Beach Books

Life Under the Offshore Ocean

By MARGARET THOMAS BUCHHOLZ | Aug 21, 2012
Source: Schiffer Publishing

In his new book, Beneath the Garden State: Exploring Aquatic New Jersey, photographer Herb Segars takes us on a colorful journey that captures the marine life, artificial reefs and shipwrecks in the unfamiliar world under the sea off the Jersey Shore.

How often have you wished you could be magically transported to the bottom of the sea, there to see the fantastic creatures that call the seabed home? Segars’ book is a garden of exotic delights – see the close-up of blue mussels on page 25 and the anemones on 26 and 27 – and subterranean monsters. The sea raven on pages 44 and 45 wins the horror award and the goosefish on page 61 is a runner-up. The author’s Nikon D300, in a Subal housing with strobes and lights, has captured a world we know is there but rarely, if ever, see – and not in black and white.

In an interview with The Beachcomber 20 years ago, Segars talked about his underwater explorations: “For me, summer at the Jersey Shore is a time of constant thrills. While scuba diving, I experience weightlessness without leaving the Earth. Unharmed, I have been within inches of a three-foot-long predator, the aggressive goosefish, devouring dinner with its huge mouth. I have watched sea horses move effort­lessly, like a fluid herd of their terrestrial namesakes. Without looking at the heavens, I have seen thousands of stars in the form of starfish sprinkled across the sand.”

Most people will never have the opportunity to visit the rich marine community that exists underwater, but Beneath the Garden State will take you there.

One destination for photographic exploration is on one of the thousands of shipwrecks or artificial reefs that lie within 20 miles of the coast. Segars says, “Rolling ­over the side of the boat into the green Atlantic water, my first sensation is one of mild shock as the cold water flushes away the body heat accumulated in the 80-degree sunshine. With visibility at 20 feet, I must follow the anchor line to the bottom 80 feet below. The trip down is far from dull, as the mid-water is full of life. There are thousands of comb jellies, translucent bodies lined with fluorescent, multicolored canals. I see small fish taking refuge in the trailing tentacles of the lion’s mane jellyfish while a solitary sea horse seems lost on a journey with an unknown end.

“In a few short minutes, the ship’s dark shape appears. The steel hull and the decks have acquired a covering that requires closer inspection. Colonies of blue mussels cover much of the hull. They anchor themselves with a number of threads that emanate from each mussel’s body and are secured to the hull with a waterproof adhesive. Competing for surface area on the hull and decks is the metridium anemone, a flowerlike animal that uses its tentacles to collect plankton.”

Segars shines his light into the nooks and crannies until he spots a pair of antennae waving back and forth – the early warning system of the North American lobster, the Jersey diver’s favorite quarry. But his mission is not a lobster dinner.

“As I move toward the bow, I see shafts of sunlight illuminate a dark corner of the engine room. The light creates an eerie mood as the rays dance with every move­ment of the clouds over the sun. Moving onto the upper deck, I am greeted by schools of bergalls, the most abundant species on the wreck. While I pause to admire the view, the extremely curious fish move closer and closer, drawn by their reflections in my camera lens. Soon they become pests, dive bombing in front of my lens just as I take a photograph. I do not feel frustrated, just privileged that they have become so at ease and accept my presence.

“With a few minutes of air left, I drop off the side of the ship to in­vestigate life in the sand. A four-inch-wide trail leads me to a brownish colored, pancake-shaped sea urchin. It has a very recognizable name, the sand dollar. After a sand dollar dies, tiny spines fall off and the skeleton turns white. What does not disappear is the urchin’s star-shaped insignia, a real attrac­tion as a nautical novelty.

“I begin a turn back toward the boat, placing my hand down onto the sand and am startled as the bottom ex­plodes. My initial fright quickly turns to amusement as I watch a winter flounder that I rudely dis­turbed fade into the far reaches of my visibility. Nearby, a little skate hovers, then cruises, looking for tasty morsels in the sand.”

With over 230 brilliant color photos and Segars’ illuminating descriptions – most photographers do not write so well – this unique, large format book offers a look at the strange and beautiful animals found in Atlantic waters off New Jersey. Beneath the Garden State (2012) is from Schiffer Publishing, $29.95, schifferbk@aol.com.

Margaret Thomas Buchholz is author of the newly released book Josephine: A Memoir 1917-1959, From Washington Working Girl to Fisherman’s Wife. Reach her at lbipooch@comcast.net.

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