Great Point -August 2011

by: Vern Laux

photography by: Vern Laux and Jim Powers

The wind, waves and ocean currents keep this landscape fluid, often changing dramatically from year to year and even season to season. Wild Atlantic Ocean currents to the east, sandbars forming formidable and dangerous rips as tidal currents flow powerfully at the actual point, and deeper, calmer, warmer water to the west on the shores of Nantucket Sound make this area incredibly beautiful.

The view of Great Point from a ferry, small boat, schooner, four-wheel-drive vehicle or aircraft is always memorable. Of course the Gray Lady got her name for a reason and often Great Point Light and the surrounding bluffs and beaches have gone missing in the fog. They’ve always come back – so far. This stark and pleasing landmark and landscape have carved out a place in history and are always worthy of a visit.

A dynamic landscape of shifting sands, sculpted by near-shore currents, this long, thin beach seemingly changes from day to day. Nor’easters during any season, usually in November and December, usually a three-day event with raging winds, heavy precipitation, massive surf and the resultant storm surge, can wreak havoc and over-wash and breach this beach over practically its entire length. Hurricanes with their uncontrolled fury, depending on the direction and tides when they arrive, can also rearrange this malleable area as if it were made of marshmallow.

If the only constant thing in life is change, then the beach and peninsula connecting Great Point to Nantucket is definitely alive.

A trip at any season is highly recommended and aside from the spectacular scenery, the entire area is good for wildlife, especially bird life. Great Point is accessed through Wauwinet, past a gatehouse that is operated by the Trustees of the Reservations, who manage the area and have agreements with other stakeholders, including the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, which owns pieces of the Haulover and the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns a small piece of land at Great Point; and the U.S. Coast Guard, which owns the Great Point Lighthouse but has an agreement with the Trustees to maintain the building.

There is access for four-wheel-drive vehicles to drive out to Great Point and the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge on designated tracks. A permit is needed that can be purchased at the gatehouse for $140. This allows access to the entire area and access to properties owned by the above-mentioned various entities. The Trustees also offer a variety of guided tours for birding, fishing, visiting the lighthouse and sunsets – far and away the easiest and perhaps most enjoyable way for visitors and residents alike to access the area.

Driving on the beach in a vehicle is shocking to many visitors, as this activity is prohibited in most locales on both coasts of the United States and in Europe. It is a unique experience and a privilege for all who enjoy it. Many people have fallen in love with this amazing place and plan their annual vacations to Nantucket to spend most of their time on Great Point, relaxing, picnicking, fishing, birding or just enjoying the pace of life on the beach.

Occasionally for a few weeks during the piping plover nesting season, a track or all the tracks may be closed while the plover chicks are growing feathers and are still flightless. Piping plovers are a threatened species and need protection from human actions if they are to survive. During afternoons and when it is windy – which is usually – the birds seek the lowest point on the beach to escape the wind. If driving is allowed, the most sheltered spot is in the tire tracks. The birds are impossible to see and will get run over. Because of federal and state regulations, the birds need to be monitored and when necessary, four-wheel-drive access is restricted for a limited time.

The point and surrounding waters have become a good area to observe gray seals. Gray seal numbers have increased dramatically in Nantucket Sound and over the entire region after being extirpated for almost 80 years. With “pupping” areas close by on undisturbed Monomoy and Muskeget islands, the number of seals that frequent the area and “haul out” at the point has grown yearly. All marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act passed by Congress in October 1972.

Gray Seals are dimorphic, meaning the males and females are quite different, with males reaching up to 10 feet in length and 880 pounds, and females reaching up to 7.5 feet and 550 pounds. Longevity for females in the wild is approximately 35 years while males live up to 25 years. Gray seals are opportunistic feeders, consuming whatever prey is most abundant. Food sources include fish, crustaceans, squid, octopus and even seabirds on occasion.

Smaller fish are generally consumed under water while bigger fish are brought to the surface to be broken into smaller pieces using the seal’s front flippers and mouth. “Social feeding” is often practiced by gray seals, which helps to prevent prey escaping capture. In open waters gray seals rest in a vertical position similar to a floating bottle, where the animal keeps only its head and neck above water.

During the past two summer seasons, the thousands of gray seals utilizing the Monomoy Islands and the Chatham sandbars have attracted great white sharks to the region. As many as a dozen great whites were patrolling near shore on the east side of Monomoy Island last summer, hunting this high-caloric prey. It seems reasonable to expect more of these large, efficient and beautiful sharks in area waters. Several species of shark and orcas are known to prey on gray seals.

Last summer there were some interactions between fishermen and gray seals, with the seals attempting to eat fish that were literally on the line. Apparently one or a few individuals have figured out that a fish being pulled in is an easy meal. This is not good news for seals or fishermen. Hopefully this season the individual seal or seals have moved on. Because of the dangers to both seals – getting hooked by lures causing infections, injuries and worse while losing their instinctual fear of man – and to fishermen, who might get bitten by one of these large sharp-toothed animals, all encounters end badly for both.

The entire area, particularly Great Point, offers some of the finest birding on Nantucket. Virtually any species might occur and the list of vagrants is impressive: white pelican, greater white-fronted goose and snowy owls during the winter months come to mind. Sea birds, pelagic wanderers that spend their lives over the world’s oceans, often come in close to shore. Jaegers, falcon-like seabirds and shearwaters, birds that breed in the Southern Hemisphere and spend the Austral winter, our summer, in the Northern Hemisphere, are frequent visitors during the summer months.

Terns, including many species that are rare in Massachusetts, are often detected sitting on the point or fishing over the rips. Then there are the gulls nesting and shorebirds nesting and feeding here during their annual migrations, and you start getting the idea that this is a very good area to see birds. It is amazing how no two trips down the beach are ever the same. It varies so much as to be totally unpredictable: another part of its appeal.

The peregrine falcon, a top-of-the-food- chain avian predator that is back from the brink as it almost became extinct because of persistent pesticides a half-century ago, can be seen year-round, often perched on the Great Point Lighthouse railing providing a great vantage point for these sharp-eyed masters of the air. Much to the chagrin of various researchers tasked with protecting nesting piping plovers and American oystercatchers, it seems one or more peregrines has developed a “taste” for the oystercatchers and specializes in capturing and eating them during the month of May.

Whether you are on your first trip to Nantucket or a lifelong resident, unmistakable, untamed Great Point is an adventure and pleasure to visit no matter the season. 

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