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Column: Tell the feds to save the Breach at Old Inlet

breach

On October 29, 2012, Sandy changed the trajectory of the declining health and quality of Bellport Bay.

Buried within the destruction and devastation created by Sandy’s wrath, was a small gift that quickly became known as the Breach at Old Inlet. Although most people saw the breach as problematic and called for its immediate closure, some recognized the breach was a silver lining that needed to be protected.

I was at the Bellport dock as the final storm clouds were rapidly clearing. Although the barrier Island 2.5 miles to the south was not yet visible, you could hear the thunderous pounding the beach was still receiving from the Atlantic Ocean. The air was still thick with salty seawater and the destruction at the dock was widespread.

As the heavy mist and fog began to lift it also become clear the ocean was breaching the dunes. It was common to see the ocean top the dunes here and there during strong storms, but never did I witness a continuous ribbon of turning white water from the Smith Point area west toward Bellport’s Ho-Hum beach.

I was in awe of this site, and was quickly overwhelmed with a sense of fear and helplessness when I noticed through my binoculars that a piece of Fire Island was gone.

I was looking directly at the Atlantic Ocean from Bellport Dock. 

I had to see more. So, on the early morning of Nov. 11, 2012, about two weeks after Sandy changed the shape of our shoreline, I set off from Smith Point Park and made the two-hour row in my 12 foot skerry west along the north side of Fire Island  to the breach.

Accompanied by Jessie Hartland and Carl Friedberg in their tandem kayak, we explored the newly formed sandbars deposited in the back bay by Sandy, rowed south on lazy ebb tide through the newly formed inlet and into the Atlantic Ocean. 

As a young boater on Bellport Bay, I often imagined what it must have been like for vessels to sail from the bay through what was then-called Smith’s Inlet (Old Inlet). The British Royal Navy used Smith’s Inlet until 1780 to supply its garrison at the Manor of Saint George in Mastic. Cargo ships negotiated Smith’s Inlet on their way to Bellport to off- load commodities such as coal and millstones. 

The famous SS Savannah, in an attempt to seek shelter in Bellport Bay during a gale, ran hard aground on the outer bar very near the inlet, eventually being washed up on the main beach where her lower hull remains today. In the 1820s Smith’s Inlet began to shoal up and several ships foundered, causing the inlet to close by the early 1830s.

Some 185 years after the last vessel passed through Smith’s Inlet, I experienced what I imagined so many times before, to navigate through an inlet from Bellport Bay and into the mighty Atlantic.

This humbling, therapeutic experience changed my perspective forever. 

Since Sandy, I have visited the inlet over 300 times and have snapped about a 1,000 images capturing its evolution and migration. Bellport Inlet is a magical place, where Mother Nature has taken the helm. Since 2012, the inlet, as expected has shifted, wobbled, rotated, and migrated. It increases in size during the winter storms and becomes smaller due to the steady summer south westerlies. Professor Charlie Flagg of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at Stony Brook once referred to the inlet as dynamically stable.

To date the existence of “Bellport Inlet” has not caused adverse effects to property on the mainland as many once feared. In fact it is now crystal clear that the health of Bellport Bay, which was in steady decline for decades, has seen a dramatic reversal.

The food chain is alive and well in Bellport Bay with people catching blues, striped bass, weak fish, and flounder off the Bellport DockSeveral thrasher sharks have been caught at the inlet. Leatherback turtles, seals, and whales have been spotted in and around the inlet.

Ironically, the existence of the inlet has strengthened the barrier island. The daily deposit of sand though the inlet and into the back bay has created acres of sand bars and new islands that will help absorb the force of the next super storm. These sandy islands also provide for new ecosystems for birds such as the piping plovers, oyster catchers and ospreys,   

The federal government is still considering whether or not to close the breach, and is currently taking public comments. Tell them Mother Nature has already spoken.

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Photo: The western sand split as it appeared last month. (Credit: Thomas Schultz)

Check out these photos of the inlet from Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Thomas Schultz is a co-founder of the volunteer group Friends of Bellport Bay, which this summer has undertaken an oyster restocking project in Bellport Bay just west of the inlet.

About the author: Thomas Schultz

Thomas Schultz is the co-founder of the volunteer group Friends of Bellport Bay.