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From the Maine- Canada border to the tip of the Florida Keys, the U.S. Atlantic Coast measures 28,673 miles, and George Reiger seems to know at least one fascinating fact for every cape, cove, bay, beach or inlet along the way. That at least is the impression one comes away with after reading his new book, Wanderer on My Native Shore ( Simon and Schuster, $14.95). I wasn't aware, for instance, that:
?In the 19th century, bluefin tuna were valued only for their oil (24 gallons of it could be rendered from a 1,000-pound fish), while in January 1982, a mid-sized 352-pound bluefin sold in Japan for 1,500,000 yen, or $6,818.18.
?Gonyaulax tamarensis var. excavata, the tiny dinoflagellate responsible for the red tides that periodically poison shellfish beds in northern waters, produces a "saxitoxin" so potent that a mere milligram can kill a human.
?When Moses made the Nile turn red, as recounted in Chapter 7 of Exodus, the real transmuter may have been another dinoflagellate, a member of the genus Gymnodinium that affects warm-water regions worldwide.
?Many shearwaters, oceanic birds that can be seen feeding along the Outer Banks of North Carolina during the summer, breed in the British Isles. A shearwater removed from its nest, tagged, flown by jetliner to Boston and released was back in its British burrow—they tunnel into cliffsides—only 12 nights later.
?The small cookie-cutter shark (Isistius phitodus) of southern U.S. waters takes only tiny bites of its prey—whales and dolphins, usually—thus ensuring future meals for other cookie-cutter sharks.
?The diorama at the Hagley Museum on Brandywine Creek in Delaware shows pre-Columbian Indians catching carp, though carp didn't arrive in America until 1876, when the U.S. Fish Commission imported 345 of them from Germany.
From greenhead flies to bluehead wrasse, Reiger knows it all. Not only did he grow up along the Atlantic shore—residing at various times in Massachusetts or Long Island and alongside Florida's Biscayne Bay—but his work as conservation editor of Field & Stream and field editor for Audubon magazine has allowed him to buttress his experience with rich ecological data. In prose as clear and life-filled as a Cape Cod tidal pool, he takes the reader the length of the coast, from Eastport, Maine, where a planned oil refinery threatens the rock-ribbed shore, to the Dry Tortugas, 65 miles beyond Key West and America's "farthest south" point, where red-brick Fort Jefferson, already sinking into the sea, stands as a monument to earlier environmental folly. Soon after construction began in 1846 the fort was deemed impractical, yet work continued, and now the coral key the fort rests upon is disappearing under its massive weight.
The word ecology has taken on a gloomy resonance in recent years. Environmentalists find themselves flinching in the face of the latest horror stories, whether they deal with Persian Gulf oil spills far from our own shores or the near-total disappearance of some of California's beaches, thanks to terrible winter storms. Yet Reiger's book gets back to the ecological basics: Though he doesn't shy from addressing, where necessary, America's abuse of the Atlantic shore, he deals delightfully with the complex interactions of all the life forms that inhabit the littoral. Though his writing is less poetic than Rachel Carson's in her 1955 work. The Edge of the Sea, his account is far richer in the human history of the region. His summary of Henry Morrison Flagler's development of the Florida East Coast Railway and the resorts that later became Daytona Beach, Palm Beach, Miami and Key West is packed with non-judgmental information on how Florida's environment changed, rarely for the better, as a result of human impact.
Ultimately Wanderer on My Native Shore goes beyond its subtitle—"A Personal Guide & Tribute to the Ecology of the Atlantic Coast"—to become a subtle warning: The things we see and enjoy this summer along the seashore have been there for millions of years, yet unless our love for them is coupled with protection, they may not be there in summers to come. "There are many excellent field guides to identify what people see at the seashore," Reiger writes, "but few that attempt to answer the hows and whys of life in coastal waters." This is one of the best of those few.