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:

Fireworks on the beach

Fireworks on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Fireworks on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photo by A n v e s h on Unsplash

I love fireworks. My son loves fireworks. So much so that we drag my (grumbling) husband to watch them every July 4th. However, I do like to leave the annual tradition of blowing up sparkly gunpowder to the professionals. I have never taken much to buying and setting off my own fireworks, especially with a young child around. Since I don’t purchase consumer fireworks, I honestly have never given much thought to the waste they create. But then my best friend, who lives on the coast of North Carolina, sent me this photo the day after July 4th last year:

Fireworks debris collected on a North Carolina beach
Fireworks debris collected on a North Carolina beach, July 5, 2020. Photo by Taylor Notion

She collected that much plastic and cardboard firework waste on a walk where she lives, all left behind by people the night before. That’s the amount she found that hadn’t already washed into the ocean during high tide. That’s from just one section of one beach, in one town. I imagine fireworks at the beach are fun and beautiful, but at what cost to the environment?

Waste

After reading multiple news articles from coastal states, particularly Florida, I discovered that the Independence Day firework waste collected is measured in tons. Tons! Even on beaches where fireworks are illegal, such as on Hilton Head Island, beach patrol collected seven trailers’ worth of fireworks debris in 2019.

“Any regular beach walker will tell you about encountering little ribbons of plastic along the tide line in the days and weeks after the Fourth of July. All waiting for the high tide that will be their ride to join that vast swirl of ocean-borne plastics.” -Mark Lane, The Daytona Beach News-Journal

Since these are set off in the dark, it’s difficult to find all of the scattered pieces once exploded. “Fireworks launchers are big and easy to spot and haul away, but each rocket launched and bomb exploded rains tiny shards of plastics and cardboard along with a smattering of metals like lead and copper.”

Plastics

The plastic bits break down into smaller pieces called microplastics, which are then ingested by fish and marine animals. The toxins from those plastics make their way through the food chain, all the way into our bodies.

Saturn Missile Battery fireworks
This 25 shot Saturn Missile costs under $2.00 but will leave microplastics for hundreds of years.

Here is just one example. The Saturn Missile Battery (SMB), which I’ve seen debris from in a lot of Fifth of July clean-up images, is a common type of aerial firework. It consists of a cardboard base packed with between 25 to 1,000 shots. These shots are small plastic tubes filled with explosive powder. “When an SMB is detonated, each of those tubes shoots into the air with a shrill whistle, shatters apart and falls back to earth, creating a shower of litter that’s hard for even the best-intentioned reveler to clean up. Unlike colorful caps and wings, the dull gray or green SMB litter blends into sand and soil.” These bits of plastics and microplastics will last for hundreds of years.

Fifth of July Clean-ups

For all celebrations at the beach, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends cleaning up after ourselves, participating in coastal clean-ups, and educating others. “By celebrating the Fourth of July and enjoying fireworks responsibly, we can honor our country through protecting our beloved coastal environments, and the marine animals who rely on these habitats.”

Fireworks on a road
Photo by Alexander Kagan on Unsplash

Wildlife Disturbance

Left on the beaches, fireworks debris harms marine life. They block the paths of sea turtles and crabs. Not to mention birds and marine animals ingest these small pieces of debris. Additionally, there are dangers to all wildlife from injury and entanglement from the plastic garbage. Unfortunately, July 4th is during prime sea turtle nesting season.

The noise from fireworks disturbs animals everywhere, from eagles and other birds to our domesticated love ones. The loud explosions cause panic and despair in many animals. Just think of how your dog or your neighbor’s dog reacts every 4th of July.

“Environmentalists from Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Audubon Bird Stewards reported that the noise, debris, and lights from fireworks were negatively impacting both sea turtles and beach nesting birds. Fireworks cause aborted nesting attempts, ingestion of plastic residue, and disturbed and disoriented hatchlings, all of which significantly reduces the number of successful births.”

Seal with a plastic or rubber ring growing into the skin around its neck.
Any litter you leave on the beach can potentially harm another species. Image by Noutch from Pixabay

Other Problems from Fireworks

Consumer fireworks cause thousands of injuries annually in the United States. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2019 there were approximately 10,000 injuries from fireworks treated in emergency departments, with about 73% of those during just a one-month interval surrounding July 4th.

In addition, fireworks, both consumer and professional types, are potentially toxic to the air and water, hence to us, wildlife, and the water we drink.

Fireworks from gender reveal parties have caused massive wildfires.

Did you know that Americans spend close to $1 billion annually on consumer fireworks? This number astonished me for many reasons. Do you know how many problems we could solve for ourselves, wildlife, and the planet with $1 billion? Make a list, pick one, and I bet it’s money better spent than just blowing it up.

Fireworks debris piled up on sand.
Photo by Karen Montgomery on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Environmentally Friendly Fireworks

There have been some developments with making more environmentally friendly fireworks, but these changes have not been significant enough to make large-scale differences. These include fireworks released with compressed air as an alternate propellant and changing the chemical make-up to reduce pollutants, but the studies on the latter are still new and the impact is not clear. In consumer fireworks, some companies are trying to switch to recycled paper and cardboard components over plastics, but testing new products takes time and money.

Fireworks debris on the coast of New Zealand.
Photo by Murray Adamson on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

New Traditions

July 4th is no celebration for the environment and wildlife. We can do better. Especially with something that is so non-essential to our lives.

I argue that we don’t need to set off consumer fireworks or sparklers on the beach or anywhere else in nature, at all. In fact, I began this article as a person who loved to drag her family to professional fireworks every summer, but after researching the problems even they create, I’m starting to think differently. Are there new traditions we can create? What about laser light shows?

If you do set off fireworks on the beach or in a natural area, please take safety precautions and clean up the debris. It really matters! We can all make a difference and encourage others to do the right thing. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Let Freedom Ring and Fireworks Fly, but Keep Debris off the Beaches and Out of the Sky!” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program, July 1, 2019.

Article, “Fireworks: Can they ever be eco-friendly?” Deutsche Welle, accessed June 19, 2021.

Article, “Are Fireworks Bad for the Environment?” by Russell McLendon, Treehugger.com, updated February 23, 2021.

Footnotes:

 

Have you heard about Litterati?

Last updated on November 21, 2019.

Photo of a discarded plastic laundry detergent bottle on the ground, by nicholasrobb1989 on Pixabay
Photo of a discarded plastic laundry detergent bottle on the ground, by nicholasrobb1989 on Pixabay

Have you ever been out walking, hiking, biking, or even kayaking and noticed that there was trash here and there, everywhere? Noticed trash lining the streets as you drove to work or school? Seen the debris that just seems to have washed up while walking on the beach or fishing in a river?

What do you do? Do you pick it up?

If so, there’s an app for that. It’s called Litterati.

Litterati logo
Litterati logo

It has become an international movement and crowd sourced effort – people all over the world are contributing to make our landscapes less littered. It’s free and it makes litter clean up fun!

With this app you take a photo of each piece of litter with your smart phone, then pick it up and put it in a bag/dumpster/trash receptacle of your choice. You can get really artistic with your photos too. Litterati features the most interesting or artistic photos on Instragram (@litterati).

The Data

Photos are automatically geotagged, meaning information about where and when the litter was picked up, is recorded. Additionally, you can hashtag each image with the category, object name, type of material, and brand info.

Photo of a discarded Coca-Cola can on the ground, by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash
Photo of a discarded Coca-Cola can on the ground, by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

That data is loaded into a Google map to help track where litter is ending up, what brands are most common, and the map shows the worldwide efforts to which Litterati’s members are contributing. Check out the map (it does take time to load, please be patient because it’s totally worth the wait!). You can even zoom into your specific area and see the collected trash in your area. I love the map!

The data is also used to understand the habits of litter. Jeff Kirschner, the founder of Litterati, explains in his TED Talk why and how he created the app. He also highlights a couple of grand scale changes that were made to prevent litter because of that collected data. It’s amazing! Watch the Ted Talk!

Join Us!

I joined this effort in March of 2017, and I love the app. I just did a small litter clean up yesterday and picked up 68 pieces of trash. Over the weekend, my family cleaned up on the shore of the Tennessee River – we literally pulled a few pieces out of the water that day. It was really satisfying to know we are making a difference, and teaching our son by example that he can make a difference too. The Litterati motivates and inspires me! I’ve started a Litterati Club and if you’d like to join, download the Litterati app and join the club “Because turtles eat plastic bags” – I look forward to meeting you!

A Growing Effort

In 2017, after Litterati reached 1 million pieces of litter pick ups, they launched a Kickstarter to expand and improve the app. I backed the campaign with 573 others, and that raised enough money to launch the new version of the Litterati app. While it has a few glitches, which they’re working on improving, the new app is awesome! You can join or create clubs; the hashtagging is easier; you can set your account to only upload when on a wifi network; you can view the map; and daily they list the top 5 people with the most activity (I’ve made that list twice and it made my day!)

The count this morning is over 2.1 million and has users in over 100 countries.

And in May 2018, the United Nations announced that they are partnering with Litterati to fight world pollution! Plastic Free Mermaid did a video interview with Jeff Kirschner in June 2018 and he talks about that and other efforts.

While Litterati is using its data and mapping for great changes, the founder is still looking to inspire people. In May 2018, he was quoted on Greenmatters.com: “How do we deliver a wonderful experience for each community member so that they’re inspired to pick up just one more piece, and then one more?” And then spread the word, build community, and inspire others. That’s what I’m trying to do here! Wouldn’t it be cool if picking up trash and keeping our Earth clean became the new normal?

Thank you for reading, and let’s be the change!

A few of my own Litterati photos: