For decades, marine scientists Robert and Alice Jane Lippson have traveled the rivers, backwaters, sounds, bays, lagoons, and inlets stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to the Florida Keys aboard their trawler, Odyssey. The culmination of their leisurely journeys, Life along the Inner Coast: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Sounds, Inlets, Rivers, and Intracoastal Waterway from Norfolk to Key West, now available in paperback from UNC Press, is a guide to the plants, animals, and habitats found in one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet. In this guest post, Robert Lippson shares tips for exploring watery habitats in the “shallows” along the coastline.
Shallow waters form the most abundant and accessible habitat all along the Inner Coast from the lower Chesapeake Bay to Key West, Florida. We define the shallows as inches deep at the beach to about 15-20 feet deep offshore. Of course wading in 10 or 15 feet of water won’t work for most of us, but four or five feet or less will do just fine for kids and adults to wade and find fish and clams and shrimp and other unusual critters.
The shallows are a hub of biological activity. This is where many species of fishes spawn and where small fish seek haven from larger ones looking for lunch. Plants also grow in the shallows, and where there are plants there will be snails and small harmless insect-like crustaceans such as isopods and amphipods and shrimp and occasionally everyone’s favorite—a seahorse—and their close relatives, pipefishes, clinging, crawling, and slithering over the stems and blades of the vegetation.
And while you and the kids are slogging through the water don’t overlook the pilings and rocks in the shallows because you may see on them some of the same animals that live on the bottom and in the vegetation. It is interesting to observe the plant and animal communities particularly on pier pilings because it is usually quite easy to see whether a particular critter prefers to live at the high tide level or at a lower level (we call it subtidal) on the piling.
When the tide is at its highest you will see some dark bands around the piling. These are bluegreen algal species. Just below, look for the soft, bright green strand of green algae. There are often also many other species of red, green, and brown algae intermixed at the high tide level.
Just below the high tide level where the piling is sometimes submerged and at other times high and dry, look for encrustations of barnacles and clumps of mussels and oysters. Just think of it: you started out “beach combing” in the shallows and now you are paying attention to an assortment of plants and animals living at different levels on a piling. Scientists call these different communities habitats and the interaction between plants and animals and their physical habitat is called ecology.
At the subtidal level where the piling, rock, or mangrove root is almost always submerged, plants and animals have an easier life than those living above them. Because they are not exposed to drying winds and hot or icy temperatures, there is an amazing variety of plants and animals dwelling in these habitats. There are often several species of sponges and tiny feathery plant-like clumps that are in fact not plants but are tiny relatives of jellyfishes, anemones, and corals. There are also many growths and clumps of animals called bryozoans or tunicates that may be rubbery, bushy, lacy, or crusty and can vary in color to a glistening black to red, yellow-gray, and white, all so confusing and at the same time so entrancing. There are also sea stars and sea urchins and, in warmer waters, soft corals. And everywhere there are grazing amphipods, tiny mud crabs, and grass shrimp intermixed with an assortment of worms. There are secretive little fish known as gobies and blennies living in empty oyster shells or lurking in small spaces between a mussel and a clump of tunicates.
Recipe for wading in the Shallows
- A pair of old sneakers
- A dip net
- A plastic bucket
- A seine
- Sun screen
- And a copy of Life along the Inner Coast
A few notes on collecting: Please do not collect and then let things die. We encourage you to collect a few organisms and place them in a bucket of water, study them, enjoy them and release them where you found them.
A seine is a rectangular net with floats on the top and weights on the bottom. You can usually buy one at a local tackle shop or at a Wal-Mart. Seines from those stores are usually about 6-12 feet long. You will need to fasten a pole to each end of the seine; broom sticks or closet hanger rods make the best poles. The poles should be about 5-6 feet long and should project slightly from the bottom of the net.
Seines are easy to use. One person places their pole, with net attached of course, close to the beach in very shallow water. The other person wades out with their end of the net, keeping it somewhat taut, and then walks parallel to the beach for 20 yards or so. Then the person closest to the beach stops and plants the seine pole in the bottom. The person in the deeper water, while keeping the net stretched, wades to the beach. Then both seiners drag the seine up on the beach to inspect their catch. There will often be many small fish, crabs, and shrimp in the net. Keep a few to look at and release the others immediately. Be sure that collecting with a seine is legal to use in your locale. Ask at a local fishing tackle shop.
Now go out and wade in the shallows!
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Robert L. Lippson has served as senior scientist of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Chesapeake Bay Estuarine Research Program, research scientist at the University of Maryland Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, and adjunct professor at Michigan State University. He, along with Alice Jane Lippson, is author of Life Along the Inner Coast: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Sounds, Inlets, Rivers, and Intracoastal Waterway from Norfolk to Key West.