To Save an Estuary: Barnegat Bay, NJ

I was asleep in the back seat when we drove into Barnegat late. It was way past dark and Rachel’s NAV system was giving us shade so Ben found the house by calling Peter Hurley’s sister in law, Nadira, on the phone for the umpteenth time. In her sweet Parisian accent, she assured us that sleep is a luxury when you have a newborn babe.

We thanked her profusely and followed her
to our rooms. It was there I made yet another garbage faux pas by immediately opening and drinking from one of the two plastic water bottles she had put beside our bed! DANG! I didn’t even realize what I had done until the boys came in the room and i offered Ben the other bottle. Sleepiness spoils some well-laid plans.

But the next day was simply fantastic. Ben’s old friend, Pete Hurley, had set us up to meet a man by the name of Willie deCamp who is largely responsible for the saving of Barnegat Bay, where Peter’s father lives. Once Ben reached Willie by phone, we cleaned out the back seat for passengers and headed over to Save the Barnegat Bay headquarters. We were met by a twinkly-eyed slender man with some grey to his short mussed hair and much kid to his grin. He played us a phone message from a colleague out on Sedge Island who was working with some kids from the Governors School for the Environment (I didn’t even know they had one for the environment – and it’s been around for 20 yrs!). His name was Jim Merritt. He was interested in helping us out but who seemed to be having some trouble reaching Willie 😉 We didn’t get ahold of him but we all piled into Rachel anyway (including Willie’s wonderful niece, Amy deCamp) and drove, rather faster than we wanted, to try and find Jim Merritt out in the marshes.

We immediately found John Wenk, who studies striped terrapin turtles that live in the Bay. Then a boat pulled up with a man named Marty who assured us that Jim was not far. Willie explained a little bit about what we were doing, then Marty offered a lift to as many of us as he could carry. Ben and Mark were still fiddling with camera equipment when Jim arrived and leaped onto the dock, with black sunglasses, Keen’s and a freaky dark tan. I got some little video of Jim showing us the map and where he and the kids were working, then everyone got antsy and Mark and Ben joined us even though Mark could not find the lens to the big camera. (That’s not easy for Mark – leaving when his i’s aren’t dotted. Go Mark!) Just before we left, Jim jumped into the water and pulled out what he called “gunga gunga,” (basically anything that you would consider “gross” and which is not supposed to be there, ie: sea lettuce – which we tasted after seeing Jim put a piece in his mouth…um…it was not delicious). Jim explained to us how the Bay is being smothered by fast-growing algae, due to an overabundance of nitrogen running into the Bay from storm runoff from people’s yards – which is just like the problem in the Wissahickon, except that instead of providing the community’s drinking water, Barnegat Bay provides home and habitat for a diverse population of fish and wildlife that are special to the area and that are in decline due to this human-caused pollution.

So, with Amy and I in Jim’s boat, which threatened to quit running, and Ben, Mark and Willie in Marty’s bigger boat, which threatened not to make it through the shallows, we zipped off for the little island, running it slow through the sketchy parts, and moving our weight to the front when instructed by our captains. The kids were relaxing on a pontoon boat when we docked. Introductions were made and then we were left to watch, listen, and absorb.

We followed the kids around as they and their teachers measured chemical levels in the water, gathered clams, caught crabs, pulled threads from mussels, cleared dead eel grass from the shoreline, and tried fishing. They explained to us what they were doing and why it was important. Amy showed me two oysters with two different kinds of algae – neither of which is healthy for the oyster. Michael Migliori, the kids’ teacher, invited us to join them in using the telescope to see more closely the nesting osprey (see photo) and peregrine falcon, the little blue heron, great egret and oyster catchers. John Wennig pulled mama turtles off their nests and measured their eggs, which he then moved to a controlled study area where the eggs were reburied at exactly the same depth, so they wouldn’t be shocked by temperature change. I was even allowed to release the mama terrapins from their plastic buckets back out into the Bay!

As the sun got lower in the sky, Ben and Mark ran out of battery in Camera B and so were (happily) forced to sit and enjoy talking with the people. Some of the kids cracked the live crabs and several kids got pinched pretty good. I helped Ryan and his crew scrub clean the mussels they had caught earlier. We didn’t know it but I was actually cleaning our supper! Jim had us stay and share in the harvest that these kids had been catching and cleaning all day. We felt unworthy but part of the program there is You eat what you catch, and what you make with your own two hands, and You share with whoever is there. It was delicious, and great company besides. I think everyone there appreciated that Ryan (another one of the teachers) made the mussels, as he owns his own seafood restaurant and really knows what to do with wine, garlic and shellfish. Man. Wonderful.

Then Jim pulled off a crab penis for us to all see.

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