In the Water
Without a doubt the most magnificent denizen—if only part-time—of the southeastern coast is the North American right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), which can approach 60 feet in length. Each year from December to March the mothers give birth to their calves and nurse them in the warm waters off the Georgia coast in an eons-old ritual. (In the summers they like to hang around the rich fishing grounds off the New England coast, though biologists still can’t account for their whereabouts at other times of the year.) Their numbers were so abundant in past centuries that the Spanish name for Jekyll Island, Georgia, was Isla de las Ballenas (“Island of the Whales”). Whaling and encounters with ship propellers have taken their toll, and numbers of this endangered species are dwindling fast now, with less than 500 estimated left in the world.
Another of humankind’s aquatic cousins, the Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin (Ursiops truncates), is a well-known and frequent visitor to the coast, coming far upstream into creeks and rivers to feed. Children, adults, and experienced seamen alike all delight in encounters with the mammals, sociable creatures who travel in family units. When not occupied with feeding or mating activities—both of which can get surprisingly rowdy—dolphins show great curiosity about human visitors to their habitat. They will gather near boats, surfacing often with the distinctive chuffing sound of air coming from their blowholes. Occasionally they’ll even lift their heads out of the water to have a look at you; consider yourself lucky indeed to have such a close encounter. Don’t be fooled by their cuteness, however. Dolphins live life with gusto and aren’t scared of much. They’re voracious eaters of fish, amorous and energetic lovers, and will take on an encroaching shark in a heartbeat.
Another beloved part-time marine creature of the barrier islands of the Georgia and South Carolina coast is the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta). Though the species prefers to stay well offshore the rest of the year, females weighing up to 300 pounds come out of the sea each May–July to dig a shallow hole in the dunes and lay over 100 leathery eggs, returning to the ocean and leaving the eggs to hatch on their own after two months. Interestingly, the mothers prefer to nest at the same spot on the same island year after year. After hatching, the baby turtles then make a dramatic, extremely dangerous (and extremely slow trek) to the safety of the waves, at the mercy of various predators. A series of dedicated research and conservation efforts, like the Caretta Project based on Wassaw Island, Georgia, are working hard to protect the loggerheads’ traditional nursery grounds to ensure survival of this fascinating, loveable, and threatened species.
Of course the coastal waters and rivers are chockablock with fish. The most abundant and sought-after recreational species in the area is the spotted sea trout (Cynoscion nebulosus), followed by the red drum (Suaenops ocellatus). Local anglers also pursue many varieties of bass, bream, sheepshead, and crappie. It may sound strange to some accustomed to considering it a “trash” fish, but many types of catfish are not only plentiful here but are a common and well-regarded food source. Many species of flounder inhabit the silty bottoms of estuaries all along the coast. Farther offshore are game and sportfish like marlin, swordfish, shark, grouper, and tuna.
Each March, anglers jockey for position on coastal rivers for the yearly running of the American shad (Alosa sapidissima) upstream to spawn. This large (up to eight pounds), catfish-like species is a regional delicacy as a seasonal entrée, as well as for its tasty roe. There’s a limit of eight shad per person per season.
One of the more interesting fish species in the area is the endangered shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum). A fantastically ancient species that has evolved little in hundreds of millions of years, this small, freshwater fish is known to exist in the Altamaha, Savannah, and Ogeechee Rivers of Georgia and the estuaries of the ACE Basin in South Carolina. Traveling upriver to spawn in the winter, the sturgeons remain around the mouths of waterways the rest of the year, venturing near the ocean only sparingly.
Crustaceans and shellfish have been a key food staple in the area for thousands of years, with the massive shell middens of the coast being testament to Native Americans’ healthy appetite for them. The beds of the local variant, the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), aren’t what they used to be, due to over-harvesting, water pollution, and disruption of habitat. In truth, most local restaurants import the little filter-feeders from the Gulf of Mexico these days. Oysters spawn May–August, hence the old folk wisdom about eating oysters only in months with the letter “r,” so as not to disrupt the breeding cycle.
Each year April–January, shrimp boats up and down the southeastern coast trawl for shrimp, most commercially viable in two local species, the white shrimp (Penaeus setiferus), and the brown shrimp (Penaeus aztecus). Shrimp are the most popular seafood item in the United States and account for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue into the coastal economy. While consumption won’t slow down anytime soon, the Georgia and South Carolina shrimping industries are facing serious threats, both from species decline due to pollution and overfishing and from competition from shrimp farms and the Asian shrimp industry.
Another important commercial crop is the blue crab (Callinected sapidus), the species used in such Lowcountry delicacies as crab cakes. You’ll often see floating markers bobbing up and down in rivers throughout the region. These signal the presence directly below of a crab trap, often of an amateur crabber.
A true living link to primordial times, the alien-looking horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus), is frequently found on beaches of the coast during the spring mating season (it lives in deeper water the rest of the year). More closely related to scorpions and spiders than crabs, the horseshoe has evolved hardly a lick in hundreds of millions of years.
Any trip to a local salt marsh at low tide will likely uncover hundreds of fiddler crabs (Uca pugilator and Uca pugnax), so-named for the way the males wave their single enlarged claws in the air to attract mates. (Their other, smaller claw is the one they actually eat with.) The fiddlers make distinctive burrows in the pluff mud for sanctuary during high tide, recognizable by the little balls of sediment at the entrances (the crabs spit out the balls after sifting through the sand for food).
One charming beach inhabitant, the sand dollar (Mellita quinquiesperforata), has seen its numbers decline drastically due to being entirely too charming for its own good. Beachcombers are now asked to enjoy these flat little cousins to the sea urchin in their natural habitat and to refrain from taking them home. Besides, they start to smell bad when they dry out.
The sea nettle (Chrysaora quinquecirrha), a less-than-charming beach inhabitant, is a jellyfish that stings thousands of people on the coast each year (though only for those with severe allergies are the stings potentially life-threatening). Stinging their prey before transporting it into their waiting mouths, the jellyfish also sting when disturbed or frightened. Most often, people are stung by stepping on the bodies of jellyfish washed up on the sand.
If you’re stung by a jellyfish, don’t panic. You’ll probably experience a stinging rash for about half an hour. Locals say applying a little baking soda or vinegar helps cut the sting. (Some also swear fresh urine will do the trick, and I pass that tip along to you purely in the interest of thoroughness.)
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition