It's peak season at Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh, Long Island's quintessential summer playground. On a typical weekday, from 20,000 to 40,000 beachgoers play amid the park's 2,400 acres. They swim and sunbathe on 61/2 miles of white-sand Atlantic Ocean beach, traverse the two-mile boardwalk on foot, bicycle or Rollerblade, and stay for an evening concert at the 15,000-seat theater.
To many, Jones Beach is just a park, but even a park has a life of its own. A recent Tuesday was one of those typical beach days, with 25,618 visitors on hand under partly cloudy skies. Here's how the scene unfolded from sunup to sundown:
Sunrise is turning the morning clouds pink as state parks employee Juan Ganan, 41, of Long Beach, drives into Field 6. He removes the traffic cone from the right-hand lane, and the park opens for the day. Steve Downey, 53, of Merrick, is the first visitor. He's here for his health. "I come here to walk the beach and listen to the waves," Downey says.
The shoreline is buzzing with a half-dozen treasure hunters, among them Raymond Capogrosso, 67, of Levittown. He walks knee-deep in the surf, plumbing the depths with his Excaliber Minelab metal detector and scoop. Today's haul so far?
"A lot of quarters, dimes, pennies and Matchbox cars," Capogrosso says. Occasionally there's a diamond ring or other valuable amid the pop-tops and other beach junk.
More state parks workers file out of the Captain's Shack, their headquarters at the southwest corner of Field 6. They clear the lot of last night's debris, hoist the park flags and open restrooms.
Loretta Garry, 77, a retired Catholic-school teacher, is among the first customers at the Central Mall concession. She buys a tea. "I've loved Jones Beach since I was a kid," Garry says, explaining why she's come all the way from her home from Bellerose, Queens. She's logging two miles today, one of the walkers taking the morning air on the boardwalk.
A dolphin fin rises out of the water off the Parking Field 4 beach as Omar Vergara, 25, and his extended family from Bogota, Colombia, watch from the sand. They've spread their blankets and set up an umbrella near the water's edge, close to where the fin keeps popping up, then disappearing into about 5 feet of water. "I come here a lot, and I always see dolphins," Vergara marvels.
The main lifeguard stand opens. "We anticipate it will be a hot, busy day," says lifeguard supervisor Cary Epstein, 35, of Hewlett. Atop the stand, a cool breeze wafts over the squad of four lifeguards. They scan the water between the green flags, ready to go into action with their lifesaving equipment. The previous day, there were 23 rescues. Another lifeguard stand is set to open at 11 a.m. as more swimmers arrive.
Colorful umbrellas dot the beachfront at Field 6 as Anna Vassallo, and her husband, Paul, both 70, end a beach day that began at 10:40 a.m. "When you come out of the water, you're nice and comfortable," Anna says. Next up for the couple: ice cream at the concession stand.
The historic West Bathhouse reopened last year with a new pool deck, filtration system and restored Art Deco brick work. A new beach shop under a tent is selling sunscreen, clothing and toys.
Jezibel Figuerero, 21, a Queens College psychology major visiting from Brooklyn, is among the crowd lying back on lounge chairs facing the pool. Looking up from her phone, Figuerero explains that she swims only in the pool, never the nearby ocean. Says Figuerero: "There are always sharks at the beach, no matter where you go."
Parking Field 10 may be the least-known section of Jones Beach. On the bay side, it's home to fishing piers and a bait shop that also sells snacks, drinks, rods and reels. Josh Yun, 24, a William Floyd High School physical education teacher from Dix Hills, has been fishing since 1 p.m. Yun and three friends have caught four fluke, all too small to keep because they are under the 18-inch size limit. "It's not about what we keep, it's about enjoying ourselves," Yun says, casting his bait into the water, hoping for another bite.
Tonight's Neil Young concert, which begins in a half-hour, has turned the parking field at Nikon at Jones Beach Theater into a big tailgate party. Fans lounge in camp chairs, eating barbecue and sipping drinks as car radios blast the veteran rocker's greatest hits.
Waiting for the show to begin amid a sea of cars, Robin Stanek, 55, of Center Moriches, is hanging out with her friends Eileen Spillane, 55, also of Center Moriches, and Cathy Worwetz, 61, of Bridgehampton.
"It's beautiful here, the kind of thing we often take for granted," says Stanek, a retired Calverton National Cemetery gravedigger looking forward to ending a long, hot summer day with an open-air concert.
Back at the Central Mall, another concert -- this one free -- has just ended at the bandshell. Droves of beachgoers clutching coolers and towels walk hurriedly to their cars, as storm clouds gather overhead. It's an abrupt end of another beach day, but in the sweltering days of August, there's always tomorrow.