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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

SIGHT: Horseshoe crabs spawning, Brooklyn


A few Sundays ago I headed out to Dead Horse Bay, in Marine Park, Brooklyn, to see the annual horseshoe crab spawning. The crabs’ mating season peaks each May and June at evening high tides on the full and new moons. As the bus pulled up to a ramshackle bus stop across from Floyd Bennett Field, the only sign that anything unusual was happening in this desolate part of the city was a cluster of pilgrims in anoraks and rubber boots huddled beneath the Q35 sign, where we had been told to meet for the hike to the beach, organized by the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment. As it turned out, we’d all disembarked at the wrong stop, but we finally found our way to the trailhead with the help of a kind man in a car--a gesture of rare New York City altruism. The air smelled like honeysuckle as we wound through tall grass to the beach. Strangers chatted and shared almonds from their tote bags.

Though it had rained all afternoon, by the time we arrived at the beach the sun had started to streak the clouds pink. As we approached the water’s edge, we glimpsed the brown, shiny, domelike backs of a pair of horseshoe crabs washing to shore along with droves of rubbish (comprising a curious number of shoe parts, making me wonder if there was a shoe factory nearby). The male approached the larger female and clasped onto her back so casually it seemed almost happenstance. But they remained steadfastly joined even as the tides buffeted them to and fro. Sometimes another male joined the pair in a crustacean ménage à trois. Single crabs in search of mates buzzed along the shoreline with the smooth but erratic movement of bumper cars.


Some of the visitors lifted the crabs out of the water and passed them around. The horn-like tail swooped up and down like a drawbridge, threatening to poke someone’s eye out, but the BCUE naturalist assured us that we weren’t harming the animals. The crabs were heavy, their carapaces cool and smooth. It was incredible to think that these creatures had been engaged in the same dance since before the dawn of human civilization, when giant dragonflies droned overhead instead of JFK-bound airplanes, and the prurient spectators were cockroaches rather than Gore-Texed urbanites in search of a last weekend adventure before returning home to their suppers.