Trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina

All photos in this article were taken by me. All Rights Reserved.

The beach off of NC 12, near Black Pelican Beach, just north of Avon, NC.
The beach off of NC 12, near Black Pelican Beach, just north of Avon, NC.

This year, we visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I’d only ever been there once, in 2003, just before Hurricane Isabel altered parts of the barrier islands. We enjoyed the landscapes, the nature reserves, the wildlife, the quaint towns, and of course, the beaches.

Natural Beauty

The Outer Banks are a string of barrier islands that span and protect nearly the entire coast of North Carolina. As an Outer Banks Guide explained, “They are made entirely of sand, without the keel of rock that anchors most islands firmly to the earth. It is a fascinat­ingly evanescent phenomenon in geological terms, a landform so transient that changes are visible from year to year.”1 Though there is a lot of development, there are vast natural areas, preserves, dunes, and beaches. We saw inspiring sun rises on the ocean side and gorgeous sunsets on the sound side.

Sunset over the sound, taken from the Duck Town Park Boardwalk with a dock at center.
Sunset over the sound, taken from the Duck Town Park Boardwalk, Duck, NC.

Wildlife

There were more birds and crabs than I can list, as well as deer and other animals. Pelicans seemed to enjoy showing off their graceful glide just inches above the sea. Sandpipers and terns poked into the sand seeking food. A few times, I sat really still on the beach when there weren’t a lot of people around, and I became surrounded by ghost crabs! The Outer Banks have laws and protected areas for wildlife throughout the islands. They restricted humans from some places to protect bird nests:

We even saw sea turtle tracks!

Sea turtle tracks on the sand.
Sea turtle tracks at Oregon Inlet, NC.

But sadly, we also found a dead sea turtle. We visited an area called Oregon Inlet and had a picnic snack on the beach. Then we walked along the beach and picked up trash.

The beach along Oregon Inlet, seaweed and shells dot the edge of the water.
The beach along Oregon Inlet, NC.

In the distance, I could see something big with orange stripes and wasn’t sure what it was until we got right up to it. Once I realized that it was a deceased sea turtle, I cried. I don’t know what caused its death, but I was sorry that it had lost its life. When I went to report the turtle, I discovered that spray paint markings like these indicate that this turtle had already been reported. Scientists document the animal’s species, sex, and age, and also extract genetic material to study and to better understand those species.

Dead sea turtle with orange spray paint lines on the sand.
Deceased sea turtle with orange spray paint markings.

The National Park Service has many sites in the Outer Banks, including several lighthouses and the Wright Brothers National Memorial, and they had one on Ocracoke Island that offered sea turtle education. My son learned a lot from the rangers and their exhibit.

My son listened to the National Park Service employees and learned about sea turtle nesting on the Outer Banks.
My son listened to the National Park Service rangers and learned about sea turtle nesting on the Outer Banks. National Park Service site on Ocracoke Island.
Sea turtle nesting exhibit at the National Park Service site on Ocracoke Island. Turtle shells, figurines, a skull, and signage on a table.
Sea turtle nesting exhibit at the National Park Service site on Ocracoke Island.

Trash

As usual for my family, we picked up litter and beachcombed. Following are three of the piles we accumulated, containing a range of items – bottles of sunscreen, pieces of toys, Styrofoam/polystyrene, pieces of nylon rope, fireworks debris, food wrappers, plastic bags and film, and many, many small pieces of plastic. I uploaded images of each individual item into the Litterati app.

Pile of collected trash.

Pile of collected trash.

Pile of collected trash.

As you can see, we found quite a variety of items, some recognizable and some not! Some of these items likely washed up on the beach from other places or fell off of boats, but others were obviously left behind. It’s so important to remember to leave the beach cleaner than you found it! Plastic pollution exponentially increases annually and is harming everything in the food chain, including humans.

Below are a few of my favorite finds – a broken green-haired plastic mermaid, a fishermen’s glove, and two missile-shaped diving weights that we ended up using and keeping!

I also found these goggles, which at first I thought someone had dropped. But upon closer examination, I noticed that these had been in the ocean long enough to grow barnacles:

Jennette’s Pier

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Located in Nags Head, NC, and used for sightseeing and fishing, this pier is unique. It was originally built in 1939 by the Jennette family, hence the name. The North Carolina Aquarium Society bought it in 2003 with the intention of building an educational outpost for the Aquarium, but Hurricane Isabel severely damaged the pier later that same year. The Aquarium rebuilt the 1000-foot-long, concrete pier with educational panels throughout and it reopened in 2011.2 It is LEED certified and has 3 wind turbines:

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Wind turbine, looking from the bottom, almost straight up. Sky in background.
Wind turbine at Jennette’s Pier.

They had exhibit panels on birds and marine mammals and shorebirds, such as this one:

"Sea Turtle Rescue" sign explaining how sea turtles are rescued.
“Sea Turtle Rescue” sign at Jennette’s Pier.

They had others on many topics, including surfing, ocean processes, fishing, and trash. In fact, they had sponsored recycling stations for items like cigarette butts and fishing line:

PVC tube recycling station for fishing line.
Recycling station for fishing line.
PVC tube recycling station for cigarette butts.
Recycling station for cigarette butts, to be recycled by TerraCycle.

The Pier House features a small, free series of North Carolina Aquariums interactive exhibits. I highly recommend visiting this pier if you’re ever on the Outer Banks!

My son standing in front of one of the North Carolina Aquarium exhibit tanks, with fish at top.
My son standing in front of one of the North Carolina Aquarium exhibit tanks.

Other Cool Finds

Outer Banks Brewing Station

We ate at this brewery and restaurant, which was once featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. While we went to several good restaurants, I’m featuring this one because it uses wind energy! It was the first wind-powered brewery in the United States, and the first business to produce wind power on the Outer Banks. They use 100% of the turbine’s energy to supplement their electricity. Over the course of its operating life (at least 30 years), this 10 kW Bergey GridTek system will offset approximately 1.2 tons of air pollutants and 250 tons of greenhouse gases.3 Oh, and we enjoyed the food and brew!

My husband inside of the Outer Banks Brewing Station, with a flight of beer in front of him on a table.
My husband at the Outer Banks Brewing Station, preparing for his flight (of beer)!
Wind turbine against blue sky, at the Outer Banks Brewing Station.
Wind turbine at the Outer Banks Brewing Station.

The Surfin’ Spoon

This frozen yogurt shop in Nags Head was my son’s absolute favorite, and they also offered dairy-free ice cream treats that were delicious! This shop, owned by a former professional surfer, collects and donates money to Surfers for Autism, a non-profit that provides free surf sessions to children and adults with autism and other related developmental delays and disabilities.4

My son peeking through the Surfin' Spoon's sign.
My son peeking through the Surfin’ Spoon’s sign.

Dog friendly

Almost everywhere on the Outer Banks is super dog friendly! I found this pleasantly surprising and hope to bring our dog there someday.

Dog prints in the sand.

Overall, A Lovely Place to Travel

We saved up for this trip and felt privileged to be able to travel the Outer Banks, taking in many sights from Corolla all the way down to Emerald Isle, North Carolina. We saw several lighthouses, National Park Service sites, and other places that I didn’t have time to mention above. I highly recommend the Outer Banks for its beauty, dedication to conservation, and relaxed atmosphere. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

My son playing on the beach in the early evening in Duck, NC.
My son playing on the beach in the early evening in Duck, NC.

 

Footnotes:

Honoring Sea Turtles

Sea Turtle at the Newport Aquarium
Sea turtle at the Newport Aquarium. Photo by me

Happy World Sea Turtle Day! Though these beautiful and important creatures deserve everyone’s attention year-round, I like to honor this day, June 16th, to acknowledge and bring awareness to their plight.

I found this video about sea turtles from the Newport Aquarium in Newport, Kentucky, which my family just visited this past April (2022):

The aquarium had a really great display with a cross-section of how a sea turtle nest looks under the sand:

My son pointing examining the sea turtle nest cross section exhibit at the Newport Aquarium.
My son examining the sea turtle nest cross-section exhibit at the Newport Aquarium. Photo by me.
Close-up of the sea turtle nest cross section exhibit at the Newport Aquarium.
Close-up of the sea turtle nest cross-section exhibit at the Newport Aquarium.

It is extremely important to protect these nests since hatchlings have a very low chance of survival to adulthood. Here’s a TED-Ed video explaining the struggles hatchlings face:

What You Can Do

The best thing you can do is to learn, and then educate others! Please read my article about the importance of sea turtles and what is endangering them and what actions you can take to help protect them.

You can also adopt a sea turtle nest! There are many organizations at every level –  global down to local communities – that take donations to protect a nest and educate their communities. I adopt one annually on Hilton Head Island through the Coastal Discovery Museum since that area is special to my family. There seems to be a program near most coastal communities in the United States, so just pick one!

Thank you for reading and supporting sea turtles, please share and subscribe! I’ll close with a video I took of a sea turtle swimming in the Newport Aquarium’s Coral Reef exhibit:

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “All About Sea Turtles,” World Wildlife Fund Wild Classroom, April 13, 2021.

Article, “How To Help Save Sea Turtles,” seeturtleweek.com.

FilmProtecting leatherback turtles – Blue Planet II: Episode 7 Preview, BBC One, December 8, 2017.

Happy World Sea Turtle Day!

Sea turtle swimming in the ocean.
Photo by Giorgia Doglioni on Unsplash

World Sea Turtle Day is a day to honor and highlight the importance of sea turtles. It is on June 16th because that was the birthdate of Dr. Archie Carr, the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s founder and the ‘father of sea turtle biology.’

Sea turtles have been around for at least 110 million years, as far back as the Cretaceous period and the dinosaurs. They spend their lives in the sea, except for nesting, and swim in almost all oceans. Sea turtles navigate through their sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic fields. All species of female sea turtles return to the same exact beach they hatched on to nest.

Leatherback sea turtle hatchling
“A leatherback sea turtle hatchling starts and begins its adventure into the vast unknown, to grow, to see the world, and to become its adult self.” Photo by Max Gotts on Unsplash

Endangered

Six out of seven species of sea turtles are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List. The 7th is listed as ‘data deficient.’

“Humans have caused sea turtle populations to decline
significantly all over the world.” -Oceana.org

Green sea turtle
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Importance

“Sea turtles are a fundamental link in marine ecosystems.” -World Wildlife Fund

Sea turtles keep the natural ocean environment and the food chain balanced. Following are specific ways in which they provide this balance.

Balancing the Food Chain

The largest sea turtles, the leatherbacks, consume up to 440 pounds of jellyfish daily. Loggerheads and Green sea turtles also eat them. As sea turtle populations decline, jellyfish populations increase. This not only affects humans, but it affects fish populations. “Declining fish stocks leave jellyfish with less competition for food, resulting in proliferation of jellyfish around the world. The increase in jellyfish is already proving detrimental to the recovery of fish stocks since jellyfish prey on fish eggs and larvae.”

Certain fish “clean” the barnacles, algae, and epibionts (organisms that survive by living on other organisms) from sea turtles’ bodies and shells, sometimes providing their sole food source. Without turtles, these organisms would have to find another, potentially unsuccessful, food source. “Species associated with a host, such as sea turtles, are important to generating and maintaining diversity throughout the world’s oceans.”

Sea turtles also provide food to many other species as prey. Many predators eat eggs and hatchlings, and even juvenile sea turtles. Sharks and killer whales sometimes eat adult sea turtles.

Last, but not least, some species, such as loggerheads, consume crustaceans. While eating they break the shells into fragments and create trails in sediment along the ocean floor, practices that both contribute to what is known as ‘nutrient cycling.’

Green Sea Turtle grazing seagrass at Akumal bay.
“Green Sea Turtle grazing seagrass at Akumal bay.” Photo by P.Lindgren on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Seagrass control

Sea turtles are one of the few animals that eat seagrass, especially Green sea turtles. It needs to be cut short constantly to stay healthy and to keep growing. Seagrass beds are important because they are the breeding and developmental grounds for many species of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans. Those species are consumed by many other species, so lower levels of seagrass impact the food chain, all the way up to humans.

Additionally, seagrass control provides balance to the ocean. “Without constant grazing, seagrass beds become overgrown and obstruct currents, shade the bottom, begin to decompose and provide suitable habitat for the growth of slime molds. Older portions of seagrass beds tend to be overgrown with microorganisms, algae, invertebrates and fungi.” The Caribbean has seen a sharp decrease in Green sea turtles and thus a loss of productivity in commercially fished species.

“All parts of an ecosystem are important, if you lose one, the rest will eventually follow.” -Sea Turtle Conservancy

Dune Protection and Prevention of Beach Erosion

Beaches and dunes do not get a lot of nutrients because sand doesn’t hold them. However, all of the sea turtle nests, eggs, and hatchlings don’t make it to the sea, leaving valuable nutrients behind, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, that allow the dunes to thrive. Even the eggshells from hatched eggs provide some nutrients. This is called nutrient cycling. “Dune vegetation is able to grow and become stronger with the presence of nutrients from turtle eggs. As the dune vegetation grows stronger and healthier, the health of the entire beach/dune ecosystem becomes better. Stronger vegetation and root systems helps to hold the sand in the dunes and helps protect the beach from erosion.” But as sea turtles decline, nests decline, and the beaches start eroding.

Additionally, sea turtle eggs, shells, and even hatchlings provide food for other species, which then redistribute the nutrients through their feces. Those nutrients also feed the vegetation that provides stabilization to the dunes.

Sea turtle swimming in the ocean.
Photo by Baptiste RIFFARD on Unsplash

Coral Reef Development

Hawksbill Sea Turtles, which eat a lot of sea sponges, help protect the coral reefs. “Sponges compete aggressively for space with reef-building corals. By removing sponges from reefs, hawksbills allow other species, such as coral, to colonize and grow.” Without sea turtles, sponges could start to dominate reef communities and limit the growth of corals, and altering the entire coral ecosystem.

“These amazing creatures are endangered by human interactions, both intentional and unintentional: fishing lines, nets, boat hulls, propellers, and plastic debris, which the turtles mistake for jellyfish and ingest.” -Joel Sartore

Sea turtle entangled in abandoned fishing netting.
Entangled green sea turtle. Photo by NOAA Marine Debris Program on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

What You Can Do

There are so many things you can do to help protect sea turtles! Here’s a quick list, but you can check out my article “Sea Turtles are Endangered” for detailed information.

      • Avoid plastic bags. This is a big one because turtles, especially leatherbacks, mistake floating plastic shopping bags for jellyfish, and ingesting bags kills them.
      • Stop using disposable plastic straws; decline them at restaurants. If you really must have one, carry a metal or glass straw with you.
      • Keep beaches clean. Litter on beaches prevents hatchlings from reaching the sea.
      • Turn off the lights.
      • Use coral reef-friendly sunscreen.
      • Buy sustainable seafood.
      • Do your part to slow climate change.
      • Reduce the chemicals you use in your yard and dispose of others properly through the hazardous waste collection in your area.
      • Don’t buy products made from real turtle shells.
      • Make turtle cookies. I know that sounds funny, but if you have children, cookies are a great conversation starter. Even coworkers would give you a few minutes of listening while enjoying them.
      • Educate others. Try the cookie trick.
      • Stop releasing helium balloons.
      • Recycle, or better yet, don’t buy plastic as much as possible.
Plastic bag floating in ocean, looking similar to a jellyfish.
Photo by MichaelisScientists on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Adopt-A-Turtle!

There are numerous programs that offer sea turtle nest “adoption” for donation. You can do a quick internet search to find one. I adopt a loggerhead sea turtle nest annually through the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island. For my donation, I receive a certificate, a car sticker, and regular email updates about the general nesting season, and information about the specific nest I’ve sponsored. The funds support their educational programs “which inspire people to care for the Lowcountry and all the plants, animals, and people who call this place home.”

Taped off with sign posted, Loggerhead sea turtle nest on the beach.
A loggerhead sea turtle nest on the beach on Hilton Head Island, May 2021. Photo by me

I hope this information was helpful, and thanks for reading. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Information About Sea Turtles: Species of the World,”

Article, “World Sea Turtle Day: 10 Things you Never Knew About Sea Turtles,” World Wildlife Fund UK, June 16, 2018. This is a quick read and is a great way to introduce the topic to children.

Article, “Drone footage shows 64,000 green turtles migrating to Cairns rookery,” The Sydney Morning Herald, June 10, 2020. The article shows a migration map for Green Sea Turtles.

Article, “Information About Sea Turtles: Threats to Sea Turtles,”

Footnotes:

Inspiration Abounds on Hilton Head Island

Last updated on February 11, 2024.

Hilton Head Island after sunrise, the wide beach at low tide with sun rising at center. People walking.
Hilton Head Island just after sunrise. Photo by Marie Cullis.

If you read my article about my family’s weekend trip to Hilton Head Island last fall, then you already know how much we love the island. We recently returned from a week-long trip there, and inspiration was all around! Besides the natural beauty of the island and the gorgeous beaches, there are many environmentally conscious things I appreciate about Hilton Head Island.

My son sitting in the surf, looking out at the vast and beautiful ocean.
My son sitting in the surf, looking out at the vast and beautiful ocean. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Sunset on Hilton Head Island, silhouetted tress with the orange sun just behind them, blue and orange hued sky above.
Sunset on Hilton Head Island. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Plastic bag ban in Beaufort County, South Carolina

They implemented a plastic bag ban last fall, and I am here to tell you that from a tourist’s perspective, businesses have not been hurt by this. People were shopping in all the shops and supermarkets and the plastic bag ban did not seem to deter anyone from spending money. I have not found any studies on the result of this ban in the last 8 months, but I imagine the impact has been huge!

Unfortunately, I read that Target and Walmart are using supposedly “reusable” plastic bags. However, since they are made of the same material as regular plastic bags, they defeat the whole purpose as far as plastic production goes. I did not happen to shop at either store while there so I did not witness this first hand.

At the other shops and stores I visited, I received only paper bags when I didn’t have my cloth bags with me. I love it! Can’t we do this everywhere?

Dunes with a palm tree against a cloudless blue sky.
Gorgeous dunes on HHI. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Wildlife

There’s a lot of cherished and protected wildlife on the island. We saw all types of birds, including pelicans – my favorite! We saw dolphins, tons of fish, and several types of crabs. There are also bald eagles, alligators, and turtles living on the island but we didn’t personally get to see those this time. The local government’s website educates on sustainable living, the types of local wildlife, native plants, biodiversity, and ecosystems, and how everyone can help protect those things.

Pelicans flying in a line over the ocean near sunset, pink and purple hues on a blue sky.
Pelicans flying in a line over the ocean near sunset. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Baby crab, dark gray.
Baby crab! Photo by Marie Cullis.

Sea Turtle Conservation Efforts

Although we did not see sea turtles this trip, we saw at least 7 cordoned loggerhead sea turtle nest areas. They were marked with orange signs provided by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, which alerts the public about the protection of this endangered species through federal and state laws.

Loggerhead sea turtle nest sign, cordoned and marked by the South Carolina department of Natural Resources.
Loggerhead sea turtle nest, cordoned by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Three loggerhead turtle nests on the north end of the island (Port Royal area), cordoned off by the SC Department of Natural Resources.
Three loggerhead turtle nests on the north end of the island (Port Royal area). The SC Department of Natural Resources cordoned off the nests. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Many Atlantic coast towns have laws, regulations, and organizations to protect sea turtle nests. On Hilton Head Island, lights on buildings and hotels cannot shine in the direction of the beach. People are only permitted to use red or “turtle-safe” flashlights on the beach between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. between May and October. They have a volunteer organization (Sea Turtle Patrol HHI) that patrols, monitors, and reports on sea turtle nests. They also clean up beach litter and plastics.

Recently, a Kemp’s Ridley turtle made a nest on Hilton Head Island, a first-time event for the most endangered of all the sea turtle species! Wow!

The Coastal Discovery Museum has an “Adopt-a-Nest” Program, which not only sponsors the protection of a sea turtle nest but also supports the museum’s educational programs. Of course, this idea excited me so I adopted a nest while writing this post! They emailed me to let me know that my nest will be the 277th one this year and that they’ll keep me informed on the progress of my adopted nest.

Can I inspire you to adopt a nest as well? Just use the link above!

UPDATE February 11, 2024: Since writing this article, I have been able to adopt a sea turtle nest in Hilton Head every year. It’s one of my ways of giving back.

Baby sea turtles on the beach.
Photo by Skeeze on Pixabay.

Coastal Discovery Museum

The Coastal Discovery Museum on the island is a great non-profit and Smithsonian Affiliate, dedicated to educating and protecting the natural resources, history, and ecosystems of the region. Their mission “inspires people to care for the Lowcountry,” through their many programs, exhibits, talks, and tours. What a great organization.

We’ve visited several times in past years but this year we did a Dolphin and Nature Cruise with the museum and really enjoyed it. And yes, we did see dolphins! The museum docent provided a dolphin skull replica and spoke about the anatomy, diet, and lifestyle of the local dolphins. The captain provided a rich tour of the history and nature of the island. Both the captain and museum docent were very knowledgeable and kept the passengers engaged for the entirety of the cruise. They even let each of the kids drive the boat for a few minutes!

My son driving the boat on the Dolphin & Nature Cruise.
My son driving the boat on the Dolphin & Nature Cruise. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Beach Trash

Hilton Head Island’s beaches are very clean and well-maintained. And there are both trash and recycling cans up and down the beach. Even so, I still picked up about 300 pieces of trash during my week there. Of course, I logged these through Litterati (see also my article on Litterati). My next article will be about the types of trash I found and what you can do to prevent beach trash and ocean pollution!

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!