“Better get under cover, Sylvester! There’s a storm blowing, a whopper! To speak in the vernacular of the peasantry! Poor girl I hope she gets home alright.“
The Wizard of Oz
- Frank Baum, 1900
Not far away, Marcus Dunham was battling for his life on Muskegat, a tiny sand island between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Marcus thought he had been having a dizzy spell when the storm surge floated his camp off its foundation and whirled it around like Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz.
Marcus had to crawl through a window and dive under the building before it flipped over and sank. But his trek was far from over. He still had to half-wade, half-walk up onto one of the low-lying dunes that were still above water. His rescuers found him in the dune exhausted but alive a day later.
A decade after the storm, Crocker Snow bought Muskegat and its life savings station and started a unique experiment. He kept the island in the family and but let it revert back to nature with Federal recognition as a refuge. Now it is one of the wildest places on the entire East Coast.
From December through March Muskegat has a post-humankind, post-apocalyptic feel. Its population of gray seals has jumped from 20 individuals in 1985, to over 20,000 in 2015 and the 800-pound behemoths have taken over the island. They slide down its dunes like otters, which is cute but tears up the dune grass. They live on the porch of the Snow’s camp, which they defend with slashing incisors and they have picked up avian flu DNA from the island’s freshwater ponds, which is filled with seal urine and afterbirth tissue.
You can smell the seals’ musky odor a mile off the beach and their incessant bellowing makes it impossible to sleep. It seems like it will only be a matter of time before some young Great White Shark finds this cornucopia of seal flesh and spreads the message by word of mouth.
But so far the water around the island is so shallow that the Great White Sharks avoid it because their favored method of attack is to hide in deep waters and ambush prey swimming above them. Of course we all know this from reading Jaws, which Peter Benchley wrote in his house on nearby Nantucket.
But the seals seem to think they are safe on the island so they no longer migrate north to Sable Island like the other Gray Seals in Massachusetts. So now close to half of all the Gray Seals in Massachusetts live year-round on Muskegat’s 200 acres of relentlessly shifting sand.
But the most fascinating aspect of this island is that the Snow family has willingly retreated from the island and set it up as a place where scientists can come and study the ever-changing ecosystem of birds, fish and seals. It is probably the best example on the East Coast of successfully returning a barrier island back to nature in the face of sea level rise that will inundate it within fifty years.
Read more in Muskegat by Crocker Snow available in local bookstores.