Posts Tagged ‘marine life’

“Stop the car!” my passenger shouted from the back seat as we neared the turnoff to Martinique Beach.  My friend Sybil had caught sight of her first seal and there it was, lying in the sea grass to the side of the road:  an adult harp seal.

Most of us can quickly recognize baby harp seals.  They’re the ones with the big dark eyes and completely white fur.  Once they become adults however, they acquire a silver coat with a black head and markings, looking very little like the photogenic youngsters they once were.

Harp seals are mammals that spend most of their time eating fish in the ocean.  This one seemed to be enjoying the brief interlude of sunshine in the sea grass. 

I’m not sure how frequently harp seals visit our local shores.  They are usually found in the waters off Greenland and Newfoundland.  Apparently when they are seen here in Nova Scotia, they are solitary.  This one certainly seemed to be alone.

Last April I spotted a lone harbor seal in the salt marsh.  Though some people claim to see seals regularly on our shores or in our waters, this is only the third time I’ve seen one.     

The sighting was the highlight of the afternoon for not just me and Sybil of Eastern Passage Passage, but also our accompanying friend and blogger Lynne of Five Good Things who is visiting from England.  Today’s scenic trip along the Eastern Shore certainly managed to get our collective seal of approval.


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As much as we enjoy wildlife, it’s seldom that we have an opportunity to hold live specimens in our hands.  Most wild creatures want to put as much distance between us and them as possible, and that’s how it should be.   However, opportunities to get up close and personal with wildlife are possible along Nova Scotia’s seashore in the intertidal zone.  Marine animals such as crabs and starfish are easily caught and respond well to gentle handling.

The starfish at left was found in the salt marsh.  Its underside reveals gel-like feelers that glisten in the sunlight as they move.  Live, juicy starfish are enjoyed by seagulls who can spot them underwater clinging to rocks.

Though a bit more difficult to catch, live crabs are very animated and deeper in color than the dried ones found higher up the beach.  Up close they look like little aliens.  They too are eaten by seagulls.

To those who are willing to get really up close, offshore waters offer even more wonders.

Live sand dollars are nothing like the bone dry tests we may sometimes find on the beach.  Their five point star design is just barely discernible beneath their deep purple fur-like covering of cilia.  Beds of these can be found by scuba divers in the subtidal zone, a wonder hidden from the view of beachcombers.  Sand dollars are preyed upon by starfish, snails and skates.

After handling these delicate marine creatures, it’s best to quickly place them back where they were found as they are unable to survive out of the water for long.  Such close encounters should be kept as brief as possible, unless of course you’re a seagull looking for a meal.

I’m hungry Dolores. Should we get fast food or see what’s slow in the marsh?

Photo credits:  Julie Perry

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Canada Day began this morning with a clear moon in a sky filled with blue.  By the time I reached Cow Bay Road, the sun was already rising over Lawrencetown. 

Once I arrived at Rainbow Haven, grey clouds were beginning to crowd out some of the blue sky.  Along with the water, they reflected the dawn beautifully.

The tide was very low, so the blue mussel bed on the beach was exposed.  From a distance, the bed looks like just a large patch of gravel on the sand, but is actually teaming with life.

Crabs, barnacles, periwinkles, dogwhelks, sea stars, blue mussels and moon snails all reside there.  They hide between and beneath the smoothly worn stones, while lying in wait for their prey or to avoid becoming prey themselves.  Rock crabs are especially talented at wedging themselves in the crevices with only their claws exposed.

Several small sea stars were present in the tidepools this morning.  They seem to be more common this year, both here and farther back in the marsh.   These purple starfish prey on the blue mussels by prying them open and inserting their stomachs inside the shells in order to feast on the contents directly.  Who would suspect these elegant creatures to have such gruesome feeding habits?

Beautiful weather on Canada Day always attracts crowds of sun seekers to Rainbow Haven beach.  Although the afternoon sun does put a sparkle on the sand and water, seeing the early morning sun at the shore puts a sparkle on my whole day. 

Happy Canada Day!

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Beyond Nova Scotia’s ocean shore lies the world of inner space.  This marvelous world is seen by few except divers, who brave our cold waters for just a glimpse of its wildlife inhabitants.  The rest of us only see evidence of undersea life when it is washed ashore or edible forms appear on our dinnerplate.  Yet, how far these experiences remove us from the pulse of life beneath the surface of the waves.

The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish.

~ Jacques Cousteau

The spiny sculpin, shown at top, is an odd-looking fish that can survive out of water for hours at a time as long as it stays wet.  Another bottom dweller is the flounder shown below.  Amazingly, one of the flounder’s eyes gradually drifts from one side of its body to the other.  The body of the fish eventually turns on its side, where both of its eyes come to rest on ‘top.’ 


Crustaceans, such as this spider crab, are also found on the sea floor, scavenging for food.

Hermit crabs search the sea floor for empty shells that they may use to protect their vulnerable bodies from predators.  They don’t possess the hard exoskeleton common to most true crabs.

The seafood section in Nova Scotia’s grocery stores often hold live lobsters in a tank.  The trapped  lobster, shown above, seems destined for such a place.  Like many crustaceans, it possesses the magical ability to regrow its asymmetrical claws.

Among the most attractive creatures to be found off our coasts are the carnivorous sea anemones, which look deceptively like plants.  


Many thanks to Wayne Joy and my son Simon Bell for granting permission to share these beautiful photos taken on a recent dive.  Both Wayne and Simon are members of the Shearwater Scuba Club.

Images copyright Wayne T. Joy / Simon Bell.

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salt marsh just before dawn

It’s just before dawn in the salt marsh and the tide is low.  Herons and sandpipers are already busy looking for breakfast.  Several seagulls fly by with crabs in their beaks.  Birds aren’t the only creatures looking for food at this hour.  Motor boats can be heard in the distance.  The clammers are out, their silhouettes barely discernible in several spots in the marsh.

clam digger

Considering the large number of people out in the marsh digging for clams at a time when most would rather be in bed, the effort must have its rewards.  The work is back-breaking and the mosquitoes are a nuisance.  A young clammer was diligently at work with his short pitchfork when I photographed him.  He said the pay was good for skilled diggers, but he didn’t consider himself a very good one.


Illustration of Happy Clams by Sydney Smith ~ Ecology Action Centre

Clammers find clams by looking for their breathing holes in the sand.  Though some clams may just be a few inches below the surface, others may be down a foot in the mud.  Clammers make use of spades, pitchforks or their hands to find them.

Clams should not be harvested during periods of algal bloom, known also as Red Tide, when phytoplankton increase in concentration in the marine environment.  Warning signs are frequently posted at a location near Rainbow Haven Beach where boats are launched into the marsh area.   Contaminated clams don’t have a particular taste and toxins cannot be eliminated by cooking or freezing.  The paralytic shellfish poisoning caused by harmful algal blooms (HABs) can cause death.

Clams play an important role in the ecosystem by filtering water.  A large clam can filter about a gallon of water in an hour.  Their presence is an indicator of the health of the environment.

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rock crab

Dismembered crab carcasses litter the trail that runs through the salt marsh.  Seagulls fly onto the trail to crack open and eat crabs found in the marsh.  Although Rock Crabs are most common, Green Crabs are also on the seagulls’ menu.   Sometimes cracked Northern Moon Snail shells can be found as well, remnants of a tasty breakfast.

green crab1

Although Rock Crabs can run sideways at great speed, and are masterful at wedging themselves between the rocks along the shore, they are still easily caught by the seagulls.  These crabs are most active at night. 

rock crab on sand

Crabs are Decapods, having five pairs of legs.  Their abdomens are small and curled under their bodies.  They share the lobsters’ marvelous ability to regenerate legs, claws, eyes or antennae.  They are predators and scavengers, eating dead creatures found on the bottom of the marsh and sea.  Common prey are starfish, sea urchins and other crabs.  Crab shells fade in the sunlight, becoming a light orange color over time.

Neither Green nor Rock Crabs are consumed by people in Nova Scotia.  Snow Crabs, more common in Cape Breton, are the type usually eaten here. 

rock crab underside

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