In May 2013, I traveled to Cape Cod to visit with the folks at Barnstable Harbor Ecotours (BHE), based at Millway Marina on Maraspin Creek. BHE was launched in 2012 by local resident and popular Mattakeese Wharf bartender Joe Nastasi, who first came to Barnstable Harbor in 1986 and instantly fell in love with the place. An admitted beach and boating bum, Nastasi eventually sought a way to share his passion for this unique coastal paradise with others, so he purchased a 30’, custom-built pontoon boat and hired some local naturalists to educate his customers on the birds, fish, geology and marine ecology of the harbor and the 4,000-acre Great Marsh estuary, which extends west of the harbor.

Barnstable Ecotours gets you close to Sandy Neck Light. Photos/New England Boating, Tom Richardson.

Barnstable Ecotours gets you close to Sandy Neck Light. Photos/New England Boating, Tom Richardson.

The boat, named Horseshoe Crab, is a Coast Guard-certified, ultra-stable, shallow-draft vessel that seats 28 passengers. It features a head, as well as a full cabin top for sun and rain protection. It’s an ideal platform for exploring the sheltered waters of the marsh and harbor—but bring a jacket, as it can get chilly, even in summer.

While Nastasi skippers the boat much of the time, an off-season accident left him shorebound for our trip in 2013. Instead, Eric Stacy took the helm, while Phil Kyle, a retired Barnstable biology teacher, played the role of tour guide.

Naturalist Phil Kyle dispenses intel on the local fauna and geology.

Naturalist Phil Kyle dispenses intel on the local fauna and geology.

At 2:00, with the tide beginning to flood, we headed out of Maraspin Creek and followed the marked channel towards the tip of Sandy Neck. Almost immediately, Kykle proved his bird-brained abilities by spotting a loon that was fishing in the channel, followed by a couple of eider ducks that had yet to make their way north for the summer. As we neared the mouth of the harbor, where it meets Cape Cod Bay, Kyle trained his binoculars on a sandbar and noticed 2 species of gull (blackback and herring), as well as some common terns.

Sat map.

Sat map.

Next we turned west and skirted the inside of Sandy Neck as Kyle explained how the peninsula—actually a barrier beach with dunes up to 30’ high—had formed over the centuries due to the effects of the longshore current sweeping sand into Cape Cod Bay from points north. We did a fly-by of the Sandy Point Lighthouse and the summer cottages along the beach, then made our way into the Great Marsh.

A flock of brant take flight in the Great Marsh.

A flock of brant take flight in the Great Marsh.

This vast network of tidal creeks and peat marsh sheltered by the great dunes of Sandy Neck provides a critical nursery for numerous species of baitfish and juvenile food and game fish, as well as habitat for birds such as osprey, brant, willet, plovers, sandpipers, oyster catchers, herons, egret and more. In the late spring, big striped bass make their way into the marshes, and keen-eyed observers may be able to spot them gliding over the shallows.

Speaking of shallows, the Horsheshoe Crab is ideally suited for exploring the mud and sand flats of the marsh, as it only draws some 6” of water. Even so, tide plays a big role in the scheduling of the inner-marsh trips, so be sure to check the company’s website or give them a call beforehand to get the skinny on these skinny-water excursions. They are not to be missed.

Barnstable Ecotours is based at Millway Marina.

Barnstable Ecotours is based at Millway Marina.

By the time we returned to Millway Marina at 4:00, I was already planning a return trip—this time in summer, when the Great Marsh takes on a whole different personality.

Serious birders will want to book for the fall, when many migratory species swing through the area. Indeed, BHE runs special group trips for the local Audubon chapter at this time of year. Aside from its standard ecotours, BHE offers 2-hour sunset cruises for those who simply want to take a relaxing boat ride on the harbor. No matter which trip you opt for, you’ll see what made Joe Nastasi decide to stick around.

For more information go to the Barnstable Harbor Ecotours website or call (508-221-6126).

2013 Rates:

To learn more about boating in Barnstable Harbor, visit our Boater’s Guide section.

Sandy Neck Light marks the entrance to Barnstable Harbor.

Sandy Neck Light marks the entrance to Barnstable Harbor.

Cormorants and gulls can be seen year-round in Barnstable Harbor.

Cormorants and gulls can be seen year-round in Barnstable Harbor.

A diminutive plover stalks the mud flats at low tide.

A diminutive plover stalks the mud flats at low tide.

A typical Barnstable Harbor trip yields plenty of osprey sightings.

A typical Barnstable Harbor trip yields plenty of osprey sightings.

A weathered hunting shack sits behind the Sandy Neck dunes.

A weathered hunting shack sits behind the Sandy Neck dunes.

Early spring eiders take flight.

Early spring eiders take flight.

 

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