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Water From Sand

By Dawn Fallik
Published on the front page, Philadelphia Inquirer
August 19, 2012

WILDWOOD CREST ­ It’s full-­on summertime hot as
Matt Long sets up his yellow buckets, pastry knives,
and brushes at the far end of the beach and gets to
work.

What is it? Right now, it’s a blob of sand. A four­foot­
high wedding cake of brown.

Slowly, carefully, the shape of a hydrant emerges. Six
hours later, countless grains of hard, broken rock have
become a carved hand reaching from the Earth,
turning a spigot on one side of the hydrant while
“water” returns to the ground on the other.

“I had a deep, hidden­meaning explanation for this
sculpture,” says Long, 57, who lives in Staten Island,
N.Y.

“Something about the hand representing man’s struggle to put an end to all the mess, the stress, and the confusion represented by the steady flow from the spigot. All the while the flow from the spigot keeps man buried in subterranean slurry. The Spigot of Man’s Confusion!”

That’s some deep thinking out on the Jersey Shore.

Long owns a wood­restoration business in New York City. But for three years, he’s worked almost exclusively as a sand sculptor for hire. He’s finished 30 to 40 sculptures this year, his busiest ever, he says.

He’s flown to Anguilla to create a work for a wealthy couple’s wedding, carved dolphins in the Bahamas, and built a Manhattan skyline in a Bergen County, N.J., mall.

But when he’s on his own time, Long says, he goes to Wildwood Crest for its spectacularly sculptable sand.

“Fine­grain sand is excellent, but it’s not perfect, because you want an angular structure to the grains so they lock up together when you add water,” Long says.

A dash of silt or clay is also useful in holding things together, he adds, clenching a handful of the premium Cape May County stock. When he releases his fingers, there’s a beautiful, fist­shaped ball.

As one of seven “sand masters” on the Travel Channel series of the same name, Long is sometimes followed by cameras. (He’s waiting to see whether Season 3 is picked up.)
But on this sweltering August day, he’s just hanging out with friends, playing around with ideas inspired by everything from fire hydrants to background art on the TV show The Big Bang Theory.

Most of the time, Long is hired to create something specific ­ a lion lounging on rocks for the Staten Island Zoo, for example, or a tribute to New York firefighter Stephen Siller, whose death on 9/11 led to creation of a charity for the children of fallen first responders.

In October, he’ll be sand-carving at a pumpkin-chucking contest – the Last Fling Pumpkin Sling – in Harmony Township, N.J.

He doesn’t come cheap: If you want to set the stage for a wedding proposal on Staten Island, he can do a romantic castle for about $500. For more elaborate projects that involve travel, he’s been paid as much as $40,000.

His work is designed to disappear, whether in slow licks from the water or within seconds under teenage feet.

“I spent about five hours yesterday working on this abstract sculpture, and there were a lot of older kids around. As we were packing up, I heard a lot of whispering like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s going!’ and I knew it wasn’t long for the world,” Long says.

“If it’s a big event, or a competition, they usually hire guards overnight to keep the pieces safe.”

Long began sand-sculpting when he was a child during family trips to the Shore. His first real gig came in 2003, when someone who knew someone mentioned his skills to an event planner for Nike. They paid him $1,000 for two days’ work building a giant shoe crushing a sand castle.

“The craziest thing I ever did was a job at the W Hotel [in Manhattan], doing a sculpture for a book called 101 Alternative Uses for K-Y Jelly,” Long said. “I had to use a lot of K-Y in the sculpture itself, but it wasn’t dirty, it was pretty clean.”

Wherever he works, crowds form. They want to know what he’s making, how he started, what advice he has.

It’s all about the foundation, Long tells them. Pack the sand really tight at the bottom, have a design already in mind, and use a lot of patience and decent tools.

Long has developed his own kit (available online at sandtools.com) that includes molds and shapers and brushes. But one of his best secrets is a straw, used to blow away unwanted bits. Just don’t inhale.

Even surrounded by people, sculpting is a solitary pursuit, the sound of the sea somehow working with the scrape, scrape of the knife. When he works, Long says, his mind is clear, peaceful.

“I’m still amazed at what we can do. Sand shouldn’t be vertical,” he says as the fingers of a left hand slowly emerge next to the sculpted hydrant. “It shouldn’t stand still. And then it does.”

Catch of the Day

EGG HARBOR CITY, N.J. ­ Frank Thomas could handle the squid. The mussels. The steamers. But cooking oysters was the biggest challenge.

“Two weeks ago, I lost my oyster ­shucking virginity; I’d never shucked an oyster before,” said Thomas, 62,
a tax and investment professor at Richard Stockton College. He used Internet videos to figure out how to
pry open the reluctant bivalves.

“At this point, I’ve done so many I could go pro,” he said.

This week, Thomas was picking up four pounds of fresh scallops by way of a new pilot program of Rutgers
University, the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, and New Jersey fishermen. The community­supported
fishery is a cooperative of about 10 fishing groups, from lobstermen to clam farmers.

Each picks a week over the 11­week program to deliver a portion of the catch to customers who have
signed up. Right now, it’s a small trial, with about 30 members who show up every other week with
coolers and ice packs to collect their share.

The goal, said Gef Flimlin, an extension agent in commercial fisheries and aquaculture at the Rutgers
Cooperative Extension in Toms River, is to get the word out that New Jersey is a good local source of fish
as well as fruit and vegetables. So far, members say, it seems to be working.

“One of the nice things about this program is that we’re trying things we’ve never tried before,” said
Thomas, who is also a member of the farm share program.

This is the first fish cooperative in New Jersey, Flimlin said. Most community­supported agriculture
programs (CSAs) are based on farms. In a typical program, people pay for a share of the farm’s bounty,
receiving a weekly box from spring to fall. The contents change with the season and harvest.

Companies in the program get the word out about their products as well as a financial deal. Fishermen
generally sell directly to stores and restaurants, which charge customers a large markup. The community
program cuts out the middleman.

“The fishermen, in some cases, will make more money, because we split the cost between the dock price
and the retail price,” Flimlin said. “For example, with clams, they will typically get 16 or 17 cents per clam for a littleneck clam, but through the CSA, they are getting 25 cents per clam.”

Gef Flimlin, an extension agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Toms River, said
the extra earnings aren’t huge with 30 customers, he said, but if more people sign up it could make a big difference.

The customers came from the Sea Salt CSA, a three-­year-­old program with 75 members based out of B &
B Farms in Galloway, Atlantic County. Flimlin approached Jennifer Lamonaca, who started the Sea Salt
program after working on the farm owned by her husband’s uncle, Art Brown, a former New Jersey
agriculture secretary. Lamonaca, who spent a decade as a marine biologist before switching to farming,
said that when she heard Flimlin was looking to incorporate a fish share, it sounded like a good fit.

“We notified our CSA members back in February, and we started small with 30 seafood members,”
Lamonaca said. “But I could have sold more.”

George Mathis, owner of the Mathis Clam Farm in Egg Harbor City, said he liked the concept of marketing
directly to local consumers.

“The whole shellfish business in Jersey is infested by out­of­state imports that come in at a lower price but
aren’t as fresh,” Mathis said. “The clams these customers are getting are six hours out of the water.”

Taking part in the program is easy, Mathis said. When he knows his week is coming up, he portions out a
share of that morning’s catch for members. Flimlin picks it up and delivers it, along with materials about
the catch and cooking suggestions.

Mathis said he would like to see the program expanded to a year­round venture, because his company
harvests clams all 52 weeks. Two community programs in New Hampshire and Maine deliver through the
winter, Flimlin said.

That would be fine with Jackie Sullivan, 26, of Galloway Township. She and her husband, Mark, both
marine science professors at Stockton, love seafood. Last Saturday, she bought extra scallops, paying $25
for two pounds, with 10 to 12 buttery blobs per pound. She lightly sautéed them in olive oil and lime juice
and served them with a tropical salsa of pineapple, mango, and mandarin oranges.

So far, Sullivan said, she has had a good time coming up with ways to cook the various offerings.

“We did oysters Rockefeller . . . lots of butter, lots of garlic,” she said. “We first sautéed them in beer to pop them open and then put lots of cheese and spinach on it, and it was delicious.”

Sea glass becoming harder to find

CHESTERTOWN, Md. – Every week, Christeena Minopetros combs bays and beaches for sea glass, whether she’s in Florida, Greece, or her childhood home of Sea Bright, N.J.

This month, she was dipping her fingers in the waves off Long Beach Island, where she returns for a family vacation most every summer, hoping to find the greens and blues and maybe, possibly, hopefully, a sliver of red or orange.

“It’s such a mystery for me,” said Minopetros, who serves on the board of the North American Sea Glass Association, a national collectors group with more than 2,000 people on its mailing list. “Where does it come from, and how did it end up here?”

But the clues to that oceanic treasure hunt are becoming harder to find. Sea glass – those rounded, frosted shards that once held milk or medicine or seltzer – is disappearing.

“Between recycling and the use of plastic, there just isn’t a lot of glass anymore,” said Richard LaMotte, often referred to as the “Father of Sea Glass” since the 2004 publication of his book Pure Sea Glass: Discovering Nature’s Vanishing Gems.

The book includes not only tips for finding sea glass, but history, appraisal techniques, and a detailed color analysis. Yellow, for example, was primarily used for tableware, and one type was produced with 2 percent uranium dioxide, giving it a neon glow under ultraviolet light.

“A lot of people go out to look for it, and it’s still there, but there’s a lot less of it,” LaMotte said.

Sea glass is formed in a two-part process. First, the alkaline pH of the water strips off the surface gloss and corrodes the outer layers of each piece. Then the waves and sand act as a sandblaster, softening sharp edges and pitting the surface, said Richard Baldwin, a research chemist for NASA in Cleveland. He collects antique bottles and became interested through his collections in the corrosion process.

The softer and cheaper the glass – such as bottle glass, for example – the faster it corrodes and softens, Baldwin said. Still, it takes 20 to 30 years for the ocean to turn a cracked champagne bottle into a frosted, rounded piece of pure sea glass.

LaMotte said he visits his favorite glass spots about once a week now. As he spoke, his hands reached down to the sandy, stony ground at a beach behind a friend’s house across from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. After an hour, he had collected a square from a 1960s Sprite bottle (with its two telltale bubbles at the bottom), a brown, comet-shaped piece from a 1947 beer bottle, and a tiny turquoise teardrop.

Because most sea glass comes from bottles, clear, brown, or green pieces wash up most often. But in Maryland, there were a couple triangles of lime, a dash of citron, and a tiny dot of cobalt blue, most likely from the Bromo Seltzer bottles that used to be produced across the bay.

Red, yellow, and orange are the rarest colors, along with black, which often glimmers dark green under a flashlight.

LaMotte began hunting for glass about two decades ago, when his wife, Nancy, wanted to incorporate sea glass into her jewelry. During the day, he is a vice president at his family’s water-treatment company in Chestertown, but on weekends, he wanders beaches and bays. He became interested in the history behind the bits and pieces and wanted to know more about the “frosting” caused by the saltwater corroding the glass surface.

There’s such a demand for the glass, both for jewelry and as collector’s pieces, that a black market has developed, LaMotte said. Instead of finding the glass organically, people will use a rock tumbler and various tricks to make glass appear old and pitted. Why? A good red or orange piece can bring hundreds of dollars.

“Over the last 10 years, [collecting sea glass] has kind of exploded,” he said. “People enjoy getting out in nature. They realize it’s vanishing; there’s not much left. And then there are the colors of it; there are so many of them . . . and it’s cool to see what Mother Nature does with a piece of glass.”

Terri Kirby Hathaway, the marine education specialist for the North Carolina Sea Grant Association, said much of today’s glass comes from past dumping of beer and soda bottles into the sea. There is a lot of sea glass in Boston Harbor, for example, because the islands in the harbor were used as a dump for years; as erosion occurred, the glass appeared.

But as people have become more environmentally aware, they have stopped dumping glass and started recycling. Also, the federal Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988 officially banned dumping waste into the oceans.

“I’ve lived on the coast for 28 years, and finding glass on a beach here is pretty rare now,” Hathaway said. “I might find one piece a week now. So now I like to look for toys, like those little Army men, or I found the monkeys from the Barrel Full of Monkeys game.”

True sea glass “snobs” take only pieces that are completely frosted and well rounded – no sharp edges for them. They’ll shove rejects back in the sand or toss them back into the sea for another few rounds of rough-and-tumble.

Some people prefer thicker glass, others older glass – defined by the bubbles that disappeared when glass production was automated in the 1920s.

LaMotte, Hathaway, and Minopetros all have their own special spots to find glass but say it takes time to train the eye to see it.

“I went to Sea Bright and found three good bags,” Minopetros said. “But sometimes, other people come with me, and they don’t see it.”

Bubbles usually indicate older glass. Use a flashlight to detect them.

To find sea glass, skip the main beaches. Check out grassy areas and among rocks, which are more likely to catch them. Bay sides are often better for finding glass than beach sides, as in Cape May. Check out the tide charts and go around low tide, but sometimes the high-tide line can be lucrative.

Sea Glass Fast Facts

Orange, red, turquoise, and yellow shards are the hardest to find. Rare colors come from tableware.

Green, brown, and white/clear are the most common colors. They come from mass-produced bottles made after the 1920s.

Horseshoe Crabs

Dover, Del. — It’s almost dusk at Kitts Hummock Beach, and romance is in the air.

Right where the Delaware Bay slaps the shore, thousands of horseshoe crabs are getting their groove on — shells clicking, 10 legs flailing, tails sliding across the sand — looking for the next best thing.

And this tidal pickup scene smells really, spectacularly bad.

Kelly Reavis, 36, was there to check out the action. An accountant who lives in Kitts Hummock, she volunteered for the first time June 2, a night officials said turned out to be one of the busiest and best nights for spawning this season.

Having grown up on the Delaware Bay, she barely noticed the rancid smell of briny fish decaying in the hot sun.

“What did it smell like? It smelled like dead horseshoe crabs,” she said. “It didn’t even faze me. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.”

Reavis is one of thousands of volunteers across New Jersey and Delaware who offer to take a short training course and then spend a night walking the beach, counting horseshoe crabs.

“We have the largest spawning population in the entire world right here in the Delaware Bay, so people come from all over the world,” said Jennifer Holmes, the education coordinator at the Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve in Dover, which organizes the survey.

“It’s almost an ecotourism kind of attraction.”

About 2,400 volunteers travel from 29 different states to take part in the survey, said Jordan Zimmerman, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the spawning counting program. “People get really excited about it.”

The survey occurs on 25 beaches across Jersey and Delaware on 12 nights in May and June. The nights are timed to coincide with the new and full moons, when the crabs mate.

A decade ago, New Jersey and Delaware started putting laws in place to protect the horseshoe crabs against harvesting by conch fisherman for bait. They are also sold to pharmaceutical companies, as their blood is used for medical testing.

New Jersey banned harvesting the crabs altogether, and Delaware limited the harvest to 100,000 crabs a year, said Zimmerman.

The survey, started in 1990, is done very methodically, said Holmes, the education coordinator at the Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve in Dover.

Holmes helps coordinate and train some of the volunteers on the Delaware Bay. On this particular night, about a dozen volunteers were covering three beaches, each group armed with a headlamps, flashlights, and a specific-sized rectangle, called a “quad.”

During the training, everyone measures how many steps it takes to walk 20 meters. Then they place the quad (one meter by one meter) on the sand and start counting. First they count the males, which have rounded backs and are smaller. Then the females, who are often buried in the sand. Each group takes about 100 “quad” counts.

Zimmerman said the numbers are getting better, slowly, he said. In 1995, the average number of males found in that “quad” was 2.5. In 2007, it was 4.25, the highest since they started keeping the survey. Last year, it was 3.26.

“Statistically, that’s significant,” he said.

This year, one quad at Kitts Hummock had 19 males, but other beaches further south along Delaware Bay had zero.

Kristen Marsh, 45, and her daughter Marcella, 6, came from Vienna, Va., to Delaware looking for the spawning beaches. They’ve been trying to find the right spot for the past three years. This year they hit the mother lode.

Marsh, 45, is from Guatemala and had never seen horseshoe crabs before coming to the East Coast.

“They’re like dinosaurs — well they predate the dinosaurs!” she said, correcting her primeval timeline. “I just think they’re awesome.”

* For More Information

Survey Guidelines

More Horseshoe Crab Stories

Horseshoe Crabs and Red Knots

Cape May Diamonds

CAPE MAY POINT – Jeanette Bartolomeo spends hours each week staring at the tide on Sunset Beach, a tiny stretch at the tip of this tourist area.

As jewelry manager for the Sunset Beach Gift Shop, she’s looking for “Cape May diamonds,” off-white stones rendered transparent in the wash of water and glinting sun. Dry, they are milky, nothing special. But when the stones are tumbled and polished, they gleam and shine.

“There’s definitely a trick to finding the diamonds. You’ve got to look at the edge of the water, where they sparkle,” said Bartolomeo, who is 72 but looks like she’s in her 50s. She became involved with the shop in 1991, after her daughter married into the business.

“I’ll see people pick one up and just toss it,” she said. “They don’t see it.”

Cape May diamonds are usually pebble-size, though in 1942, a 14-ounce stone was found. It’s unclear when people started collecting the stones, which appear on the Jersey Shore and along the Delaware Bay. But locals say that Sunset Beach, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the bay, is where you’ll find the mother lode.

In reality, the diamonds are quartz, made of silica dioxide, said Jane Uptegrove, a geologist for the New Jersey Geological and Water Survey, based in Trenton.

Where scientists score actual diamonds a “10” for their hardness, Cape May diamonds are a “7.”

“The clear quartz crystals have eroded from rocks upstream, most likely from northern Pennsylvania or northern New Jersey,” Uptegrove said. “Ancient and present-day rivers” have transported them downstream “and the wave action at the confluence of the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean has rounded and smoothed the pebbles.”

Ed Hawley, 59, of Keyport, has come to Cape May and collected stones for 30 years. The biomechanical engineer, who designs medical and surgical instruments, believes there’s a silica crystal shelf off the coast that is continuously eroded by the surf.

“Everyone has their own theory,” said Hawley, who keeps his finds in a jar at home. “Some people think they come down from the Delaware Water Gap, but I think that’s a little bit of a stretch.”

Bartolomeo, the jewelry designer, subscribes to the Water Gap theory, but thinks a long-ago nautical accident helped.

On June 8, 1926, the Atlantus, one of 12 experimental concrete ships built around the time of World War I, capsized off Sunset Beach while being readied for reuse in a ferry slip. It still can be seen from the shoreline.

Bartolomeo thinks the wreck creates a whirlpool that sucks in the quartz that comes down the bay.

“The ship doesn’t create the stones, but it does bring them in,” she said.

Sunset Beach isn’t the place to wear sandals or build a sand castle. It’s all stones, incredibly smooth and worn and weathered.

On a windy day this summer, about 50 people strolled the beach, staring downward. Dan McCauley, 55, from Lancaster, Pa., sat on ground searching for diamonds.

“I have a couple in my pocket. They’re just kind of neat to find them,” he said. “The last time we were down here with our kids, we found a shard of a plate from a shipwreck, so that was very cool.”

Sunset Beach was private property until the 1970s, when much of it was sold to the state, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The owners kept the property where the shop, built in 1973, stands. They collect the stones in buckets, particularly after winter storms.

Bartolomeo and her staff turn them into bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. It takes three weeks to turn a rough stone into a diamond using a series of abrasive and fine and polish finishes, she says.

But Bartolomeo has a few special ones she’s held onto for years.

“I’ve found a couple hearts,” she said. “I found one when I first started working here, and I’ve kept it ever since.”