Nature column: Leave time behind – visit a rock


It began with a child’s imagination triggered by naturally occurring recognizable shapes – no sculptor’s chisel necessary – inspiring awe and imbedded in the picture book of his mind.

I should thank cartoon creators for using iconic figures of classic literature as premises for their productions. If not for them, Whale Rock in Southold may have been just another giant boulder instead of a life-sized replica of Moby Dick. Back then this magnificent geological monument became fodder for fantasy, serving to distract me from the tedium of a long car ride.

The rock is west of Town Beach in Southold and is so massive its proportionate details can be detected from the public beach a third of a mile away. Just as we humans consider the waterfront to be prime real estate, terns, gulls and cormorants maneuver for prized spots on the broad, gently sloping “head” of this monlith. As seabirds are wont to do, they indiscriminately relieve themselves there, giving the whale’s head a white mottled appearance. Think of it as a collaboration of natural forces to produce a painted sculpture.

Whale Rock is only one of many notable rocks dispensed by erosion along the north shore. According to Garvies Point Museum, the glacier that formed the northeastern seaboard more than 10,000 years ago collected and pushed these massive stones along its path. The glacier halted, forming the terminal moraines that are Long Island, and then receded, leaving these boulders, or “glacial erratics” as they are called, along the Harbor Hill terminal moraine of the Long Island’s north shore. Over millennia these large pieces of glacial till have been exposed and relocated along the shoreline due to erosion of the banks. To achieve their current placement, three forces worked in concert – glacial, atmospheric and oceanic.

Like waypoints along a geological footprint, siblings of Whale Rock can be found up and down the north shore. East Marion and Orient are home to some amazing clusters of glacial erratics. A trip down Land’s End Road in Orient will yield a stellar view of Plum Gut and the eastern sound. Directly in front of the parking area is a moderately-sized rock, and five hundred feet to the right and just off the beach is a true monster. Boulders rest at various elevations on both sides of the access point.

East Marion holds the area’s most extraordinary shoreline cluster of large rocks, which reside at the end of aptly named Rocky Point Road. Heading east on Route 25, the turnoff is just past Sep’s farm stand. Like many of these beachside parking areas, a Southold Town parking permit is required and can be obtained at the town clerk’s office.

Access to the beach is provided by the origin of the spot’s other moniker – “67 Steps” – which lead you safely down the steep bluff, itself pocked by the tops of boulders protruding from the embankment like icebergs.

The top of the steps affords a breathtaking view of the beach on either side and the sound beyond. From there the collection of boulders on the western point brings to mind Stonehenge; although the arrangement is devoid of pattern and geometric uniformity, it has the eerie feel of an intelligent configuration. As you descend the steps, reaching each of the several landings along the way, your viewpoints change and you are presented with alternate perspectives. Little by little, more of the huge rocks on the eastern shore are revealed until you touch beach and realize the formation in that direction was assembled with equal genius.

Adding to the mystique of the place, I found hundreds of tons of smooth ping pong-ball-sized pebbles from the point on my left to the seemingly impenetrable collection of rocks to the east. The pebbles were tiered in bands a few yards wide, forming paths of progressively higher elevations the farther they spread from the water’s edge. Perhaps this was an effect of Sandy and subsequent storms. The pebbles and a huge tree half buried with its lower trunk and roots jutting from the beach at a gentle plain – reminiscent of the decrepit Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes – was a significant addition to the place’s preternatural feel.

As you would expect, Rocky Point attracts both rock climbers and divers. I could only imagine what it would be like to scale one of the behemoths or snorkel around its base. Individually, each rock has unique qualities from the readily apparent such as shape and size to more subtle qualities like the types of organisms living on and around them. And field observation of a rock’s composition can provide clues to the rock’s origin, a discipline which appeals to amateur geologists.

There is something visceral about boulders. Down the road from my house is one of Shelter Island’s rocky outcroppings (there are several around the island), eponymously dubbed Cornelius Point. Perhaps the subject of a future column, I mention it now because it is most familiar to me as glacial erratics go.

I have fished and hunted among this widespread and dense smattering of rocks and when doing so have felt distanced from the present. There is an energy in these rocks that renders time valueless and serves to clear the head, if only until my foot hits pavement again.