Sick Sands and Herptile Hunting
SICKLY SANDS DOWN SOUTH: The following email got my sand thinking flowing.
“I am wondering if you can answer something for me. Is the renourished beach sand, the stuff that is pulled in from the bottom of the ocean, toxic? I have a good friend who spent two months in Boca Grande, FL. The day before she left she swam in the Gulf and walked across the sand of course.
… She is supposedly one of a few who has developed some sort of a flesh eating toxic reaction/virus/bacterial infection to the renourished sand that was brought in … G.C.”
Wow, I’m feeling itchy already.
I’ve spent a huge chunk of my life in the tropics and can attest to the incessant threat from bacteria in virtually all phases of life in the planetary hot zones. Ask virtually every coral cut scar I carry as on-skin reminders of past attacks from low-latitude (torrid zone) bacteria.
To me, the possibility of a bacteria outbreak like you’ve described would seem a very real danger, when related to placing highly-organic marine material – mixed in with the sand -- on the beach, to essentially fester under a hot tropical, or near-topical sun. It’s just this side of a giant Petri dish.
What’s more, the danger of surface bacteria could be compounded if the beach fix material were placed so thickly that certain types of bacteria could thrive deeper within the fill -- possibly anaerobic bacteria, among the more dangerous types for humans. That could mean that even after an initial dry-out period, during which surface bacteria would likely be destroyed, a deep-down bacterial presence could be uncovered by common beach usages. Realize, I’m talking a very worst-case scenario within tropical regions. Sadly your friend may have stepped into just such a worst-case scenario.
It should be recognized that all beach renourishment projects entail grading – a precise spreading of the sand -- which exposes virtually all bacteria-hospitable sands to natural antibacterial factors.
By the by, the risk of some form of in-water bacteria being placed on the beach and suddenly proliferating to dangerous levels is neigh impossible in the face of dehydration and what might be called solar cleaning -- the ultraviolet impacts of direct sunlight. Any fill-related bacterial danger would arrive via opportunistic microorganisms infesting the newly arrived fill material.
This, of course, leads to the biggy: the hereabouts possibility.
Is there any chance that the NJ/LBI beach replenishment sands could host a bacteria danger?
Low, low, incalculably low.
Firstly, our replenishment work is never done in the heat of summer, i.e. tourist season. Off-season is beach-fix time. Colder weather acts as a hyper-purifier. What’s more, any newly spread sand, after a spell with frigid temps, is quickly put upon by staggering summer heat -- and the double whammy the sun presents to bacteria in the form of dehydration and ultraviolet intrusion.
In Surf City, the proof in the pudding. Not a single over-summering person got sick from the borough’s new sands -- as Surf City Mayor Connors, the Chamber of Commerce and ACE project manager Keith W. all simultaneously cringe over my even bringing up the concept of having tested the bacterial levels of the sands on summer visitors.
SURF CITY SANDS BACKING OFF: Holding firm to the beach-fix theme: The groins of Surf City are showing again.
Knock it off! I’m talking about the so-called jetties – which technically aren’t jetties because they are not intrinsic to a navigable waterway.
Anyway, in the face of over 30 storms since the fix-up sand was first placed in Surf City, the beach width is getting down to LBI size – which neither the town nor the Army Corps of Engineers wants to see since the Island standard is now set at “eroded” and “severely eroded.”
There is that element of anti-beach-fix folks, often oceanfront homeowners, who point at this beach attrition as symbolizing the futility of any such renourishment effort. Ironically, those anti-replenishment people are among the causes of the current Surf City sand loss.
The Long Beach Island beach repair project was designed as holistic fix. It was meant to begin at one end and move to the other, likely north to south. One town’s replenishment would buttress the neighboring town’s sand.
I was there during the formative phases of the LBI beach-fix project and know that a great deal of scientific scrutiny focused on the impact of long-term littoral drift. The overall success of the plan was based on simultaneously ameliorating erosion on the entire Island.
Ironically, the worst illustration of the beach replenishment on LBI is fixing just one section of beach, allowing it to stand out there like a sore thumb. As an un-buttressed protrusion, Surf City’s pumped beach literally stands defenseless against every erosional factor known to nature.
The up side to the now-lost Surf City beach sand is the fact that much of the beach fill material has stayed in the system, assimilated into the underwater zone just off the beach. That bottom sand acts to knock down the power of waves by causing them to expel more energy as they break on the sandbars. The shallower the sand bars the more energy a wave loses before reaching the beach. What’s more, the cached sand on the bottom is there to augment the formation of beach berms a storm passes. Heavily eroded areas of LBI have no sand in reserve so eroded beaches have no self-fix potential. Their only hope is to have mankind rush in and push sand around in a quick-fix manner. And that hope is quickly dying.
EARLY TUNA – AND TALK: The ‘waroom” chat in local websites is going gangbusters. The buzz is over not only the insanely early nabbing of a bluefin tuna – taken in the Lindy on April 10 – but also a monumental warm-eddy phenomenon, the length of which has not been seen in the canyons for over 50 years.
The seasonally bizarre warm-core eddy extends from the Wilmington Canyon (and technically further south, based on the Gulf Stream) all the way up to the Hudson Canyon. The east parameter seems to be piled up against the 100-fathom line. The west side is maybe 10 landward of the canyon’s edge.
According to an old salt captain, “I’ve looked at this stuff (offshore water surface temperatures) a lot and I can’t remember seeing one of them (warm-core eddies) at this size this early – or any time of year.”
The 76.5-pound bluefin tuna (a large-school) was 52 inches in length, taken aboard the Fish Trap.
BYCTAHC BADBOYS: I read at Scott’s Bait and Tackle website that a very large tog was taken in the Graveling Point waters. That always brings back memories of winter flounder fishing at the now-developed bulkhead near Hochstrasser in Ship Bottom. Every year without fail, one angler or another would be idly awaiting the barely detectible bite and fight of a winter flounder and suddenly hookup with a bruiser of a blackfish, entering the bay to over-summer near the pilings of the Causeway bridges.
Over the years, I saw a couple/few blackies in the serious 6- to 10-pound range landed (or, just as often, only nearly landed) at the sleepy bulkhead by folks using lighter equipment. As often as not, we were all lacking a large landing net to reach over the steep bulkhead to finalize the hook-up.
I often tell the similar story of a quiet bulkhead day there when a fellow hooked into an anaconda-sized American eel. A couple dozen of us saw that struggle. The eel was simply insanely huge, beyond any size I had heard of that species of eel reaching, though I’ve since heard similar tales of these eels reaching five feet and as wide around as large orange. The world record (caught regionally, I believe) is pushing ten pounds. Considering how elongated (and generally light-weight) these eels are, that had to have been a five-footer.
Oddest by-catch species taken by winter flounder fishermen near the Causeway was a huge sheepshead, caught by a gal down for the day from Pa. That was caught back in the day when we’d fish flounder clear into summer. I recall that sheepshead was caught in warmer weather because I was fishing blowfish, which would come in there thick as all get-out, mainly during hotter Mays and Junes. A picture was taken of that mighty sheepshead before the gal released it. I’m guessing it was 7 or 8 pounds. As you likely know, the state record sheepshead (17-3) was caught near the Causeway “Big Bridge” in 2003 by boat fisherman Paul Lowe.
HAPPILY HERPTILING: This time of year (far and away my favorite season) I indubitably slip into my herptile-hunting mode, donning my snakeskin-pattern camo. Herptile is a catch term used to mean retiles and amphibians as a group.
With such a reptile and amphibian theme in mind, I can easily liken my spring breakout to shedding the dead skin of winter. That of course is highly metaphorical since the only thing that would get this leathered-over skin looking even remotely new is a master dermatologist using a sizzling hot laser beam to fully resurface my entire face. “Take a lot off the top and just a little around the temples, Doc.”
Anyway, for herpetologists like yours truly this is the season to slither about, so to speak. There’s no better time to research usually secretive frogs, salamander, lizards, snakes and turtles. For the next month, turtles are often out of water either egg laying or heading back to lakes and streams after hibernating. Snakes are active for both the spawning cause and because the generally wet spring weather has them out of flooded burrows (I’m talking the likes of the “threatened” pine snake). Lizards are in a rare slow mode because of lower air temps (they become greased lightening when summer heat kicks in). Secretive salamanders are shining beneath logs in every piece of swamp and woodlands, prior to burying under for the long, dry summer. But leading the vernal pond pack are frogs. The males of every NJ frog species are sounding off at night, trying to attract the ladies by using voice alone.
For me, frogs are the pinnacles of spring stalking sessions. I’ve already been out there this year, nimbly sidling up to early-rising spring peepers (small tree frogs) and wood frogs (larger terrestrial frogs known to come out even when there is still ice on the puddles in which they spawn).
And frog stalking ain’t always a walk in the park. Following the sound of a croaking male hopper back to the source is a subtle but significant tracking skill, especially when it entails duplicating the exact sound of the species being sought.
Over my frogging years, I’ve become adequately able to mimic the music of most NJ frog species.
By matching a frisky frog, croak for croak, I provoke its territorial toughness. Hearing me as a nearby challenger, a targeted frog essentially takes me on --with vigor and increased volume of voice. The exchanges get so heated – him at one ounce and me pushing 180 pounds – I’m even able flick on a headlamp to view the frog, which refuses to give up the territorial battle of the croaks even with 1 million candlepower beaming into its eyes.
And, truth be told, it does get a tad self-freakifying when I frog hunt. Here I am in a middle-of-nowhere darkness, knee-deep in assorted swamp mucks, a thicker blackness seemingly sneaking up from behind, while up ahead, in the shadowy coolness, pencils of moonlight poke their way through overhanging cedar branches. It gets even freakier when, amid the murky natural sounds that abound, I suddenly begin croaking away -- off key at first, causing the entire swamp to go instantly quiet, seemingly thinking at once “What the hell was that!” But soon my rhythm hits the key of life and all creatures great and middling resume their sprint sing, me among them. The oddness reaches a high note when I’m mutely oogled over by some nearby female frogs, thinking, “Ooh, baby, you’re a big one, ain’t cha?”
Anyway, I bring up this spring herptile thing because it relates to two quick-succession LBI-based calls I received over the weekend.
The first related to the Holgate end, where Long Beach Township police officers had been alerted to a very odd intermittent noise issuing from an area near Tebco Avenue and the Boulevard. Callers to the PD first thought the sound might be a smoke detector going off.
On closer investigation, officers discounted the fire detector possibility but were confounded by the odd almost birdlike sound, which seemed to be originating from within a small section of phragmites-filled wetlands near a recently cleared lot. The officers even gave a go at busting through the phragmites to see if maybe a bird was trapped within. Too much tidal wetness.
The mystery sound was passed on to me as pretty much “indefinable.” It reached me at dark.
Having just gotten back from a long archeo-dig, I had to deal with my own curiosity. It won out in a heated battle with Tru-TV. I drove the haul to Holgate and pulled into the lot next to the sound source. The instant I got out of my truck, I heard it. I also found the sound very odd. Oh, not that I didn’t know what it was. It was the penetrating songs of spring peeper frogs, one of the nation’s most famed spring harbingers. I found it very odd because these freshwater-oriented amphibians were nestled within a piece of saltwater meadow. Then I realized that the entire block had been fairly recently build out, likely covering a freshwater outflow within. Evicted, these singers were on their last local legs, so to speak. But they weren’t giving up their song over a little thing like extirpation.
But my herptile callings weren’t to end there. Within hours, I got another call, this one from a fellow who found an “odd lizard” while trimming bushes around an older LBI home, Beach Haven area.
My initial reaction was to place the scaly oddity in the “lost pet” file. Lizards have become very popular pets, especially the likes of iguanas and day geckos, the later being the template for that accent-challenged Geico gecko.
It was when the caller astutely described his find it as looking just a bit like a bearded lizard (a vary nonindigenous species, also hugely popular as a terrarium pet), that I got this odd Sceloporus undulates sensation. No, that didn’t mean I should have quickly out a call into Dial-a-Nurse. The Sceloporus, specifically the one known as the eastern fence swift, is one of the very few lizards native to NJ. It looks like a piece of pine tree bark with legs.
As with the spring peepers, the weirdness of this find was not its overall rarity (it’s common in the Pinelands) but the utter scarcity of the lizard on LBI. Sure, there might have been a time when they played with the deer and antelope hereabouts but time and every-inch development left nary a tree to stand on. This one might be a throwback to yesterday year – or just as likely an escapee from some boy scout “Lizard Merit Badge” recipient.
NOTE: It is unlawful to catch, sell, or possess virtually any form of indigenous nongame species in Jersey. That includes most herptile, with a few exceptions, like the painted turtle, snapping turtle, and bullfrog. No, you cannot keep that adorable box turtle, even though such keepings could fall under a traditional usage. During my herptile hunts, I let my lenses do the talking, only shooting photos of my finds.