Just flip 'em!®

By Jean Lynch, Photos by Jean Lynch

Today marked NJ Audubon’s third Just flip ‘em!® walk on open beaches in the North Cape May area. Since we’re just a few days past Saturday’s full moon, the high and low tides have been pretty extreme, and large numbers of horseshoe crabs have been spawning.

We got on the beach around 7:15 a.m. When we looked south, we saw dozens of horseshoe crabs making their way back down to the water, and a local resident was still busy turning them over.  So we headed  north,  where hundreds of horseshoe crabs were still stranded upside down. We quickly covered about a mile and a half of beach, walking, counting, and flipping crabs.  We reached a natural ending point when we got to a beach that was already being cleared by three other residents.


In May and June of each year, especially around the times of the full moon, beachgoers on the Delaware Bay may notice large numbers of horseshoe crabs that have been flipped over on their backs as the tide goes out. Horseshoe crabs that are unable to right themselves risk death from exposure to extreme heat, from desiccation, or from predators such as gulls. By flipping the horseshoe crabs over and allowing them to walk back down to the water, a person strolling on the beach can allow a horseshoe crab to continue its life cycle. It takes about ten years for a horseshoe crab to reach maturity and be able to reproduce; very few of those eggs will ever become adult horseshoe crabs. Saving a mature horseshoe crab is a fun and easy step that beachgoers can take to contribute to conservation at the Delaware Bay.

The Just flip ‘em!® campaign was started in 1998 by Dover, Delaware-based ERDG, a non-profit wildlife conservation organization whose primary focus is the conservation of the world’s four remaining horseshoe crab species. The correct way to flip a horseshoe crab is to push it over from its side, to avoid injuring the tail. They need the tail for navigation, and the tail is the main tool that they have for turning themselves back over on their own.

The Delaware Bay is the world’s largest spawning ground for horseshoe crabs and one of the most significant stopover sites worldwide for migrating shorebirds, which rely on the horseshoe crab’s eggs to fuel them on their long migration north. Due mainly to overharvesting for bait in the 1980s through the early 2000s, Delaware Bay horseshoe crab populations have seen steep declines, and with them so have populations of migrating shorebirds. A moratorium on horseshoe crab harvesting for bait has been in effect in New Jersey since 2008.

By the end of today’s walk, we had flipped 764 crabs! One of them had been tagged by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and we submitted its location online. Soon we’ll find out where that crab was originally tagged and released. 

If you are walking on the beach and come across an upside-down horseshoe crab, you can help too! Please follow this guidance:

1. Turn over the horseshoe crab gently by its side. Don't hold it by the tail, as this could injure the horseshoe crab. They look a little scary, but they don't bite!

2. NJ state law forbids the removal of horseshoe crabs or their parts from the beach.

3. If you see shorebirds on the beach or near the horseshoe crabs, give them plenty of room and avoid scaring them away.

And have fun giving our local Delaware Bay wildlife a hand.