Sometimes, especially when vacationing with the family, it’s good to try something different.
Not just your ordinary beach resort, Cape May is also known as a Mecca for nature lovers – birds flying north and south in the shoulder seasons can attest to that. As a result, a lot of ecotours have sprung from what we, otherwise, would have taken for granted – nature. Cape May Magazine went looking for the perfect weekend line-up and we found four great tours.
Not being an overly zealous outdoorswoman, kayaking is about as close as I get to being adventuresome and it is tailor made for a family outing. You can go single or double at Aqua Trails, located right across from the Nature Center on Delaware Avenue. You can also rest easy that proprietors Jeff and Tracey Martin and their very capable staff will guide you through Cape May’s salt marshes with expert precision. The tour begins with a mini-lesson by Jeff on how to sit in a kayak, how to paddle properly and what to do when what you want to do is doing the opposite – I had a little trouble getting onto the concept of which way to paddle.
Fortunately, Jeff took pity on me and I was in the front of his kayak – meaning I didn’t really have to do much, just sit back, take pictures and enjoy the view. Jeff, who also happens to be a biology teacher at Lower Cape May Regional High School, is particularly good at pointing out what bird is out on the horizon, flying overhead or just hanging out on the docks as we paddled by on our way to the marshlands. We spied: a double-crested cormorant, juvenile piping plovers, ruddy turnstones, ospreys, great and little blue herons – but best of all was an American Eagle that we startled from the marshes, who soared above us high into a deep blue sky.
This is the second time I’ve gone on an Aqua Trails tour, and the thing I like best is that even though you are in a group – a family of four also went out – everyone sort of zones in the moment. Unlike white water rafting where zoning is frowned upon.
You too can try whatever kayak experience you think you’re up for including going out by yourself. Don’t hesitate, because it’s really easy-breezy especially if you’re not trying to take pictures and oar simultaneously. Weather permitting, tours start Mother’s Day weekend and run through Columbus Day weekend.
Really, if we want future generations to understand why protecting the environment is so important, we have to expose young and old to a few outings like this one.
I have the perfect thing to do if you and the kids are tired of the beach, or if you’re here on a weekend and looking for something fun and (don’t repeat this to them) educational – a Harbor Safari. Now the great thing about this is that as a parent you can join right on, like I did. Wade into the water, grab the net, plunge through the booty that comes up from the harbor – or lay back with the rest of the sensible adults and watch the kids have fun. Better yet, if the kids are old enough, walk across the street to the Trucksess Welcome Center and enjoy the spectacular view of the harbor.
Our guide to all the underworld has to offer was Sue Slotterback, marine biologist and program director for the Nature Center. Here is a woman not afraid of getting her feet wet. With just a mild sweep of the harbor with a seine net, we unearthed all sorts of interesting critters from silver slides to baby striped bass, to green crabs and (my personal favorite) pipe fish, which Sue said are related to the sea horse. Now how cool is that?
But let’s get to the real reason I joined the Harbor Safari – those waders and the big wading boots. Get out of town. I could have floated for days out in the harbor in that gear. Sue said Miss America or Miss somebody sported a pair of them when she passed through Cape May County last summer and I can see why. My second favorite thing was wading out in the water. Clomp, clomping through the water and muddy guck – it was just like being a kid again.
And speaking of kids, my fellow safari goers ranged in ages from 5-15. We all gathered around like Curious George on Christmas to see what the harbor offered up. This is life at its source and believe me when I tell you, we all listened with rapt attention as Sue explained just what it was we were looking at and what would happen to these sea creatures once we threw them back into the harbor.
Hanging out at the harbor is a great way to spend an afternoon and it is so beautiful – picnic tables are nearby. You can rent a kayak – if your timing is right. And the Nature Center has all sorts of activities to choose from, especially on the weekend. Harbor Safaris are offered every Tuesday and Thursday in the summer, some weekends in the shoulder seasons and on special days like Coast Day and Harbor Fest. Other children’s programs run throughout the summer and weekends on the off-season.
Sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip when a reporter boarded the ship The Cape May Whale Watcher for a three hour tour – a three hour tour. Captain Jess Stewart greeted the guests who packed on board the ship and explained to us that we might see humpbacked whales, fin backed whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles and sea birds on this trip.
He noted the Osprey stand over yonder and said the osprey are the local fish hawks and are often mistaken for the American Bald Eagle. He pointed to the Great Salt Marsh which he said extends from Barnegat all the way to Cape May and is the breeding ground for salt water fish. Capt. Stewart looked over the bow and pointed to the Cape May Canal which he said is 3.5 miles long and connects the Delaware Bay to the Cape May Harbor. It was built, he said in the 1930s so barges and shipping traffic would not have to go around Cape May Point which was a known spot for German submarines lurking off the U.S. Coast.
We learned about other things as well, like the early bathing habits of the natives – pre-Victorian men who swam in the surf au natural. Strictly for health reasons of course. When the ladies demanded to get on board, a bathing costume was then required of the men, as well as the ladies, but they were not permitted to bathe together. A red flag altered each gender as to when the coast was clear. The ladies were taken to the beach via horse-drawn bathing house and lowered (by horse) into the surf so they could scamper about in clothing covered from head to toe.
But we were hungry for whales and dolphins and soon got our wish. Off the bow, off the stern, starboard and at port – in other words, all around the ship – a pod of nearly 200 dolphins playing, doing dolphin calisthenics, i.e. synchronized swimming and mating rituals, which look like they’re fighting, right before our very eyes. Capt. Stewart said about 3,000 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins swim up here every summer. Of those, they’ve counted 570 that are regulars and, of those, identified 452 this particular season. Many of dolphins have names like “Sharpie,” one of the leaders; Tippy, the queen mother, who has been vacationing here for 16 years; Nubby and Quasi Motto. When dolphins get pregnant, Capt. Stewart, said, mother-to-be swims back to the birthing home to be with her mother, grandmother and great grandmother. She needs a birthing assistant or mid-wife to help deliver the calf, who even acts as a wet nurse if need be.
Clearly Capt. Stewart is as enamored with the dolphins as his guests, maybe more so, because he is very protective of them and turns gently away as we roll further out to sea in search of whale. The whale? Not so easy to find on this day and we soon turn back.
If Capt. Stewart had a mind to he could have turned the Whale Watcher south; 1,300 miles later we’d be in Miami Beach. The ship would have set ground on the shore of that crowded spot. Instead, we headed back to Cape May and disembarked on our own enchanted isle.
You know what we all need to do more of? Walk. Think about it. It’s such a simple thing to do and the benefits are too numerous to mention. It’s free. Well, mostly free. And what better place to walk than an island which is ranked among the world’s top migratory stopovers? We are extraordinarily lucky here on the island to have access to several nature trails. My two favorites would be the trails leading to Cape May Point State Park (CMPSP.) One of the nicest walks you can imagine is starting at the Cove (the western end of Cape May) and walking toward the lighthouse – as is most appropriate, the lighthouse will be your guide. Just keep walking toward it. The path branches off somewhere near the World War II bunker right on the beach and brings you practically to the lighthouse doors and at the base of the CMPSP observation deck. Or, if you’re particularly ambitious, you could continue walking along the beach until you come upon any number of interesting sights, among them St. Mary’s By-the-Sea Convent and the Concrete Ship at Sunset Beach.
My second favorite place to walk is Higbee Beach. The nature trails there branch off into a couple of different directions and you find yourself in a strange land where you can find one of the most varied landscapes around. Everything from trees, to unusual birds, beautiful flowers, to beach plums growing among the thick brush. And the biggest treat is the beach which branches off the trails. It is a meditation and particularly beautiful at twilight.
Another hidden treasure is the Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area off New England Road. Again, you can find a variety of flora, fauna and havens for migratory birds. This is a time to really sit back and the smell the earth and the air about you. Time slows down naturally as you meander your way around the path. On the day we walked them, we stopped to watch the bunny nibbling along the path. Investigated the croaking sounds coming from the pond. And wondered if we could get close enough to get a picture of the lovely songbird sitting on a nearby branch. We chose the early morning hours to walk these paths with only the sounds of our feet crunching and the songs of nature awakening to a new day.
New on the nature trail list is the recently rejuvenated Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge on Sunset Boulevard. Operated by The Nature Conservancy, there is a minimal fee of $1 to walk these trails. Or you can buy a seasonal pass (discounted for members of The Nature Conservancy.) It is a little different from the other trails. There are nice wide paths that lead up to an observation area on the West path (closest to the lighthouse) that overlooks the beach. The adventurous can continue along the beach and come up the path on the other side of the refuge (about a mile for the full loop). There are benches and a small observation platform on the East path.
Be brave. Try something different this season. There are picnic spots in all the areas mentioned. You still have the pleasure of the beach, the water, the view, but so much more. Awaken your inner nature lover. Take an ecotour.
IF YOU GO
Weather permitting, Aqua Trails tours start Mother’s Day weekend and run through Columbus Day weekend.
Aqua Trails offers two daily tours of the wetlands – 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. On Tuesdays and Saturdays there is a sunset tour. For more information visit www.aquatrails.com or call 609-884-5600. Ask Jeff and Tracey about their moonlight tour.
HARBOR SAFARI TOURS
Harbor Safari is located outside the Nature Center of Cape May on Delaware Avenue. So if the kids are old enough, you can explore all that the Nature Center has to offer, including a spectacular view of the harbor from the new Trucksess Welcome Center,
For more information visit www.njaudubon.org/Centers/NCCM or call 609-898-8848.
For more information to plan your own three hour Whale Watcher tour visit www.capemaywhalewatcher.com or call 609-884-5445.
NATURE WALKING TOURS
For more information about the trails mentioned and other areas visit the Cape May Bird Observatory’s website at www.birdcapemay.org or call them at 609-884-2736.
“Ecotouring the Island” originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Cape May Magazine.