Today was one of those golden days of summer. The tide was perfect: high tide at 2 pm. My daughter had the day off from work and I was ready to relax. We quickly collected our beach stuff, grabbed our beach bags and hastily spread sun lotion on each other.
I grew up on the North Shore of LI in a small beach town. Unlike living on the South Shore where you can swim anytime, on the North Shore our beach lives revolved around the tides; a good tide meant a fun week. A week of low tides in the afternoon meant a week of no beach which was torture back in the days of no air conditioning. You learned to drop everything and make the most of the beach during the week of good afternoon tides, as we did today.
Although it was a scorching day, when we arrived we were pleasantly surprised to find that there were few people on the beach. We found our spot on a spit of land bordered on one side by a deep channel and on the other side by an inlet of the LI Sound. We immersed ourselves immediately; the water was clean and so salty it felt like we were swimming through jello. Two hours passed quickly and it looked like it might rain, so we began to prepare to leave. Just then I spotted a group of young boys huddled around a horseshoe crab I had seen bobbing on top of the water about 100 feet away. I had been thinking about retrieving it and keeping it, as I have done in the past, as a specimen to show to my students. But they got to it before I did. I rose from my beach chair and walked over to the boys who were passing the dead horseshoe crab around and poking at it tentatively.
“If you kids don’t want to keep that shell, I’d like to have it,” I ventured. “I would like to have it as a specimen for my students.” They shrugged in agreement and we began to discuss the fossil. It turned out to be a complete horseshoe crab; its insides were still intact. In my many years of scavenging horseshoe crabs, I have found only empty shells. This find was a biologist’s dream. It still had all its parts: its pincers, claws, gills, digestive system and other parts I couldn’t identify. The boys knew a lot about the creature which surprised me. Most people who encounter a specimen such as this one usually have never seen one before, and even if they have, they don’t know anything about them.
When the boys left, I brought the horseshoe crab over to my daughter for her to inspect. She had once dreamed of becoming a marine biologist and still loves to examine and even dissect creatures she finds dead. After we examined the creature as much as we could, we returned it to the water where it continued to float just as it was when the boys first found it.
Coincidentally, last week at a writing workshop for teachers I taught a demo lesson and my topic was…horseshoe crabs! My intention was to teach a lesson that would demonstrate to mainstream teachers how to conduct a science lesson with a class that includes English Language Learners, helping them to develop the vocabulary and academic language they would need to write about any science topic. The workshop leaders encouraged us to teach something we were passionate about and enjoyed teaching. I had taught a similar lesson to my own class of English Language Learners a few years and it was a big hit at the time. I was again very successful this summer teaching the lesson to my colleagues in the writing workshop. I am convinced that everyone is fascinated with a survivor…and the horseshoe crab is a big time survivor, having been on this earth for about 450 million years.
So why am I so passionate about the horseshoe crab (and have always been so)? It is one year since I was diagnosed with a rare, metastatic cancer, and have since become a cancer survivor. I have great respect for this creature that has managed to survive so many millenia and is still swimming in the same places I once swam as a girl. I hope it will be around for many more eons and that I will be able to enjoy its company for as long as we are both still swimming in these waters.