There is something incomparably peaceful about spending a day on the river. It’s a peace I find is inextricably linked to summers in New Jersey, specifically summers spent on paddle boards in good company.
A few summers ago, Kacey and I got famously lost on the Navesink. Despite this – and a nagging fear of getting chomped by a bull shark as we paddled into a marina at prime shark feeding time – I wanted to get back on the water with both Kacey and Allison – and some beer.
We arrived at the Oceanic Marina at around noon on Thursday. Conditions were good: no wind, relatively wave-less water.
The water itself was another story.
I’d read recently that the Navesink had tested uncomfortably high for fecal bacteria a few weeks ago. My first reaction was one of pity. Here was the river that we’d grown up boating, crabbing, and tubing in. I fondly remember breezy summer afternoons on Greg’s boat, clinging to the tube he towed behind us, purposefully turning the boat and skidding the tube over the wake so hard that we’d capsize and tread water until he returned to pull us back into the boat.
To think that the same water was now infiltrated with fecal matter gave me the shudders. I’ve probably guzzled a few mugs-full of that water in my day. More incentive to stay on the board.
Then there was the issue of the clinging jellyfish. Over brunch with Jenny earlier that morning, I’d learned about how the Shrewsbury River, which merges with the Navesink near the bay, had suddenly become home to the invasive clinging jellyfish, whose sting delivers a paralyzing pain – if you’re lucky. If you’re not so fortunate, you might wind up with kidney failure.
Also, there’s something unnatural about a jellyfish that clings. The water is always teeming with the translucent ones, their tentacles dangling as they float languidly along, but the idea of finding one wrapping itself around your ankle in a determined embrace is not an appealing one.
We dropped our boards into the water at the marina and Kacey lowered the cooler. She and Allison had packed it full of beer, and immediately after setting it on the board, the back began to sink.
“You guys might have to take one now,” she told us.
“How many are in there?” I asked incredulously.
“Well, I brought 9…” Allison said.
“So did I.”
“You brought 18 beers?? You think the three of us can drink 18 beers?!”
Kacey shrugged and hopped onto her board, which was miraculously afloat despite the weight. As we paddled out into the river, I kept my eyes peeled for jellyfish.
After we’d been paddling out for about 15 minutes, mid-conversation, Kacey suddenly stopped talking and pointed straight ahead.
“What? What is it?” I asked, looking around frantically. I was certain it was a shark. Kacey was too scared to speak.
“What is it!?” I shouted more impatiently. She began to paddle toward the shore.
“You don’t see those fins!?” she called out. I squinted ahead and – sure enough! – half a dozen tiny, unmistakable fins darted in a circle in the choppy water ahead.
Without hesitating, I took off after her, paddling away.
“What are they!? Sharks? Baby sharks?”
“I don’t know. They can’t be sharks…right? But they’re fins.”
We both looked back to see Allison, floating casually on her board, inspecting the little fins.
“Look! I have new friends!” she called to us, to which we shouted back, “Stick your hand in the water!”
Of course they were fish – bunker, we’d later find out – but that didn’t make it any more comfortable each time we glimpsed their fins.
“Tried to catch some of them the other day,” called a man from his boat. “Didn’t do so well. But yeah. They’re bait fish.”
Nick confirmed this later that night, and Mom and I kayaked over schools of them the next day, but still. No one enjoys the sight of fins in the river.
“They’re not fins,” Nick explained. “They’re tails.”
Not much better.
In the end, we decided that a fun afternoon outweighed the prospect of shark, clinging jellyfish, and fecal matter, so we stayed out until 4pm. Passing the bunker again, Kacey shook her head.
“It’s not them I’m afraid of,” she said wisely. “It’s whatever is feeding on those fish.”
With this in mind, I paddled to shore scanning the murky water, expecting to see the dull eye of a bull shark beneath the surface. Kayaking with my mom a few days later was even worse; at least from the paddle board you can get a high visual of the water below. If I’d been attacked in the kayak, it would be a complete surprise.
And you might think I’m crazy for thinking that bull sharks lurked in the Navesink, but they love brackish water, fecal matter or not. Plus, it’s a known fact that fishermen pull up sharks under the bridges here all the time.
“True,” Kacey confirmed, “but they don’t always know what kind of shark it is.”
Um…a shark is a shark. I know, I’d be happier to encounter a sand shark than a freaking bull shark, but in the end, it’s still a shark. And thanks to Jaws – based in part on shark attacks in the Matawan Creek – I am convinced it’s entirely possible in the Navesink.
Luckily for all involved, the most dramatic occurrence of the day was Allison doing a handstand and the three of us lightening the weight of the cooler.
Categories: United States (USA)