With over one hundred and thirty miles of coastline, the beaches of New Jersey are one of the prime attractions for visitors during the summer months. Those hazy days of the hottest months in the Garden State bring to mind boardwalks, sunbathing, surfing, cotton candy, arcades, salt water taffy, and so many other experiences that are synonymous with summertime fun. Yet venture a few miles off shore, into the Atlantic Ocean, and you can also be rewarded with an opportunity to experience the majesty of the creatures of the sea.
My wife and I had planned a weekend in Cape May, a town that has been part of my life since my childhood. As we brainstormed ideas for our trip, we saw that Saturday temperatures were forecast in the 90’s along with expected high humidity. We decided to get off land and head out to sea, making a reservation with one of the whale watching tours that depart from the harbors of Cape May. We had no expectations for the voyage other than spending an afternoon on blue waters, cooled by the ocean breeze. What we experienced, however, was a fascinating lesson in marine biology and some amazing up-close views of nature.
As I have done before, I will let the photographs tell the story of our journey:
On Friday afternoon we set off for my favorite beach destination. Three hours south of New York City and about an hour and a half southeast from Philadelphia, Cape May has been a summer resort town since the mid-18th century.
Before we set off on Friday, I took some time to wash, wax, and detail my wife’s Jeep Grand Cherokee. 37,000 miles, and it still looks practically brand new.
Equipped with car cleaning products from Meguiar’s and 3M, I tried to make sure the Jeep looked “showroom fresh.” While we’d be taking my Accord on this trip, it was nice to leave the Jeep at home in tip-top shape.
After fighting Friday afternoon shore traffic for the better part of three hours, we arrived in Cape May and went to dinner… at a ferry terminal. Okay, trust me on this one. I’ll explain.
On my Dad’s recommendation, we ate at On the Rocks Dockside Grill at the Cape May Ferry Terminal. I’ll be the first to admit that a ferry terminal doesn’t sound like a location for a great restaurant.
However, it was the perfect way to welcome ourselves to the shore. Sitting outside, enjoying a delicious meal and a few fun drinks with my wife, and watching the ferry come into port… the stress of three hours of stop-and-go traffic melted away.
We made it back to my family’s house in Cape May in time to walk to the beach for sunset. Truly, not a bad way to end the day.
These sunsets never get old.
Saturday morning we began our day (of course!) at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Cape May on Beach Drive, with the ocean right across the street.
After a lazy morning, we headed to the harbor to board the Cape May Whale Watcher for a 1:00 pm cruise. Established in 1993, the operators of this tour company have been pursuing sustainable and environmentally-friendly marine wildlife tours for over a quarter of a century.
As the ship eased out of port and began to make its way to the ocean, we saw numerous osprey nesting.
A word about the images on this post – all of the wildlife photos that follow were taken by my wife. As you will see, she did a great job!
Osprey are classified as raptors, and are found in numerous locations near bodies of water, as their diet is primarily fish. They make their nests on any type of outcropping, including artificial platforms such as the one pictured here.
Leaving the dock, we proceeded through Cape May Harbor on the way to the ocean. This man-made harbor, designed to allow commercial vessels easier access to the town, took years of dredging before it was finally completed in 1911.
As we emerged from the harbor and entered the Atlantic Ocean, we encountered numerous boats. It was a busy weekend off the coast of Cape May!
We turned to the southeast and sped off in search of marine wildlife, leaving the coastline of Cape May behind.
And we did not have long to wait – we encountered pod after pod of dolphins, at least 50 dolphins in all! One interesting fact – note the scars on their bodies. Dolphins have very sharp teeth, and males tend to play or fight often, which involves significant amounts of biting. Such scarring is common, and normal.
We were mesmerized by the dolphins as they swam around our boat. Another interesting fact I learned – dolphins in the wild live far longer than dolphins who are kept in captivity. Dolphins in the wild can live 40 or more years. Those kept in captivity live, on average, twelve years, and of those born in captivity, approximately half die in the first year (via Whale and Dolphin Conservation).
We also learned that Ric O’Barry was the dolphin trainer for the 60’s TV show Flipper. Due to his experience working with these animals, he became convinced that keeping them in captivity is unethical – chemicals in water tanks cause dolphins in captivity to suffer health and eye problems, and half of all dolphins die within 90 days of capture (via The Independent). Ric has now become an activist for freeing dolphins from captivity and also for humans to be good stewards of the dolphins’ home – the ocean.
Note the differences in these two dolphins’ dorsal fins. No two fins are alike, and graduate students at Stockton University in New Jersey have created a photo identification database of dolphins based on their fin shapes. Fascinating stuff!
I think these two were just showing off!
Seeing the dolphins up close was an absolutely amazing experience.
This seagull was following the wake of our ship for quite a while.
Our brief three hours coming to a close, the captain brought us back to the coast and into Cape May Harbor. Although humpback whales have been spotted off the coast of New Jersey, we were not able to see any. No matter – our time with the dolphins was amazing!
On the way back, we passed the United States Coast Guard Training Center – Cape May. It is the only training center for newly enlisted personnel in the USCG in the country.
Beside the Coast Guard base is the Corinthian Yacht Club (right). Founded in 1870, it is one of the oldest sailing clubs in the nation.
And of course, no trip to Cape May is complete without a stop at Menz Restaurant in nearby Rio Grande, NJ. Established in the 1976, Menz is a South Jersey institution… and one of my favorite eating spots!
I’ve written of the unique decorations at this restaurant – no big corporate committee made decisions about how to decorate this place. Frank and Marie, the founders, decorated it themselves!
Scenes like this are not uncommon as you walk to your table!
In this section of the restaurant, it’s always decorated for Christmas. Why? Because it’s Menz!
No matter the decor – the food is fantastic! We started with an order of calamari.
I opted for the Maryland crab cakes, while my wife enjoyed the special of scallops with horseradish sauce and bacon. Yum, yum, yum!
After a delicious dinner, we raced back for one more Cape May sunset. Going…
…gone. Good night, Cape May.
Trying to avoid traffic, Google Maps offered us a shortcut by using Route 539, which runs east to west across most of the state. For a long stretch of roadway, we traveled through the Pine Barrens, a heavily forested section of the state that covers 1.1 million acres -over 22% of New Jersey!
As we continued through the Pine Barrens, we began to get hungry, and my wife found only one restaurant even remotely close to us – Lucille’s Country Cooking. Established in 1975, Lucille’s is a family-run luncheonette. And it was highly rated on Yelp, so we thought we’d give it a try.
The Pine Barrens is where our state’s legendary monster, the Jersey Devil, originated. According to the story, the creature, born in 1735, was the 13th child of Jane Leeds and has haunted the Pine Barrens for almost three hundred years. Lucille’s plays it up for all it is worth, with this statue outside the front door.
Lucille’s was TINY! There were, by my count, ten seats at the counter, and another 10 tables in the diner. Most people that ate there were on a first-name basis with the staff. Still, despite being outsiders, we were greeted warmly and treated well.
While I had a grilled cheese (just like grandma used to make!), my wife opted for a stuffed tomato with tuna salad. It all hit the spot. Refreshed, we began the final leg of our journey back home.
Of course, before we got on the road, we had to get THIS shot. Because a place as good as Lucille’s deserves an honorary “The Open Road Ahead” photo!
As I pulled up to our home, I noticed we had stopped on a new milestone – 135,000 miles! And another great journey was in the books.
Over the years, I have taken several whale watching trips from Cape May. I would highly recommend two of the companies that operate these tours – the
Cape May Whale Watcher and the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center. Both are excellent, with informative and friendly staff, and you will have a great experience with either one. That said, this trip was the most marine wildlife I have ever seen. The Cape May Whale Watcher operates three tours per day, with fees changing depending on the time of day your trip is scheduled. In addition, these companies often have special on Groupon (where we purchased our tickets), so it is worth investigating the Groupon website for good discounts.
If you are in the Cape May area and are looking for a fun, educational, and relaxing way to spend your day while observing marine wildlife in their natural habitat, I’d highly recommend that you head out to sea!
Thanks for coming along on another journey down the open road (and open seas) ahead.
‘Til next time.