A small island provides big picture


July 17, 1993|By TOM HORTON

Shanks Island is nothing much to look at, and nowhere in particular.

It lies a dozen miles from either the eastern or western shore of Chesapeake Bay, and about halfway in the eight mile, north-south stretch of water that separates Smith and Tangier islands, the bay's two remotest human communities.

Shanks is burning hot in the July sun. The tide flats are too shallow for easy approach by boat, too mucky for easy wading, and rife with stinging nettles and biting greenhead flies.

An eroding spit of white sand and emerald tide marsh, Shanks proper measures less than a few hundred yards long, and in places is no more than 50 feet wide. On a 3-by-2-foot satellite photograph of the vast Chesapeake, it is less than a grain of rice. Yet, "Shankses" and its immediate environs are one of the bay's magical places, an outpost of life, of fecundity and diversity out of all proportion to its physical attributes.

It exemplifies one of the Chesapeake's most essential characteristics, a key to the estuary's amazing productivity: The bottom of the bay is very, very close to its top.

The bay is approximately a million feet long and up to 100,000 feet wide, but only about 21 feet deep on average. If you were to scale its length and width to the size of a football field, you would have to represent its depth as less than the thickness of three dimes.

And this baywide shallowness, compared to the waters down Shanks' way, seems deep as the Pacific Ocean. For more than a year, it was my pleasure to commute twice weekly by small boat across these lonesome tide flats between Smith and Tangier.

Across miles and thousands of acres of water, the bottom was visible in exquisite detail for all but a few minutes of the trip. A foot of clearance showing on the depth sounder was, to me, fine cruising, and 3 feet seemed a regular ship channel. All this shallowness, where sunlight penetrates easily to the bottom, is why the bay grew lush meadows of underwater grasses -- prime habitats for crabs and fish and once covering more than a half-million acres.

Pollution has reduced the submerged grasses throughout the bay by nearly 90 percent. Remote spots such as Shanks retain some of the best of what remains. Local watermen call it "the knoll," these sunny, olive-toned shallows through which we are slogging toward the island, shoving our skiffs with long poles until they ground, then jumping overboard and mucking the rest of the way.

It is here on The Knoll -- I think it merits capitalization -- that the precious grassy habitat overlaps with a salinity uniquely ideal, among all the bay's range, for both female and male crabs (the latter prefer saltier water, the former fresher).

The result is a temple of love, the greatest trysting place for blue crabs in the universe. In the entire cycle of the island waterman's year, there is no activity more savored than the weeks of late summer when half the towns of Tangier and Smith are out "nettin' on The Knoll."

As many as a hundred netters, each perched on the very bow-tip of his graceful little crab skiff, "hang ten" like surfers, intent as stalking herons on the "doubled" -- or mating -- crabs below. Leaning on the bow, or circular portion of their 12-foot-long crab nets to shove themselves this way and that, the netters on The Knoll seem to dance a languid waltz with their pole.

On still, cloudy days when the light is soft and luminous, conditions for netting are ideal. Sky and sea merge in a steel-blue monochrome, and crabber and crab net and skiff dance their homage to the crab and the shallow grassy bottom.

Come the winter, the area is refuge and feeding ground for

hundreds -- and sometimes more than a thousand -- swans, which have flown all the way to Shanks from across a million acres of Alaskan tundra.

In the sands of the little beaches here, horseshoe crabs crawl forth in May to deposit their eggs, a ritual the species has performed for 400 million years. A month or so later they are followed by processions of nesting diamond-backed terrapins.

But just now, in mid-summer, we welcome a most impressive newcomer to the Chesapeake. A third of the little island is virtually blanketed with elegantly plumaged royal terns, probably the largest nesting colony in the mid-Atlantic region. Our approach raises the adults in a chittering, screeching cloud.

They swirl and gyre in a dizzying display, a living blizzard. Their flightless chicks, numbering perhaps a thousand, perform the same fluid

gyrations on the sand. The effect is confusing to the eye, grating on the ear, and probably an ingrained and effective defense against predators.

Such a sight might be the highlight of a year for many bird watchers, but on Shanks Island it is only the secondary attraction for July.

No. 1 are brown pelicans -- big, regal birds that seldom utter a sound, even when alarmed. They command your respect and seem to have a force of character, an individuality shared by only a few other fowl, among them the bald eagle and the great blue heron.

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