“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.” — Rachel Carson .
The above quote from Carson’s book, The Edge of the Sea, is a thesis statement for her beautiful work. It is after all, the edge of the sea that has attracted the majority of us through recorded history, and we can surmise before that as well. There have always been, and always will be, those who go down to the sea in ships. And in addition to practical limitations (you need a boat or even a ship to venture offshore) there is often visceral fear of the bounding main. This dates back to when the world was thought to be flat and the sea populated in parts by sea monsters. You could end up in the belly of the beast, or sail off the edge of the world. That is, if you survived the storms, whirlpools, sirens and reefs, icebergs, pirates and the doldrums. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner highlighted the last: a ship caught in purgatory for lack of a breeze to fill it’s sails. And in Melville’s classic Moby Dick, the follow up to the opening line of the book (chapter one, “Loomings”) is several pages of how we flock to the edge of the sea, and not so much out upon it. And in his book Cape Cod, Thoreau ends his narrative of exploration along the edge of Cape Cod with the observation that “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.” You can go to sea and do so as well, but most don’t.
Exactly why we love the edge of the sea, probably differs somewhat for each of us. I can offer the following reasons for my attraction to the edge: the environment and ecology of the estuary.
Some of my earliest recollections of what I now see as my naturalist curiosity occurred in estuaries. Most of these took place in the back bays of barrier islands along the Jersey coast where we would head for family vacations. My brother and I would quit the swimming beach and head over to the adjoining sedges to go seining. The seines we used were simple affairs, usually six foot long by three feet high, with lead weights on the bottom to keep the net dragging on the bottom, and cork floats on the top to allow the seine to expand and cover a decent portion of the shallow water column we plied. The cotton mesh seine had cord loops on the top and bottom of each end. You slipped your foot through the bottom loop and held the top loop, a two kid operation. I’d wager almost every coastal “beach store” or tackle shop still sells them.
All you needed beyond that was a small patch of sandy beach to haul your catch up onto, and a bucket to display the more interesting critters you obtained. These were varied and amazing to us, some juveniles of species we were familiar with from fishing for the adult versions, others as large as the species would ever grow. We caught blue claw crabs, green crabs, hermit crabs, horseshoe crabs, and spider crabs. Pipefish, fluke, weakfish, dogfish, bluefish, mullet, killifish, blowfish, sea bass, porgies, spearing, grass shrimp, jellyfish, snails and eels were all taken as well. There was sometimes a practical side to our efforts, as the killifish, mullet and grass shrimp could be kept and used as bait on the evening tide. But mostly this was a naturalistic adventure. We would spent hours at this activity, just marveling at how many species we could interact with. We would carefully return most or all of the creatures back into the bay after each haul, some surely to be recaptured on subsequent tries.
We took pride in identifying each specimen, and would only consult the adults for help in the case of an infrequent exotic specimen we obtained. There is no better or more fun way to introduce and educate children of almost any age on what lies below the gentle lapping bay waters than by gathering specimens with a haul seine. The aforementioned bucket was used to place interesting critters in for further brief observation. We would add sand to the bottom to see which specimens would burrow there. Summer flounder (fluke along my stretch of the shore) and winter flounder would almost always exhibit that behavior. We would add clumps of seaweed, and species like pipefish, killifish and grass shrimp would seek this shelter, which we learned was their instinct as forage. Blowfish, sea bass and porgies would rest on or hover over the bottom. The bluefish and weakfish would swim rapidly around the perimeter of the bucket at mid depth, and the spearing would move just below the surface.
Our knowledge of life below the waves, and subsequent application of this knowledge to fishing situations made us more complete anglers. And when spending that much time in the estuary, you cannot help but notice the other major biomass that the estuaries, the various shorebirds. Our seining adventures brought into view various gulls, terns, egrets, herons, ducks, sanderlings, willets, killdeers, bitterns and skimmers. We observed their movements, feeding habits, flight patterns and plumage, and heard their calls. Our curiosity about these shorebirds urged us to learn more about them and their habits. Before long, we could fairly identify most of our feathered neighbors in the estuary, thus becoming more complete naturalists. We would also encounter various shells in our estuary adventures, though probably fewer than along the open ocean beaches. But we came to know what mollusks these exoskeletons came from as well.
There are many ways one can attain an appreciation of and knowledge of the natural world. In the marine environments along our country’s coastline, I can think of no better way than seining in an estuary. This is true for outdoor enthusiasts of any age, and seining is a valuable tool for professional marine biologists as well. I suppose a person could sit at a computer and gather most of the salient facts about marine species and their niche in their ecosystem, or visit museums and aquariums. And if that is their only recourse, it can help them along their naturalistic path. I did the same thing with African animals as a child. Using books and zoos instead of computers (not available to the general public back in the day) to quench my thirst for knowledge of the African jungle, desert and savannah and their wildlife. But if you engage in seining an estuary, the tang of the salt air, the sound of the wavelets and birds, the warmth of the sun on your shoulders, and the squish of a mud bottom between your toes will be part of your experience. I’ll always have sand in my shoes as a naturalist, and suggest that you might enjoy some too.