For all those people who feel the need to travel to faraway places like Hawaii or Florida to find and collect a mixture of colorful shells, I got good news for you. Forget the high-priced plane ticket.
In one of the most unlikeliest places in the world, Lower New York Bay, including the downstream shores of Sandy Hook Bay and Raritan Bay, contains particularly good beaches for shell hunting. Even though not very exotic or celebrated for shelling, the miles of estuarine and ocean beaches in or near Lower New York Bay can lay claim to over 100 alluring and eye-catching seashells. This is evidence of the diversity of life that resides in local waters, not far from the busy and bustling sidewalk streets of mid-town Manhattan.
Fall through spring is an especially good time to look for shells and other curious beach finds from Breezy Point, New York to Sea Bright, New Jersey. Nor'easters and northwesterly wind stir up the bottom of the sea to cast a variety of unique and highly-valued shells onto the shore. What's more, the noisy beach sweepers or mechanized rakes are all gone. These large machines cleared the beach during the summer of not only unwanted debris, but of beautiful seashells, and then tossed them away like common beach trash.
Walk down the beach now along the tide lines, away from the boardwalks, parking lots, and built-up human surroundings, and you will find a variety of natural finds, shells in all shapes and sizes, and in delightful colors. There are Jingle shells, Quahogs, Knobbed Whelks, Moon Snails, and Blue Mussels to name just a few.
One of my favorites to find is the Bay Scallop. The little critter is not only a beloved seafood meal for many, but a popular shell to save for its exquisite fan-like shape. It's the official New York state shell and hands down one of the most eagerly sought after shells in the east coast.
It's easy to identify. The little 2.5-inch wide Bay Scallop has a small body with a "scalloped" complexion of 15 to 20 thin ribs on the outer shells. The rounded, corrugated shell makes it truly only one of its kind in the New York and New Jersey region.
Often overlooked, however, is just how colorful the Bay Scallop can be. The shells of this beloved bivalve (a mollusk that has two hinged shells) comes in quite an assortment of colors. Usually a dusky or blackish slate hue, but also in more brightly colored orange, black cherry, purple, ash-blond, or yellow-brown. Frequently, the bottom shell is white and the upper shell is dark to provide greater camouflage and protection from hungry predators, including Sea Stars and bottom feeding fish.
Some color variation and pigmentation for Bay Scallops can be attributed to its habitat. Muddy bottoms might make a more darken shell whereas sandy bottoms generally can create a more fair colored shell. Color variation in Bay Scallops can also come from heredity. The shell color of an offspring is a result of the shell color of its parents. Different colors found in scallops may be attributed to its family and its genes. Multicolored shells from close relatives conceivably will produce more interesting and vibrant offspring.
This provides a whole new twist on viewing the unassuming scallop. You can wonder just how colorful the shell of the parents were to influence the colorful complexion of its young.
As its name suggests, Bay Scallops live in the tidal waters of bays or estuaries. Unlike many other bivalves, such as Soft-shell clams, Bay Scallops live on the bottom of the bay, rather than burrowing under the sand. Scallops are filter feeders and catch food by pumping water in through the front of the shell and out through the back. Any food particles, such as small bits of algae, are trapped inside.
Bay Scallops can also swim and move about quite rapidly and erratically by opening and closing its two shells quickly. This action forcibly ejects water from inside its shell and propels the little critter forward. This is different than most other bivalves, which use a slimy foot to move.
Another colorful and interesting feature of the Bay Scallop are its bright blue eyes. Along the inner rim of the shell are a row of 30 to 40 pinhead-size blue eyes, enabling the scallop to see movement and shadows in the water. This eyes are helpful to detect predators and to stir away before being caught.
Unfortunately, all of these distinctive adaptations have not been enough to save the Bay Scallop from a decline in Lower New York Bay. Decades of poor water quality has decimated a once fruitful bay species.
Bay Scallops are not long lived. The average life span is just 18 to 30 months. Once sexual mature, they spawn then die. So it doesn't take long for a population of Bay Scallops to become depleted within an estuary. There is no significant scallop population as a result of water pollution like widespread fertilizer use, which has brought about brown tides and turbid water conditions. Although tidal waters in New York Harbor are overall cleaner compared to the 1970s, the scallop population has not fully recovered.
Scallops are an important indicator species of water quality. The severe decline of the sensitive and beautiful Bay Scallop in Lower New York Bay shows that more work still needs to be done to restore local water quality. Certainly the Bay Scallop is worth saving. Beautiful, colorful, and unique, I cannot think of a better shell to discover along the sandy edge of the busy and bustling waters in New York Harbor.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/