Coastline Overview

Jesse Fried • Aug 06, 2017

Go to some vantage point midway along New Jersey's Atlantic coast - the top of the Ferris Wheel at Seaside Heights, for instance - and miles of flat coastline will meet your eye in each direction, breakers pounding against sandy beaches, a flat horizon continuing across the land-water interface. Man-made features form visual anchor points: Asbury Park's Convention Hall looming above the sand and waves, a long pier at Belmar with a small white building at its end, a tall radio tower at Manasquan, Barnaget Light, the skyscrapers of Atlantic City.

The simplicity of the view belies the subtle intricacies of our coastline's shape and topography. Closely examined, our coast reflects our region's complex physiography. In this discussion we will skip its northern terminus at Sandy Hook, the Atlantic Highlands and Raritan Bay, because those dramatic spots require articles of their own. Starting just below Sandy Hook and continuing south (with admittedly more detail in the north), below are some noticeable coastal features.

Coastline of Central Jersey from Sandy Hook to Barnaget Light

Coastline of Central Jersey from Sandy Hook to Barnaget Light

  • Barrier beach reaching salient at Sea Bright: For about five miles south of Sandy Hook, a long narrow strip of barrier beach runs in a slightly convex arc - mostly due N/S bulging slightly to the east near downtown Sea Bright, the easternmost point on our Atlantic coast. This sandbar, and the protected bay behind it, shields two coastal headlands: The Atlantic Highlands and Rumsen Neck. Between the headlands, the wide, intricately-shaped estuaries of the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers stretch inland to the west in.
  • Bluffs at Deal: The barrier beach rejoins the the mainland at Monmouth Beach, and the coastline continues its convex shape, curving increasingly to the southwest. Solid ground reaches right up to the beach, anchoring numerous high rise buildings. The terrain is rolling, and bluffs of 20 - 30 feet rise directly above the beach in southern Long Branch and Deal. The sand is narrow here, and various erosion control structures protect oceanside mansions. This stretch of coast has the best natural hurricane protection on the Jersey shore. For about seven miles, the beach is uninterrupted by inlets except for the very narrow tidal Lake Takanassee, connected to the ocean by a pipe underneath a sand beach.
  • Straight coast, small ponds, Asbury Park to Spring Lake: The convex curve of the shoreline ends around Asbury Park, and the coast continues SSE in virtually a straight line for about 7 miles. Slightly rolling terrain reaches the coast, but substantial hills retreat to about a mile and half inland. Ponds break up the land in low places pretty consistently, every half mile to mile. Most are narrow in the N/S direction. They tend to reach as far east as the sand beach but not actually connect to the ocean. The beach sand here is distinctly yellowish, similar to the sandy soil one would find just inland.
    In the middle of this straight section, the Shark River is the first navigable channel providing inland access to the ocean. Its inlet is narrow, but a mile inland, it opens up into a large, blob shape. Its western shore abuts the hills of inland Monmouth County. Just south of the Shark River's inlet, at Belmar, the coastline bulges again briefly.
  • Broadening coast near Manasquan Inlet Continuing south, the lowland adjacent to the coast begins to broaden and flatten. Manasquan Inlet, a second navegable channel with a long winding bay behind it, is a few miles down this widening trend. The coastline curves a bit closer to due S, while the inland hills calm down and recede further to the W. The ground near the coast becomes sandier and flatter, while inland bodies of water, large and small, become more numerous.
  • Broad Barrier Beaches and Bays, SW turn: At the town of Bay Head, Barnaget Bay begins to open up. Island Beach, a wide barrier beach, splits off from the mainland. It runs south for 20 miles, in a very slightly concave shape. The sand here is distinctly whiter in color here than farther north. Behind the barrier beach, Barnaget Bay spreads out as wide as 5 miles, with a length of 25 miles. The bay has several narrow E/W oriented rivers branching off inland.
    Barnaget Inlet separates one long stretch of barrier beach, Island Beach, from another, Long Beach Island, a genuine barrier island, entering Barnaget Bay at its widest point. The inlet has a huge and complicated formation of sandbars.
    At Barnaget Inlet, the coastline turns inward to be oriented more NE/SW.
  • Extremely Wide Estuary at Great Bay: Somewhat north of Atlantic City, the Mullica River drains a large portion of the Pine Barrens region into Great Bay. Here, the coastal plain is at its flattest and broadest. Wide barrier islands, endless salt marshes, ad up to six miles of bays and channels separate the ocean waves from the mainland. The ocean is at its shallowest here.
  • Narrower barrier islands from Atlantic City to Cape May: Atlantic City's barrier island is concave-shaped, representing a quick narrowing of the band of coastal bays and swamplands. From here south to Cape May, four barrier islands, each about seven miles long, separated from the coast by a couple of miles of salt marshes and winding channels, and from each other by narrow inlets, finish out the Jersey shore.

The whole shore region is said to be within the Coastal Plain, physiographically, but clearly the Atlantic waves wash against many different kinds of NJ landscape. The northern, firmer-ground parts of the shore have the charm of not being especially "beachy" until right near the water, reminiscent of shorelines in the New England uplands. On the other hand, Southern NJ's broad swamps and bays recall the vast flooded coastal plains and extensive barrier island systems of the Souteastern US. Passing down the coast, the observant traveller can contemplate the subtle signs of the land's transition.