A Model for Management and More Than A Day At The Beach!
by Dave Grant
Sandy Hook is a 12-mile long sand spit at the entrance to lower New York Harbor. The southern half is occupied by the town of Sea Bright and is often cited by coastal geologists as the least desirable example of how to develop a barrier beach. Orrin Pilkey (The Beaches are Moving) coined the term "Jerseyization" of the shore after studying this stretch of groin and seawall "stabilized" coastline.
The northern half of the spit is the New Jersey component of Gateway National Recreation Area - a 26,000-acre park created from a patchwork of former city, state, military and undeveloped lands that encircle the mouth of the Hudson River; the region that has been called the "Gateway to America." Taking advantage of this unique coastal location and the collaboration of the National Park Service to provide access and space in 1890's-era Fort Hancock, a variety of organizations have developed environmentally-oriented programs.
In the shadow of the park's historic lighthouse and in the midst of 2.2-million beach visitors each year, Brookdale Community College's Ocean Institute utilizes the spit's beach, bay and maritime forest to offer its marine education program: Sandy Hook - More Than A Day At The Beach.
Mandated by Congress to serve the coastal recreational needs of residents of the crowded New York City metropolitan area, the three units of Gateway (Sandy Hook, Staten Island and Jamaica Bay) also are essential to the preservation of significant historic sites and the interpretation of the natural history of the area. Major portions of the units provide refuge for resident and migrating wildlife, including a number of threatened and endangered species like terns and piping plovers.
The National Park Service's administration of the Hook, its throng of visitors and assortment of organizations offering cooperative programs serves as a model for the management of a major recreational beach. Sandy Hook is 2,044 acres and growing, has over six miles of undeveloped beachfront, wide expanses of tidal marshes, swamps, ponds, maritime forests, bayside coves, and two National Historic Landmarks: the oldest continuously-operating lighthouse in America, and scores of impressive century-old military structures in Fort Hancock. These features provide exceptional recreational opportunities for fishermen, surfers, kayakers, windsurfers, divers, birders, hikers, history buffs, and of course, swimmers.
Since taking possession of Sandy Hook from the U. S. Army in 1974 the National Park Service has welcomed hundreds of schools and organized groups to use the park for an endless variety of programs. Today, a number of environmental and educational organizations operate from the historic buildings through cooperative arrangements with the Park Service, and over 50,000 students visit here each year on organized field trips. The NPS coordinates these activities through a use-permit process, quarterly meetings of Cooperators and Educators groups, volunteer and teacher training for onsite and visiting groups, and ranger-led programs. The system works well because of the "small Army town" atmosphere on the peninsula, and the accessibility of park staff.
Today, the Park Service is the landlord and is responsible for basic services like traffic safety, road maintenance and water. Brookdale College predates the Park Service here and annually offers its cradle-to-coffin marine science program to over 8,000 K-12, Gifted & Talented, summer oceanography camp, college, family and Elder-campus students. Other educational groups that operate significant year-round programs include Monmouth County's marine science Vo-Tech high school (MAST) and the N.J. Marine Science Consortium (N.J Sea Grant). NOAA's James Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory and Rutgers University conduct coastal research; and non-profit groups like the American Littoral Society and NJ Audubon Society keep an eye on the environment and also offer public programs. The Sandy Hook Foundation solicits support to preserve the historic fort, and the Sandy Hook Coast Guard (One of the busiest bases in the nation) patrols the waters surrounding the park. The NJMEA also got its start at Sandy Hook and regularly offers programs here.
Tomorrow, Sandy Hook will be even busier as public-private partnerships with the National Park Service expand to renovate dozens of barracks and officers' homes for education, research and multi-purpose activities. If the past portends the future, Sandy Hook will continue to be a most desirable example of how to develop a barrier beach.
Sandy Hook - More than a day at the beach!...is an award-winning program that Brookdale Community College offers at its Ocean Institute in historic Fort Hancock. It is a model for marine-related educational programs offered at recreational beaches.
The program was originally developed in cooperation
with the Monmouth County Superintendent's Office of the NJ Department
of Education as an offering for Gifted & Talented 6th-10th
grade students. It draws on activities in our ESTUARIES and WETLANDS
curricula which were developed with support from the NY-NJ Harbor
Estuary Program and the Audubon Society. (Participants in the
NMEA annual conferences in San Diego, Victoria and New London
should check their bookshelves for copies that we have distributed
at workshops.) Today it is the cornerstone for offerings to the
150-G&T students that visit us for
The guiding principle for all of our programs is discovery and we stress experiential, hands-on learning with everything we do - which is a cinch at the shore. All of our programs are fee-based and self-supporting; and individual activities are aligned to the NJ Core Curriculum Standards.
Because the National Park Service is our landlord, it is important that schools visiting us are aware of their rules and regulations, and are welcome guests who are sensitive to the environment. We post this information, Pre-trip check lists, Virtual Trips, and maps on our website, and mail it with our registration materials. Besides offering criteria for the selection of participants and a school liaison to our programs, we provide the guidelines that students must observe at a national park and around water. In our introductory materials, we provide suggestions on equipment, clothing, grading, extensions, follow-up activities, and especially weather-proofing hints. ("There is no such thing as poor field trip conditions, just poorly prepared participants.") Each session has introductory and follow-up materials, on-line quizzes and appropriate hands-on activities for the days spent at the shore.
Session 1: Diving into Marine Science - is just what it sounds like. This is an immersion program for participants and is offered in the bay or at a cooperating dive shop - depending on the season. We do not teach SCUBA to youngsters, but students learn snorkeling, the gas laws, diving physiology, and water safety. Under supervision, they are permitted to breathe through a regulator at the surface, and part of their assignment is to investigate dive equipment, its use by the diver, and our adjustment for human use of adaptations already found in nature. In preparation for field work they construct a simple underwater viewer from cans and study a chart of the area we will explore from the shore. For follow-up, we investigate current underwater technology, including experimenting with model ROV's developed with our technology partners at MATE (Marine Advance Technology Education center) in California.
Session 2: Meeting Marinelife - gives us an opportunity to apply our new skills in the field studying the behavior of local animals. Most students are excited about snorkeling, but in consideration of the background of some, other activities are available, including wading with the viewers and setting up a mini-estuary for our specimens in a kiddie-pool at the shoreline. Students complete a Dive Log at the end of their adventure, and for homework, write a biography of a creature they observed.
Session 3: Wetlands - protection is our most important lesson at Sandy Hook. Most people are surprised to learn that almost 20% of New Jersey is wetlands, that in spite of its small size ranks eighth among the states in tidal marsh acreage, and that there is more than one type of wetland at the beach. Our introductory exercises include a Marsh Metaphor activity adapted from Aquatic WILD and WOW, and "constructing" a model wetland in a tray.
At Sandy Hook students visit freshwater marshes, an unusual wetland dominated by holly trees and peculiar cat's-eye ponds that form at the accreting, distal tip of the spit; but the most memorable activity is seining and collecting marinelife at low tide in the bay and tidal marshes.
For follow-up activities, students construct a trophic pyramid and food web from the list of creatures we have observed and collected; and share their thoughts about wetlands through various forms of poetry like Haiku, Diamante and Cinquain.
Session 4: Down to the Sea in Ships - is the most popular experience for most students. Staff and teachers enjoy it too, especially since they have onboard a captive audience. We always outfit charter fishing boats to keep down expenses, accommodate larger groups, and share the benefits with local captains during their slow seasons. By now the students are acquainted with us and don't mind getting their hands wet (Or cutting bait, for that matter).
We prepare them for our day on the bay with exercises in navigation and sea lore, and have them build some sampling gear like plankton nets and secchi disks. On our sailing day student teams sample basic water chemistry (Temperature, pH, Salinity, Dissolved Oxygen); and navigate with a Dutchman's log, lead line and sextant. They sample the plankton, benthic and nektonic communities by hand-lining their homemade nets, and by lowering an Eckmann grab and small trawl. Students complete a checklist of weather and water conditions, and a list of everything we've captured and released for our reports.
The high point for most students (and a seminal event for many who have never held a pole or a live fish) is fish-tagging, and of course this involves baiting hooks and fishing. (Another advantage to using charter boats) It also involves teamwork, sharing, and learning the three most important words in fishing: "Patience, Patience and Patience." I would be lying like a fisherman if I said we always catch fish, but generally we are successful, and have the pictures to prove it on our website. We also have a number of tag returns from several species, including sharks, to our credit.
The boat trip is a good "hook" for the study of local history and regularly the students' evaluations take the form of a pirate theme or pirate day; complete with fake tattoos, eye-patches and of course, hidden treasure. Successful fishing teams also key out their catch at our website.
Session 5: Barrier Beach Botany - is the most challenging lesson for the teacher because of the nature of the topic and age of the participants. Student assignments beforehand include understanding the biotic and abiotic components in the environment, a pre-test to encourage research on plant facts, comparisons of the size and types of trees found in their neighborhood, and brainstorming a list of good things about poison ivy - one of the most abundant and valuable plants at the shore.
To best understand the successional stages of natural communities and adaptations that permit plants to survive at the beach, we do transects from bay-to-ocean; measuring tree height, species composition, available sunlight, and soil development and moisture content. By making similar observations along the length of Sandy Hook, students also verify what four centuries of charts show; that the spit is constantly being elongated by longshore currents. The climax of our expedition is a visit to the best preserved maritime holly forest along the coast, where students are introduced to the oldest resident in the area - a giant holly tree that some claim may have sprouted when Sandy Hook was "purchased" for thirteen shillings from the Lenape Indians in 1678.
After our field work, the students reinforce their observations by preparing herbarium specimens or drawing them. Younger students make "tree shirts" by imprinting leaves on shirts or paper; similar to the technique for making Gyotaku fish prints. We also taste beach plum and prickly pear cactus jellies, as well as other plants that were used by colonists and Native Americans.
Session 6: Making Waves - is fun and fundamental to our understanding of the shore. Working in small groups and using the simplest of tools like circular bowls, foot-long plastic shoe boxes, straws and a stopwatch; students can "model" wave behavior in deep and shallow water, graph their observations, and more easily grasp the physicist's understanding of wave behavior. A sealed bottle with equal parts of water and vegetable oil demonstrates waves in slow motion and mysterious internal waves below the ocean's surface. Another very effective demonstration for the class is a clear glass pie pan "wave machine" placed on an overhead projector.
At the shoreline we use our knowledge of "model" waves to measure significant wave height, period and direction. Back in the classroom this data is applied to simple equations to estimate wave velocity and length, breaker depth, whether the beach is eroding or accreting, and to hind-cast the source of the waves.
Since so much of the study of waves involves math, evaluation can be objective tests involving the behavior of waves. Students also find stories of giant waves intriguing and enthusiastically research them.
Session 7: The Moving Beach - is a great opportunity for small-group activities and cooperative learning. In the classroom, the students get a microscopic view of the beach by sifting and sorting sand particles, then drawing and identifying samples from different beaches. Standardized sieves and a balance allow them to make a graph of their local beach sand and compare it to other sites; or compare dune and berm samples for particle size and composition. A sealed bottle with equal parts of water and mixed sand demonstrates the settling and sorting properties of particles after it is shaken vigorously and left to stand for a class period.
At the beach students measure the effects of wind and water on sand by taking beach profiles and digging trenches to observe laminations from wave patterns and wind shifts. On stormy days, they learn the difference between suspension and saltation of particles in the wind by collecting the fine sand that accumulates in their hair and hats, and comparing it to what fills their shoes and socks. Maps and site visits confirm that Sandy Hook is growing to the North at a remarkable rate each year - about one bus-length. On our field trips, we also learn that everyday is beach clean-up day, and collect flotsam and jetsam for arts-and-crafts during an ABC (Abiotic, Biotic, and Cultural) scavenger hunt. (Sandy Hook also has a "Carry in/Carry out" policy for trash)
Besides providing us with data to contrast with previous years' samples and looking for erosion trends, graphing their beach profile and comparing it to other teams evaluates how well each group worked together. Generally our data confirms L.U.S.T. theory - that the beach is moving Landward and Upward in Space and Time. Here and in Sea Bright, at the entrance to the park, we also can compare graphic examples of "hard" and "soft" technologies used to cope with beach erosion: Sand-bags, cement and seawalls versus pumped sand replenishment techniques.
Session 8: The Battle of Sandy Hook - allows students to experience the shore from the
perspective of historians. After studying the beach in different
seasons as a biologist, geologist, mariner and engineer, it is
an opportunity to choose a moment in the long history of this
strategic spit and imagine a day in the life of a soldier, sailor
A restored officer's home, bakery, Post Exchange, mule stable, fire house and dozens of buildings like the stockade illustrate what made this small Army town of Fort Hancock a self-contained community. A treasure map, sometimes written by pirates and occasionally by General Winfield Scott Hancock himself (Hero of Gettysburg, 1880 Presidential candidate, and in his day described as the "Handsomest man in America") is often discovered on our history hike; which if followed correctly, leads the group back to our headquarters for a surprise treat.
The concentration of so many interesting structures spanning so many centuries is an invitation to express oneself artistically and students are evaluated by the stories, poems or pictures they produce. Younger students also enjoy an activity we organize as a problem-solving team competition to design and build, with a predetermined number of straws, the tallest lighthouse
Session 9: Maritime History - is essential to understanding and appreciating marine science and Sandy Hook. Every beach on the East Coast seems to have legends of Captain Kidd's treasure buried somewhere, and Sandy Hook is no exception.
Our new knowledge of botany and geology reveals that the large pine tree it was supposedly buried under couldn't have existing here. However we remain hopeful beachcombers after reading accounts of the 1948 discovery of coins (gold "Johannas" dating from the mid 1700's) on the beach in Water Witch - the early name of Sandy Hook's neighboring town across the bay, Highlands. This leads us to a story published in 1830 by James Fenimore Cooper ("America's first novelist") who spent summers there. In that tale, an 18th-century smuggler regularly transfers contraband ashore and miraculously escapes on his vessel - The Water Witch. Legends abound and each year we uncover new lore about this fascinating peninsula.
With so many charts and descriptions dating back to Henry Hudson's arrival (and Sandy Hook's first ship grounding) here in 1609, the only chore for students researching and writing about Sandy Hook for their evaluation, is choosing a single topic.
Session 10: Save Our Shoreline - is an opportunity for students to express themselves and for teachers to choose a grade-appropriate final evaluation for their time spent at Sandy Hook. Several options are available including: a pre-packaged "Jeopardy Game" for teams to compete in, web-based quizzes, role-playing to discuss coastal issues, designing a marine-related project, and identifying a coastal problem and developing an action plan to solve it.
A popular activity that everyone can participate in at some level is a role-playing debate about the development of a thinly-disguised sand spit (Sandy Pointe) adjacent to the towns of Sea Blite and Water Witch, where the public and politicians deliberate the future development of Getaway Park.
The administration and development of Sandy Hook by the National Park Service, and the educational and research opportunities presented by its partners, are excellent examples of how a barrier beach can be sensibly developed as a major recreational and educational resource.
To paraphrase a former governor's statement
about New Jersey:
Brookdale College at Sandy Hook
American Littoral Society - Fish tagging,
James J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory
Marine Academy of Science and Technology
MATE - Marine Advance Technology Education
center - ROV's
National Park Service - Gateway National Recreation
National Park Service - Sandy Hook Unit
New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium (NJ
NJMEA - New Jersey Marine Educators Association
NY/NJ Harbor Estuary Program
Rutgers University Institute of Marine and
Sandy Hook Bird Observatory
Sandy Hook Foundation
United States Coast Guard -Sandy Hook
Sea Bright Borough
The Beaches Are Moving by Orin Pilkey (1983,
Duke University Press)
General Winfield Scott Hancock
Limited copies of the Sandy Hook and Estuaries booklets are available (For the cost of postage) through the generosity of the Brookdale College Foundation and the Harland "Butch" Miller and Irving Wasserman funds. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
We greatly appreciate and acknowledge the National Park Service for their cooperation and space provided at Fort Hancock; and Dr. Elaine Audrieth (NJDOE), Keansburg, Union Beach and West Long Branch schools, Allentown High School (NJ) and scores of other groups for their support of our programs.
Dave Grant is the director of Brookdale College's Ocean