most experts now believe it was a Bull shark. While Great Whites typically keep to deep water, bull sharks may be found in back bays and inlets. Schoelkopf said he won’t swim in the back bays for just that reason, where cloudy water prevents a clear view of what’s nearby. 

Fish & more

0-fish-in-bucketGeorge Ingram, who handles public relations for the Ocean City Fishing Club, said the organization recorded 616 sharks caught last summer from their pier off the boardwalk at 14th Street. For comparison, the next closest species was the Kingfish, of which 481 were caught, along with 50 Weakfish and 188 Bluefish. The club has had a pier at the location for a century, and has kept close records of every fish caught off the pier for most of that time. 

Dan Ladik, the club’s current weighmaster, meaning the guy who keeps those records, said a number of Skates were also caught. Those fishing from the beach often catch the small, Flat fish, which is a close relative of the shark. It’s also related to the larger cownose ray, which can sometimes be found swimming through the breakers or buried in the sand near the beach. 

Cownose rays are more likely to be seen. They tend to travel up and down the coasts and in and out of the bays in fairly large numbers,” said Steve Evert, the manager of Stockton University’s Marine Science Field Station in Port Republic, where he divides his time between research and teaching students in the South Jersey university’s School of Natural Science and Mathematics. The large Cownose sting rays sometimes swim close to the surface, where their wings can sometimes be seen above the water. “It’s definitely a little frightening, but they’re really not going to hurt you.” 

The rays have a stinger on their tails, which could be very painful if someone were to step on one when it was buried in the sand. But the animals would much rather avoid people. 

Jellyfish (ouch!)

0-jelly-manMost swimmers’ encounters are far less fraught. Cape May’s Rife said as the water warms, various species of jellyfish drift in closer to shore. Some just feel squishy, while others have stings that range from mildly irritating to deeply painful. One of the most unpleasant, the Portuguese Man O’ War has a truly nasty sting. It’s described as excruciatingly painful, and can open deep cuts from the chemical action. Even if the animal is dead on the beach, the sting can still hurt. 

Sea Nettles can also cause irritation, and when there isn’t much of a crowd nearby, you may feel something sharp grab a toe. It’s most likely a Lady Crab, according to Evert, and although you may not feel that pleased with the attention, they are very pretty crabs, with a mottled red shell. “That’s the crab that’s usually biting your toes.” He said the Blue Claw crabs most familiar for pairings with Corona and Old Bay seasoning are mostly found in the back bays. 

Sometimes schools of fish can be spotted from the beach, including Bluefish and Drum fish. Local fishermen often bring in large numbers of bluefish. Sometimes, a school of bunker fish, a small bait fish also known as Menhaden, will attract sharks, Striper, dolphin and even Humpback whales, which have become more common in the area in recent years. Evert said he recently saw a humback at Beach Haven. Osprey, a once-rare bird of prey that’s also called a fish hawk, have made a big comeback since the outlawing of the pesticide DDT, can often be seen hovering over the waves close to shore, ready to dive in after fish. 

“It’s very common to see an osprey come over the beach, and nine times out of 10 he’s got a bunker in his talons,” Evert said. 

Local anglers, at least the human ones, are most often after Striped bass and Flounder, which bathers are only ever likely to see at the end of a hook. 

Schoelkopf has been working with marine life for decades. At the stranding center, he has a number of seals that are getting nursed back to health, but he said seals have usually move north during the summer, and are only likely to be seen in New Jersey in the winter. 

Sea Turtles

0-sea-turtle-manSea turtles can also be found off New Jersey, he said, but don’t expect to see them close to the beach. Those heading into deeper water may see a Loggerhead turtle, which can grow up to 300 pounds, or the far larger leatherback turtle, the largest turtle in existence, which can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. 

But plenty of astonishing creatures can be found in the tidal pools around jetties and on many beaches, where Starfish, minnows and Octopus can sometimes be seen. As the summer progresses and the water warms, the wet sand around those pools can also show bioluminescence, where the damp sand or splashing wave sometimes glows in the dark, an effect of a concentration of one-celled organisms. 

And by August, the toe-deep water often teems with life, including brilliantly colored Coquina clams. Or dig a little deeper with your fingers in the wet sand to find Sand crabs, also called mole crabs. Most kids love a chance to hold one, and then let it go in the shallows, to watch it swim away and quickly bury itself.