There’s history — and mystery — beneath the waters off Wellfleet
In addition, the Billingsgate Shoal still lives up to its generations’ old reputation as a prominent fishing area—particularly at low tide. “Aside from being entrenched in Cape Cod history, Billingsgate Shoal today offers fishermen plenty of phenomenal fishing opportunities for striped bass, bluefish, tuna, and even the occasional tautog,” says Ryan Collins, a Bourne resident who has been fishing Cape waters since he was 5 years old. “The shoal is a hub for recreational, charter, and commercial anglers,” Collins says. “Billingsgate is by far one of the top fishing areas on Cape Cod.”
In recent years, Billingsgate Shoal has also served as a rest stop for kayakers, and at extreme low tides, bricks from the foundation of the island’s lighthouse can be found.
Stories of Billingsgate’s rapid erosion—which occurred largely from 1855 to 1920—have stymied scientists for years, but the island’s disappearance beneath the water may portend the start of an environmental ripple effect in the region. “Without a doubt, the Cape and Islands will continue to erode because with or without sea-level rise, the loose sand of the glacial Cape has no resistance to wave attack,” writes Bob Oldale, a geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the author of Cape Cod and the Islands: The Geologic Story. “Continued sea-level rise,” Oldale adds, “will accelerate the erosion and cause the demise of the Cape sooner, but it will take thousands of years before the Cape is reduced to shoals and low lying islands.”
Submerged since 1942, the state—or fate—of Billingsgate, may foreshadow, as Oldale says, a slow erosion and deterioration of Cape Cod to the point where one day, centuries hence, the peninsula will become its own Atlantis, appearing and disappearing in the tide, waiting to be unearthed and remembered. One thing, however, is certain: for the student of history, geology, and Cape Cod, the story of Billingsgate Island makes for a fascinating study.
Liam Russo is a senior at Barnstable High School.
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