On Saturday, Martha and I drove to Allenhurst, NJ (less than an hour from her home) because I wanted to visit the shore sometime during my stay with her. It was a cloudy, gray day, and the shore was almost deserted. A few surfers in wet suits were rolling in on the waves. I was pleased–walking was easy. The light was soft. Or, as I had learned when I got my first SLR camera as a teenager in 1960, the light was best described as “cloudy bright”. This diffused light is excellent for photography.
I walked along the wet sand and sang my song about “returning to the ocean” to this wedge of Atlantic ocean. I studied the dark boulders. I watched the arrival of wave after wave. I went to the higher ground where the waves had left artifacts behind. I was seeking treasures: shell, drift wood and especially beach glass.
I did pick up some interesting shells, and some fine pieces of driftwood. I saw a lot of plastic garbage. I kept noticing smooth pale green rocks about the size of an orange. Several had holes, making them “holy rocks”. I pocketed all these. I piled the wood in my left hand and continued to roam. Then I discovered one of those green rocks with two holes-wow! I tried to photograph this for you to see, but it hasn’t worked to my satisfaction.
One of the young, male surfers saw me collecting and asked if I’d found anything interesting. I replied I was from Arkansas and it was all interesting. He said he collects for his mother and the late summer is really the best time.
This jetty marks the private beach for the Allenhurst Beach Club. By later this month, I would need a $7 beach pass to roam this sand! One of the local people told us we would be fine today to explore. Martha visited with several people who were walking their dogs on this glorious cloudy late afternoon.
It was chilly enough for me to have the hood up on my sweatshirt. We both were enjoying the fresh sea breeze, the empty beach, and the sound of the waves meeting the shore.
An earlier beachcomber built this round structure in the sand. It reminds me of the many ancient Minoan buildings on Crete that were topped with the upright curves of the “Horns of Consecration” one of the symbols of birth, death and regeneration.
While crisscrossing the beach, I came across a dead sea bird with beautiful webbed feet. I could see no injury. I looked carefully, admiring the lovely body, sleek head and striking color combinations. I said a brief invocation honoring it in life and in death.
When we got home, Martha and I discovered that the bird we had seen was a Northern Gannet. And, it happens that Martha had marveled at one of these birds who dived into the ocean for a fish as she watched that afternoon! She, too, was struck by the unusual coloring–that helped us be sure of our identification.
Here is what we learned: the northern gannet (Morus bassanus) is a seabird, the largest species of the gannet family, Sulidae. It is native to the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean, breeding in Western Europe and North America. The sexes are similar in appearance. The adult northern gannet has a mainly white streamlined body with a long neck, long and slender wings. It is 34–39 inches long with a 67–71 inch wingspan. The head and nape have a buff tinge that is more prominent in breeding season, and the wings are edged with dark brown-black feathers. The long pointed bill is blue-grey, contrasting with black bare skin around the mouth and eyes. (Remaining photos are from from Wikipedia.)
They dive with their bodies straight and rigid, wings tucked close to the body but angled back, extending beyond the tail, before piercing the water like an arrow. They control the direction of the dive using their wings and tail, and fold their wings against the body just before impact. Birds can hit the water at speeds of up to 62 mph.This allows them to penetrate up to 36 ft below the surface, and they will swim down to an average 60 ft, sometimes deeper than 80 ft. The bird’s subcutaneous air sacs may have a role in controlling their buoyancy.
Gannets usually push their prey deeper into the water and capture it as they return to the surface. When a dive is successful, they swallow the fish underwater before surfacing, and never fly with the fish in their bill. Larger fish are swallowed headfirst, smaller fish are swallowed sideways or tail-first. The fish is stored in a branched bag in the throat and does not cause drag when in flight. Their white color helps other gannets to identify one of their kind and they can deduce the presence of a shoal of fish by this diving behavior; this in turn facilitates group foraging, which makes capturing their prey easier. The color also makes the gannet less visible to the fish underneath. Northern gannets also forage for fish while swimming with their head under water.
Nesting colonies are on northern sea cliffs; one at Bonaventure Island, Quebec, (see both photos below) has become a famous tourist destination. In winter off southern coastlines, the gleaming white adults may be outnumbered by brown and patchy immatures; it takes four years for gannets to attain full adult plumage.
The entire adventure reminded me of the poem from the famous lyric poet Sappho whose book I have with me on this trip:
“If you are squeamish
don’t prod the beach rubble.”
Every adventure is full of surprises or it would not be an adventure!
This post is dedicated to both Jeanne and to Susan W because I know they would have loved to be here too!