Meet 14 creatures you might encounter along N.J. beaches

This story originally ran in 2018. People visit the Jersey Shore for many reasons: to…

This story originally ran in 2018.

People visit the Jersey Shore for many reasons: to lay out on the beach, catch a few good waves, walk on the boardwalk, ride a roller coaster or two, dine on some great seafood.

But have you ever been relaxing in your beach chair, gazing out beyond the waves, and wondered what exactly is out there in the ocean?

Oceans provide approximately 99 percent of the living space on earth, and marine organisms produce much of the oxygen we breathe.

There are more than 230,000 documented marine species — experts estimate there are about two million more that have yet to be documented. They range in size from microscopic (plankton can be as small as .02 micrometers) to enormous (the blue whale grows to 109 feet long).

While you may not think of the New Jersey coastline as a hotbed for exotic sea life, we have our fair share of interesting sea creatures that inhabit our waters, or at least pass by during migration.

Here are 14 of the creatures you might meet at N.J. beaches:

Diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The diamondback terrapin gets its name from the diamond pattern on top of its shell, with the shell varying from brown to gray, and its body color gray, brown, yellow or white. The males can grow to about 5 inches and weighing about 11 ounces; the females are larger, growing to around 7.5 inches and weighing an average of 18 ounces.

Diamondback terrapins live in brackish water, like the salt marshes along the bay, but can survive in freshwater or ocean water. These turtles can tell the difference between fresh water and salt water, and have developed several skills to obtain fresh water for drinking, including catching raindrops.

They have strong webbed hind feet for swimming (but not flippers, as sea turtles have).

Bottlenose dolphin, common bottlenose dolphin or Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) Photo courtesy NASA

The common bottlenose dolphin gets its name from its short and well-defined snout, which looks like an old-fashioned gin bottle.

The largest dolphin that swims along the New Jersey coastline, they are typically between 8 and 11 feet long and weigh between 440 and 1,100 pounds. Dolphins, which are gray in color, live in groups called pods, usually with approximately 15 individuals.

The lifespan of a common bottlenose dolphin is typically about 25 years, but they can live up to 50 years in captivity.

Common porpoise or harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) Photo courtesy Ecomare/Salko de Wolf – Ecomare, CC BY-SA 4.0

The common porpoise is one the smallest marine animals. They are typically 4.6 to 6.2 feet long, with females weighing up to 168 pounds and males weighing up to 134 pounds.

It is also known as the “harbor porpoise,” because it prefers to stay close to coastal areas such as harbors, bays and river estuaries.

This porpoise’s flippers, fins and and back are dark gray, its sides a lighter gray and slightly speckled, and its underside much lighter with gray stripes.

A typically solitary animal, the common porpoise’s average life span is 8 to 13 years.

Cownose ray (Rhinoptera bonasus) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The cownose ray is a species of eagle ray that can grow up to nearly 4 feet wide, weighing approximately 50 pounds or more. It typically has a brown back and a white or yellow belly.

This ray has a spine with teeth lining its lateral edges, and is coated with a weak venom. However, the cownose ray is commonly found in aquarium touch tanks, where the barbs have been pinched off, making them safe to touch (the barbs regrow, like human fingernails).

A cownose ray swims in the Atlantic City Aquarium in 2018. Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The cownose ray has a broad head with wide-set eyes. It eats clams, oysters and other invertebrates, drawing food to its mouth using a suction created by its fins on its front sides and then crushing it with a set of dental plates.

This ray can be found in brackish and marine habitats at a depth of up to 72 feet, from the southern New England to northern Florida coasts as well as in the Gulf of Mexico and as far south as Brazil.

Little skate or common skate (Leucoraja erinacea) Photos courtesy Andy Martinez/NOAA (left) and Invertzoo, CC BY-SA 3.0 (right)

The most common inshore skate, the little skate, is typically 13 to 18 inches long with a rounded pectoral fin disk 1.2 times wide as it is long. Its tail has no stinger.

Its color ranges from gray to brown on top and white or gray below. Most have small dark spots on their backs. Its jaws contain from around 40 to 60 series of round teeth on plates to grind food.

The little skate lives on soft, sandy bottoms along the shore to a depth of 300 feet from Nova Scotia, Canada, to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Hermit crab  Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

While there are some 1,100 species of hermit crabs, you’ll likely find the flat-clawed hermit crab (Pagurus arcuatus) along the shores of New Jersey.

Hermit crabs are crustaceans with soft, exposed abdomens, which leaves them vulnerable to predators. To help protect themselves, they take up residence in abandoned shells from moon snails, whelks, periwinkles and the like. When they start to outgrow their current homes, they look for a larger abandoned shell.

A horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) works to upright itself at the Sunray Beach Preserve in Middle Township, N.J,, in 2018. Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Despite its name, the Atlantic horseshoe crab is more closely related to spiders, ticks and scorpions than crabs.

They live along the Atlantic coast of North America in marine and brackish areas. One of the main areas horseshoe crabs migrate to is the Delaware Bay, where their eggs provide an important food source for shorebirds, including the Red Knot, a protected threatened species.

Common jellyfish, moon jellyfish, or moon jelly (Aurelia aurita) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The common jellyfish is a translucent, free-swimming relative of corals and anemones. They are approximately 10 to 16 inches in diameter and easily recognized by their four horseshoe-shaped gonads seen through the top of the bell.

These jellyfish do not sting humans; their threadlike tentacles are not powerful enough to pierce our skin.

Common jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) at the Atlantic City Aquarium in 2018. Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The common jellyfish lives in ocean water temperatures ranging from 43 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit, with optimum temperatures of 48 to 66 degrees, and can be found drifting with the current in estuaries, harbors and along the shoreline.

A seal warms itself on the jetty in Brigantine, N.J., in 2020. Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Harbor seals vary in color, from brown, silvery white, tan or gray, and have distinctive v-shaped nostrils.

Including the head and flippers, harbor seals can grow as long as 6 feet and weigh between 120 to 370 pounds. Females are generally smaller than males, but live an average of 30 to 35 years as opposed to 20 to 25 years for males.

Normally found along the Atlantic Coast and islands from Maine to Massachusetts, small populations or stranded seals are found on Long Island, the beaches of New Jersey and as far south as North Carolina.

Sand tiger shark, grey nurse shark, spotted ragged-tooth shark, or blue-nurse sand tiger (Carcharias taurus) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Sand tiger sharks roam sandy coastal waters, estuaries and shallow bays, from the shorelines to depths of up to around 600 feet.

Adult sand tigers, which are gray with reddish-brown spots on their backs, range from 6.5 to 10.5 feet in length and weigh between 200 to 350 pounds.

The sand tiger shark is the only shark known to gulp air and store it in its stomach, allowing it to maintain near-neutral buoyancy, which helps it hunt quietly without much movement.

Sand tiger shark Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The head of the sand tiger shark is pointy, and its mouth extended beyond its eyes. It usually swims with its mouth open, displaying three rows of protruding, sharply pointed teeth.

The sand tiger shark is often associated with being vicious or deadly due to its appearance (it is a cousin of the great white shark, after all), but it is actually a relatively placid and docile shark.

There have been only few instances of unprovoked attacks on humans and no confirmed fatalities.

Sandbar shark or brown shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

One of the biggest coastal sharks in the world, the sandbar shark is also the most common shark species swimming along the mid-Atlantic coast. It is closely related to the dusky shark, the bignose shark, and the bull shark, but is distinguishable by its very high first dorsal fin, heavy-set body and shorter-than-average snout.

Females may be as long as eight feet, males up to six feet long. Its body color varies from blue to brown-gray with a white or pale underside.

The sandbar shark is commonly found over muddy or sandy bottoms in coastal waters, such as bays, harbors, and mouths of rivers, but it also swims in deeper waters.

Sandbar shark Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Despite their large size and similar appearance to other dangerous sharks, very few attacks on humans are attributed to sandbar sharks, and they are considered one of the safest sharks to swim with.

In New Jersey, the sharks occur in highest concentrations during the summer months when they migrate to their primary nursery grounds, one of which is in the Delaware Bay.

The sandbar shark typically lives to be 35 to 41 years old.

Skeleton shrimp or ghost shrimp (Caprellidae) Photo © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0

Skeleton shrimp get their name from their appearance: they have a threadlike body — approximately 1/2 to 3/4 inches long — which allows them to disappear amongst seaweed and other small sea life.

They often cling to buoys, pilings or other solid material floating in the ocean… including your swimsuit.

Atlantic sand crab, or mole crab (Emerita talpoida) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The Atlantic sand crab, which grows to about 1.5 inches long, burrows into the sand along the surf, but you can sometimes see them swimming along the beach.

Sand crabs ingest toxins, including domoic acid — a naturally occurring toxin produced by microscopic algae, which is poisonous to animals higher up in the food chain, including humans.

Common sand dollar (Echinarachnius parma) File photo

The common sand dollar is found in the Northwest Atlantic, on the North American east coast from New Jersey and north, as well as the North Pacific, in Alaska, Siberia, British Columbia, and Japan.

It lives on, and slightly buried in, sandy bottoms below the low tide level down to depths of 5,000 feet.

The shell of the common sand dollar is round and flat, and typically three inches in diameter. Live sand dollars are pink to purplish brown in color, turn green when they die, and often become white when they wash ashore.

18 sea creatures living along the New Jersey coastline:

While you may not encounter these from the shoreline, they’re out there for you to discover. Some can be seen from a sightseeing or charter boat, others you may have to put your scuba gear on to see. And some you may just want to check out from the other side of thick aquarium glass.

Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The loggerhead sea turtle is a marine reptile, measuring up to about four feet long and weighing approximately 300 pounds — it’s the world’s largest hard-shelled turtle. Its skin color ranges from yellow to brown, and its shell is reddish-brown.

This sea turtle is omnivorous and feeds mainly on bottom-dwelling invertebrates such as horseshoe crabs, clams and mussels. It has powerful jaws that crush shellfish with ease.

Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) hatchling swims at Adventure Aquarium in Camden in 2018. Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The loggerhead sea turtle nests over the broadest geographical range of any sea turtle. Spending most of their lives in the open ocean and in shallow coastal waters, they rarely come ashore except when the females are building nests and depositing eggs.

Hatchlings live in floating mats of algae.

The loggerhead sea turtle has a lifespan of approximately 47 to 67 years.

Green sea turtle or green turtle (Chelonia mydas) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The green sea turtle gets its name from the green fat found between its shell and inner organs. Their shells are teardrop-shaped and olive to black in color.

Adults grow up to five feet long, weigh between 150 to 420 pounds.

The green sea turtle is found throughout the Atlantic Ocean, with adults inhabiting salt marshes, coral reefs and nearshore seagrass beds along continental and island coastlines.

This sea turtle is herbivorous, eating seagrass and seaweed.

Leatherback sea turtle, lute turtle or leathery turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region

The leatherback sea turtle is the largest of all living turtles and is the fourth-heaviest modern reptile (the top three are crocodiles). The average adult is six to seven feet in total length, and weighs 550 to 1,500 pounds.

The leatherback sea turtle gets its name from the absence of a bony shell, being covered by skin and oily flesh instead.

These sea turtles eat mostly jellyfish, following them into the deeper water during the day and closer to shore, in shallower water, at night.

Relatives of the modern leatherback sea turtle have existed in some form since the Cretaceous period, 110 million years ago.

Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Atlantic menhaden are silver-colored fish that have a black spot on their shoulder behind their gills. They grow up to 15 inches in length and can live up to 10 to 12 years.

They are commonly found swimming in large schools in the North Atlantic coastal and estuarine waters, from Nova Scotia to northern Florida.

American menhaden are filter feeders, swimming with their mouths open to catch phytoplankton and zooplankton for meals.

Humpback whales off the coast of New Jersey feed on Atlantic menhaden, as do birds such as eagles and ospreys, and larger fish such as striped bass and bluefish. Dolphins can consume up to 20 pounds of Atlantic menhaden a day.

Common seastar or Forbes’s starfish (Asterias forbesi) Paul Morris

The common seastar lives in the intertidal zone of rocky shores along the Atlantic coast from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico.

The skin is covered with tiny spines and may be tan, brown, or olive with tones of red, orange and pink. They grow to a diameter of about six inches.

American lobster, Atlantic lobster or Maine lobster (Homarus americanus) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The American lobster is found along the Atlantic coast from Labrador, Canada, down to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, although south of New Jersey, sightings are rare.

American lobsters are typically eight to 24 inches long and weigh one to nine pounds, although they have been known to weigh as much as 44 pounds, giving it the distinction of being the heaviest crustacean in the world.

They have 10 legs, two of which have large claws — the larger claw crushes while the smaller claw is used to rip. Lobsters can be left- or right-handed, with the crusher claw being its dominant appendage.

While the American lobster turns red due to cooking, most live American lobsters are dark bluish green to greenish brown in color, with the body and claws being reddish and the legs being greenish. But some have genetic mutations which cause them to have different colorations: an estimated 1 out of 2 million live lobsters are blue, 1 in 10 million live lobsters are red, 1 in 30 million live lobsters are yellow, and an estimated 1 in 100 million live lobsters are albino.

The American lobster was first described by Thomas Say in Long Branch in 1817.

Lined seahorse, northern seahorse or spotted seahorse (Hippocampus erectus) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Lined seahorses are unique fish: they have bony plates under their skin instead of scales like most fish, they can move their eyes independently of each other, and swim in an erect position.

But that’s not all. They’re monogamous.

They perform ritual dances each morning to reestablish bonds with their mates, and create clicking sounds as they embrace their partners. If a male or female lined seahorse loses their partner for any reason, the mate does not automatically replace the deceased. It takes time before a new mate is found, if at all, as the lined seahorse lives only one to four years.

And it’s the male seahorse who is the caregiver, as it is he who carries the eggs.

Lined seahorses swim in the Atlantic City Aquarium in 2018. Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

This seahorse grows to approximately six inches in length, and comes in many colors, including gray, black, red, green and orange. They change color based on their mood, stress level, diet and environment.

The lined seahorse sucks in its prey — usually minute crustaceans and brine shrimp — by creating a current of water leading right to its snout.

Chain cat shark or chain dogfish (Scyliorhinus retifer) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The chain cat shark is a small (less than two feet long) catshark. It has patterned skin, and it biofluorescent, meaning it absorbs light, and then re-emits it as a different color.

Although it is common in the Northwest Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, it is rarely encountered by humans. It spends the daytime resting at the bottom, anywhere from 118 to 2,400 feet deep, using rubble to camouflage itself.

This harmless shark eats squid, bony fish and crustaceans.

Great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna mokarran) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The great hammerhead shark is the largest species of hammerheads, the average measuring up to 11 feet long and weighing over 500 pounds. It is easily distinguishable from other hammerheads by the shape of its cephalofoil (the “hammer”), which is wide with a nearly flat front. The width of its cephalofoil is about 25 percent of its body length, and the eyes and nostrils are located on either sides of its hammer.

These sharks inhabit coastal areas, and are known to be found from inshore waters of less than three feet deep to offshore waters up to 260 feet deep.

The great hammerhead is a solitary predator, feeding on a wide range of prey including crustaceans, bony fish, smaller sharks and stingrays (its favorite); it is also known to be cannibalistic.

This species has a reputation for aggression, although it rarely attacks humans. Scuba divers have reported that great hammerheads tend to be nonreactive toward humans, but there have also been reports of them charging humans upon entering the water. With its large size and numerous cutting teeth, the great hammerhead shark can seriously injure a human.

Nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The nurse shark is brown with a broad head and grows up to 10 feet long.

Typically an inshore bottom-dwelling species, the nurse shark feeds primarily on small fish and some crustaceans and molluscs. Their small mouths limits the size of their prey, but they have developed tactics to break up the size of the food.

Nurse sharks are an important species for shark research, as they tolerate capture, handling and tagging.

The nurse shark is ranked fourth in documented shark bites on humans, but this is likely due to incautious behavior by scuba divers.

Tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) Photo by Albert Kok, CC BY-SA 3.0

The tiger shark gets its name from the dark stripes that run down its body, but those stripes fade as the shark ages. They typically grow to be 10 to 13 feet long, with females capable of growing up to 16 feet long, and weigh from 850 to 1,400 pounds.

Tiger sharks have unique teeth with very sharp and pronounced serrations and a sideways-pointing tip, designed to slice through flesh, bone and even turtle shells. The tiger shark is a solitary hunter who eats pretty much anything: crustaceans, fish, seals, birds, turtles, dolphins, other smaller sharks, and even inedible, man-made objects.

They are found close to the coast, and often visit harbors, shallow reefs, and channels to chase prey.

The tiger shark is considered to be one of the most dangerous to humans, being second only to the great white shark in recorded bites on humans. It was a tiger shark that attacked surfer Bethany Hamilton in 2003, resulting in the loss of her arm.

Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) File photo

The bull shark gets its name from its stocky shape, blunt snout, and aggressive, unpredictable behavior. Adults, which are gray on top with white bellies, average between seven and eight feet long and weigh from 200 to 300 pounds.

Bull sharks often dwell in very shallow waters along coasts, but also in brackish and freshwater systems such as rivers. They have been known to travel up the Mississippi River as far up as Illinois — some 700 miles from the ocean, as well as the Potomac River in Maryland and Virginia. Bull sharks were even found in Lake Pontchartrain after Hurricane Katrina.

These sharks are very territorial and have no tolerance for provocation. They are among the top three shark species most likely to bite humans.

The bull shark may have been responsible for the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 — the inspiration for the novel Jaws, by Peter Benchley, and subsequent film directed by Steven Spielberg.

Common Atlantic octopus (Octopus vulgaris) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The common Atlantic octopus lives along the ocean floor of relatively shallow, rocky, coastal waters. They typically grow to be one to three feet and weigh from 6 to 20 pounds. Their lifespan is only one to two years.

It hunts at dusk, preferably crabs, lobsters and bivalve molluscs, but it will eat almost anything it catches.

Common Atlantic octopus (Octopus vulgaris) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Octopuses (octopi is technically wrong because you can’t add a Latin ending to a Greek-rooted word) have three hearts, use both their gills and skin to intake oxygen, and can change color at will to escape predators and communicate with each other.

They use their eight arms — covered in suction cups called suckers — to grip rocks, capture prey, move around and more. They can move food from the end of their arm to their mouth just by moving it along their suckers.

Octopuses are also highly intelligent: they can learn how to unscrew the lid of a jar (from inside and outside), navigate a maze from memory, and distinguish the brightness, size, and shape of objects, among other things. They have been known to raid lobster traps, and even escape their aquarium tank to snack on a fish in a nearby tank and return before anyone notices.

Bluntnose stingray or Say’s stingray (Dasyatis sayi) Photo by toadlady1, CC BY 2.0

The bluntnose stingray is native to coastal waters of the western Atlantic Ocean, commonly seen in bays and estuaries. It is a bottom-dwelling species that prefers sandy or muddy habitats from three to 33 feet deep. It spends most of the day buried in the substrate. In the Delaware Bay, it feeds on shrimp and bloodworms.

This stingray is approximately 2.5 feet in width.

French naturalist and artist Charles Alexandre Lesueur first described the bluntnose stingray from specimens collected bayside from Little Egg Harbor. In 1819, he published his account of this and two other rays in the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and named in honor of his friend, Thomas Say, one of the founding members of the Academy.

This species is not aggressive, although it will defend itself from humans if necessary. Its tail spine can easily pierce leather or rubber shoes, and its venom may have life-threatening effects on those with certain health conditions.

Rough-tailed stingray or roughtail stingray (Dasyatis centroura) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The largest whip-tail stingray in the Atlantic, the rough-tailed stingray grows up to 8.5 feet across and 800 pounds in weight. It has a diamond-shaped pectoral fin disk 1.2 to 1.3 times as wide as long, and its tail is long and whip-like (hence its name), measuring about 2.5 times the length of the disc.

The rough-tailed stingray is a bottom-dwelling species and prefers sandy or muddy areas at a depth of around 50 to 160 feet.

Due to its large size and long, venomous spine, this ray can inflict a serious wound. However, it is not considered an aggressive animal and lives in waters too deep to be encountered by beachgoers.

Atlantic torpedo or electric ray (Tetronarce nobiliana) File photo

The Atlantic torpedo is a species of electric ray found in the western Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia to Brazil.

With lengths of up to six feet and weighing up to 200 pounds, the Atlantic torpedo is the largest known electric ray. It is capable of generating up to 220 volts of electricity to defend itself against predators or catch its prey. While the electric shock of this species can be severe, it is not fatal to humans.

Juveniles prefer shallow, sandy or muddy habitats, but adults frequent open water.

Moreia verde or green moray eel (Gymnothorax funebris) Lori M. Nichols | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The green moray eel is commonly found in the western Atlantic Ocean from New Jersey to Brazil. A solitary animal, it hides among crevices along rocky shorelines and in coral reefs.

The green moray eel is actually brown; it has a yellow mucus which covers it body, which combined with the brown gives it the appearance of being green. They average six feet in length and weigh an average of 30 pounds.

The green moray eel often keeps its mouth open, showing off its sharp teeth, but this is not to scare humans or predators away. This behavior is actually the eel taking in water to breathe.

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) The Star Ledger file photo

The humpback whale is the most common large whale in the area, and while they are most often seen from charter boats, they can occasionally been seen from shore.

The adults usually range from 40 to 50 feet in length and weigh from 28 to 33 tons (that’s 56,000 to 60,000 pounds) but can be larger. The humpback has a stocky body with an obvious hump, and its head is covered in knobs called tubercules. It has a fluked tail which typically rises above the sea surface when diving.

Humpback whales migrate up to 16,000 miles each year, feeding off krill and small fish in polar waters, and breeding and giving birth in tropical or subtropical waters, where they fast and live off of their fat reserves.

If you’ve ever heard a “whale song,” it was probably the vocalization of the humpback whale.

The lifespan of humpbacks is 45 to 100 years.