Shore Musings: Sea Turtles and an Atomic Bomb Sky

By Collin Hall

My great uncle Dennis used to hang upside down like a bat from a metal bar in his garage. He would wake up and do it first thing in the morning to “get the blood pumping,” but had to stop after a few weeks because it turns out that too much blood to your head isn’t very fun or even healthy.

He’ll still waltz into a room and shout with joy about the day’s exercise. Most days start with a crack-of-dawn beach walk; he has walked the beaches nearly every morning for decades and hasn’t let the monotony of routine dull the joy that comes with shore living.

Cape May County’s beaches are spectacular. But for year-round locals like me, it’s easy to give into the passivity of everyday life and forget that the beaches are home to incredibly complex ecosystems and cloudy vistas. The evening beach clouds that haunt the Atlantic sometimes come together to resemble the plumage of an atomic bomb or the violent skies of an old cowboy painting.

My great uncle has lived here for 48 years. He moved from dot-on-the-map New Mexico for a new life in the Wildwoods when an opportunity in the printing industry presented itself. The Jersey Shore was roaring in the 1970s; downtown Wildwood, so my family says, was packed with the intensity of a Time’s Square afternoon.

Dennis discovered “Sally” the turtle and reported her to the Fish and Wildlife so she could be properly protected. Sea turtles should be left to their own devices!

While downtown crowds have come and gone, the glee of living hasn’t escaped Dennis in those nearly five decades.

Dennis’s everyday beach strolls often reveal treasures that most of us only see through a computer screen, like a massive nesting loggerhead turtle on a Lower Township stroll earlier this week. Loggerheads are etched into the popular conscious via massive murals and nature documentaries; they are the most common sea turtle found in the USA. But to spot one in Cape May County? That’s an event so rare it made the Philadelphia television news.

Dennis scrambled to contact local experts about the turtle, and they quickly found that that the female turtle came ashore to nest. Her eggs were soon roped off and protected by the National Wildlife Refuge, and volunteers watched the spot with hawkish eyes all day to make sure they weren’t threatened. Irene Powidajko, who helped initially protect the nesting spot, said that “there is a strong chance the turtle will return to lay more eggs.”

On my own walks, I’ve seen pufferfish in sand gullies, small sea butterflies, and old men driving golf balls into the Atlantic. But most days, neither of us find anything on the beach.

Yet over time, the anecdotes start to pile up. Dennis has found the occasional gray seal, dried-up starfish, sand dollars, and other natural treasures that point to an ecosystem that’s larger than any of us.

When I walked the shore as a kid, the smell of rotting flesh wafted through Wildwood Crest like a sickness. The stench was pungent and enough to make anyone with a working nose nearly vomit. A small humpback (or maybe it was a Wright Whale), an incredible 15-feet long even as a baby, washed ashore in 2006 and would remain there until it decayed.

While some beach walks might put you face to face with a dying creature, most serve as a reminder that the natural world doesn’t care about life’s drama. I think that’s what makes it so attractive for people like Dennis: there’s a whole world out there, it’s awesome, and it’s just waiting to be gawked at.

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