Sandy Hook Bay at night. Just saying it sounds like a special time for sure. For me there is something magical about spending a few hours at the beach during a clear, cool, dark summer night. The crowds of people have moved on, air temperatures are lower, and best of all, the lights of nearby New York City make everything seem surreal.
I often find myself completely alone on the beach at night, especially when I have time to head to out-of-the-way beaches in Middletown. The whole time I was there the other evening I passed only a handful of other people, mostly out fishing. It was hard to believe the beach is so near to New York City.
I arrived following a high tide to explore the beach for any small aquatic life that might live here after daylight. While there were any number of fish, crabs, or other sea creatures I might catch, I had visions of stumbling upon a juvenile Horseshoe Crab.
Horseshoe Crabs, which are more closely related to arachnids than to crustaceans, are an important part of the ecology of coastal communities around Lower New York Bay. Each spring the high tides of new and full moons bring forth adult Horseshoe Crabs that come out of the water and onto bay beaches to spawn. Mating pairs of male and female crabs will dig several holes in the beach to deposit as many as 80,000 pearly green, pea-sized eggs. Once the spawning season is over, the adults leave the beach and generally will not be seen again, at least in large numbers, until next spring.
Many shorebirds rely on Horseshoe Crab eggs as a primary food source during their long spring migrations up to the arctic to breed. The decrease in Horseshoe Crab abundance in recent years around New Jersey has contributed to notable declines in the abundance of many shorebird species as well. As a result, in 2006 New Jersey put a state-wide ban on Horseshoe Crab harvesting.
Coming across a juvenile Horseshoe Crab in Sandy Hook Bay would show that perhaps the ban is working, at least in this part of New Jersey, and that the crab population is rebounding. Finding a young Horseshoe Crab at night, though, is not easy anywhere. They are expert mariners at being enigmatic. Few people if any ever encounter one. The little crabs are secretive and shy. With a pale chocolate -colored shell, they blend in well with their sandy underwater surroundings.
As I pulled a small hand-held net along the edge of the water, some drags of the net delivered a few fish while others had nothing. Some of the found fish included Atlantic Needlefish, Atlantic silversides and Pipefish. All fascinating sea creatures for sure. Yet, I kept on trying. Over and over, I pulled the net through the shallow water, but kept finding in the back of the net other small creatures including Mud Snails, Mud Crabs, Hermit Crabs, Lady crabs, and Grass shrimp. No Horseshoe Crabs.
Eventually, somewhere down the beach, a small juvenile Horseshoe Crab must have taken pity on me and threw itself into the net. For when I hauled in the net an hour later for the last time, a little prehistoric crab was at the bottom crawling around. What a thrill!
Actually, the young juvenile Horseshoe Crabs was almost certainly foraging for food. Young crabs feed mainly at night and can only eat while in motion. They will often sift through the sand to feed on tiny worms, and dead animal and plant matter known as detritus. The shallow sections of the bay offers protection for juvenile crabs, which are generally minute in size, less than a quarter-inch wide.
The little crab looked just like a miniature adult. It had six paired appendages to eat, dig and move. The little Horseshoe Crab also had six pairs of gills to breathe.
Being careful not to pick up the little crab by its tail, I lifted it up by its shell instead. Contrary to popular belief, the creature's tail, known as a telson, is not a poisonous stinger, and Horseshoe Crabs are completely harmless to humans. The tail is fragile and could come off if mishandled.
Here in my hand was new life. Alive and kicking. This little crab hatched right here in Sandy Hook Bay just a year or two ago. The species has been in existence for over 350 million years. Incredibly, Horseshoe Crabs can still be found today downstream from New York City.
Yet, being awe-struck by finding a juvenile Horseshoe Crab, I nonetheless found only one. Undoubtedly, more research and conservation measures need to be done before we know for certain that young crabs are able to call the bay home to re-populate the species.
The little critter was so wonderful to stare at. Still, I didn't want to disturb the juvenile crab any longer. Who knows for sure how many young Horseshoe Crabs are really in the bay, this might be one of only a handful. After taking a few pictures, I quickly put the crab back onto the sandy flat, and watched as it crawled slowly into the tranquil dark waters of Sandy Hook Bay. Good-bye little fellow.
This little crab has a great journey ahead. It will remain a juvenile for another five to seven years as it molts and grows. Only when their shell has become big enough and hard enough to fend off most predators, like seabirds and large fish, will the juvenile crab leave the shallows for deeper parts of the bay. It will not return to the bay beach again until it is old enough to mate, which will between 8 to 10 years.
If it survives to adulthood, this little crab will help bring back the Horseshoe Crab population in Lower New York Bay. Back to a time perhaps when every beach along the bay was crawling with crabs during May and June.
Let's hope that with proper conservation and habitat -restoration efforts by state and local government officials the Horseshoe Crab population will recover. It would be a shame to see a species that has survived for over 350 million years become wiped out in only a few short decades. With any luck, though, this wild and ancient creature will continue to be encountered for centuries to come, especially at night along the edge of a bayside beach.
For more information, pictures, videos, and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/