Ocean City, N.J.: Hermit Crab Heaven

Greetings from Ocean City, New Jersey
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The town of Ocean City, N.J., billed as “America’s Greatest Family Resort,” is a very popular seaside town.

Must Haves in Ocean City

There are four things people feel obligated to get when visiting Ocean City:

It seems that every souvenir shop on the Ocean City boardwalk sells live hermit crabs, bedecked in elaborately painted shells depicting everything from flowers to polka dots and cartoon characters. (In case you didn’t know, hermit crabs live in shells they ‘steal’ from other deceased animals.)

Most Ocean City souvenir shops give customers free hermit crabs with the purchase of a crabby domicile, usually little acrylic tanks or small round wire cages. And vacationers buy them like packs of gum.

These pets are so popular and omnipresent in Ocean City that the town even hosts the annual Miss Crustacean Pageant, a beauty contest for hermit crabs!

Each summer, comely crustaceans get all gussied up to vie for the coveted Cucumber Rind Cup. The winner then sashays down a little runway while being serenaded to “There It Is, Miss Crustacean,” sung to the tune of the Miss America theme song. (The town got permission from the song’s writer, Bernie Wayne, to use the melody in the crab pageant.)

Meet Ocean City’s Zen Master of Zaniness

This wacky pageant was the brainchild of Ocean City’s 79-year-old public relations maven of 40 years, Mark Soifer, a local legend admired for his promotional genius who came up with the idea in the early 1970s.

“I was looking for unusual events to get publicity for Ocean City,” Soifer said. “We didn’t have a big ad budget. We came up with Martin Z. Mollusk Day, a parody of Ground Hog Day. I was thinking of a parody of Miss America. That’s how this got started.”

Ocean City, which was voted the Best Family Beach by the Travel Channel in 2005, hosts a bevy of other offbeat contests and events each year.

The annual spring Doo Dah Parade is a celebration of humor, the highlight of which is a basset hound brigade featuring hundreds of the droopy-eared pooches waddling along the boardwalk.

The town also hosts Weird Contest Week each August, featuring French fry and salt water taffy sculpting; a Quiet Festival, during which a chorus yawns along to “Beautiful Dreamer,” and more.

But the hermit crab events are arguably the most popular, and hilarious.

More Hermit Crab Fun

In addition to the Miss Crustacean Beauty Pageant, Ocean City stages hermit crab races immediately following the crowning, during which fleet-clawed crab-athletes vie for the title “The King of Klutz,” and Extreme Hermit Crab Wrestling.

“I started extreme hermit crab wrestling two years ago,” Soifer said. “We put the crabs on their backs and the first one that turns over wins. We have a Pee Wee and Big Boys division. It’s non-violent.”

Hermit Crabs Grab the International Spotlight

Ocean City’s hermit crab craziness has so thoroughly captured the public’s imagination that the crusty critters have been featured on TV shows and in newspapers all over the world, and were even the subject of a question on “Jeopardy.”

Animal Planet has also shown an interest in featuring Ocean City’s hermit crabs, particularly Martin Z. Mollusk, who predicts the arrival of summer on the basis of his ability to see his shadow. (As of this writing, Soifer was waiting to hear back from the channel’s reps.)

Indeed, Ocean City owes its success to hermit crabs, and the irreverent vision of a public relations man whose sense of fun helped put the town – and these cute, crusty critters – on the world map.