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Thanksgiving with Northern Star Coral

Believe it or not, coral lives in the cloudy waters of the Jersey Shore. Relics of the often unheard-of Northern Star Coral were found scattered around beaches soon after Super Storm Sandy.

I took to the beach early on Thanksgiving morning. I was there to take a two-mile walk along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and to take joy in walking and talking with friends. The place was Monmouth Beach, a small one square mile beach town located on the northern Jersey Shore, about a 5 to 10 minute drive from the shores of Sandy Hook Bay.

Monmouth Beach was one of the many Jersey Shore communities pounded hard by Super Storm Sandy almost a month ago by towering waves of seawater. It was still easy to see the horrendous impact of the storm from boarded-up or demolished buildings and  mounds of wood, appliances and other debris lining the streets.

The town has been protected for many years by a tall rock wall designed to hold back the wave action from the ocean. While the stone wall survived, many of the stairs over the wall did not, making the ocean beach nearly unreachable. Yet, a keen eye will spot a few sites where a flight of wooden steps still exist in some shape to go over the bluff, and onto the beach, even if it includes climbing down a few rocks.

Once there, I found the beach had been greatly eroded and is much thinner after Sandy especially when high tide waters just about reach the wall. Yet, Monmouth Beach is still known as a good surf fishing location and not far away from where I was standing were several fly fisherman in the surf and several fishermen sitting in chairs, their fishing rods in PVC pipes and stuck in the sand. All were hoping for striped bass, but none of the fishermen I talked with had had any bites. 

No matter, it was a lovely beach day. There was a mix of sun and clouds and the temperature broke 60 degrees, perhaps one of the last few mild days of autumn. It was a beautiful balmy Thanksgiving day and I was thankful to be back relishing an ocean beach.

As I walked down the narrow beach for the first time in some weeks, I could see mixed in with the pebbles, clam and mussel shells and other beach detritus a bunch of unusual items washed ashore by churning waves from the longshore current , a stream of water propelled by winds and waves northward, and deposited at the high-tide line.  These were not simply empty shells or fish bones.

Strewn across the tideline were countless bits of coral. That's right, coral. Even just saying the word invokes in the minds of many people images of beautiful tropical reefs full of fish and alight in bright colors in crystal clear waters. Not something found in the busy, bustling, and often murky ocean waters neighboring New York Harbor.

Yet, these tidal waters are full of surprises. According to Peterson's Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore, this is Northern Star Coral, the only shallow-water and cool water species of coral found from Cape Cod to Florida, though most common in Long Island Sound.

Northern Star Coral has adapted to living in the urban waters of the mid-Atlantic in a number of different ways. Don't let its small size and plain appearance fool you. This is one hardy little stony coral, a marine invertebrate.

The Northern Star Coral does not form enormous reefs as many coral species do in tropical waters. Amazingly, over countless years, this coral has evolved to attach itself to stones, old shells and other smooth objects where it will grow up to 5 inches in height. Scuba divers often find Northern Star Coral attached to shipwrecks off the coast of New Jersey in colonies of up to thirty polyps.  The size of a single polyp is up to 0.4 inches.

What's more, Northern Star Corals do not contain much in the way of photosynthetic algae as tropical corals do to provide a polyp's food. Instead, the coral has developed to become a filter-feeder, just like an anemone, a related species. Without the need for light, Northern Star Coral can survive in the cool, low light and frequently murky conditions of the North Atlantic where tropical corals would die. There is some evidence, however, to suggest the coral does host symbiotic brown algae that can appear translucent to dark brown and provide some degree of nutrition.

Unfortunately, in my hand were the deceased victims of a high energy storm. When alive, Northern Star Corals are beautiful looking,  off-white to pink in color with bushy polyps extended outward. Now these hard skeletons were bleached white, though some still had a hint of brown algae on their calcium carbonate base.

Though lifeless, the coral skeletons reveal there is a great variety of life that can be found near and in New York Harbor. Uprooted by strong waves and stranded by the ebbing tides, a piece of coral as it decomposes in the sand, is not something to be ignored at the water's edge. It reaffirms the countless life below the surface and the great struggle for survival in changing currents, light conditions, and temperatures. 

With a few bits of star coral in my pocket, I made it back to where I started, at the same time as the tide was rising. Timed it right, as I also made it back in time just as the Thanksgiving meal was being served. Maybe coral is lucky.

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/

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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