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Spotting Whales on the Outer Banks

Spotting Whales on the Outer Banks

Photo: Sandbridge Vacation Rentals


When you’re taking a vacation on the Outer Banks, you expect to witness a wide array of wildlife along the beaches and in the surf during your day. From sea turtles, ghost crabs and brown pelicans to dolphins, sandpipers and seagulls, hundreds of species of wildlife inhabit the barrier islands off the North Carolina coast at various times throughout the year. Although most of these species are commonly spotted on the sandy beaches that comprise the coastline during the summer, one type of Outer Banks wildlife in particular are only spotted during the cold winter months from December to early March: migratory whales.

Photo: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

When you’re strolling along the seashore during the off-season, chances are you’ll still see plenty of pods of dolphins swimming just beyond the breaking waves. Dolphins can be seen in both the ocean and the sounds of the Outer Banks, and they’re most commonly spotted during their morning and afternoon feeding times, as they make their way up and down the shoreline.

Photo: KittyHawk.com

A small splash and the tell-tale sighting of a gray, triangular dorsal fin indicate that the animal you’re seeing in the surf is indeed a dolphin, rather than a whale. And when you stop to observe the rolling waves more closely, you’ll likely spot several other dolphins from the same pod just offshore. Commonly confused with dolphin spottings, whale sightings on the Outer Banks are far less frequent, making them all the more exciting for visitors and residents who are lucky enough to catch a rare glimpse of these incredible creatures as they pass by the Carolina coast as part of their winter migration patterns.

Photo: Jeff Pippen

Whales are typically found traveling much further from the shoreline than dolphins, who prefer the shallow waters between the sandbars that are often filled with the small fish that they feast upon. Whales, on the other hand, are not year-round residents of the Outer Banks, so they tend to stay well offshore, simply making their way up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States as the seasons change. Although whales on the Outer Banks are more difficult to spot than dolphins because they don’t usually come as close to the shallow waters just off the beach, when you spot one you’ll know it.

Photo: Geek.com

In order to breathe as they swim along, whales take in air via a blowhole that is located on the top or back of their head when they rise up out of the waves to access oxygen. When they dip back down under the surface of the water after taking a breath, a flap of muscle securely covers the blowhole to prevent water from seeping in while the whale is submerged. Once a whale is ready to exhale the air it previously breathed in, it swims up to the surface of the ocean and expels the air back into the atmosphere. The result of this exhalation is the characteristic burst of water, air and vapor that can easily be spotted by a bystander on the beach—it’s also the most obvious sign that the animal you are spotting in the open ocean is a whale rather than a dolphin.

Photo: Smithsonian

A handful of different species of whales ranging from the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales to the more common humpback whales can be seen along the Outer Banks each winter as they migrate from the cold waters of New England and Canada to the warmer waters of the South Florida and the West Indies to breed or give birth. While they can be spotted from the shoreline much of the time, the best place to witness whales on the Outer Banks up close is at the end of one of the many fishing piers that dot the coastline. And because they are typically finished with their annual migrations by the beginning of March, there’s no better time to head to the barrier islands and try to catch a glimpse of a whale in the wild than right now.    





Exploring Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

If you’re searching for an escape from everyday life, look no further than the pristine beaches and secluded salt marshes of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Nestled on the northern tip of Hatteras Island, this 13-mile-long stretch of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is home to nearly 400 species of wildlife ranging from migratory birds to endangered sea turtles. Whether you’re a local looking for a relaxing place to spend a day away or a visitor to the Outer Banks enjoying a family vacation for the week, taking a trip to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is an activity that should not be missed when visiting North Carolina’s barrier island paradise.

bonner bridge
Photo Credit: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

The roots of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge date back to 1937, when the United States government designated the section of Hatteras Island north of Rodanthe as an important breeding ground for area wildlife. Bordered by Oregon Inlet to the north and sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, Pea Island served as the perfect spot for birds migrating from colder regions to make a series of seasonal stops. The lush salt marshes of the region attracted an assortment of species ranging from ducks and swans to geese and egrets, making it a popular place among waterfowl hunters in the early-20th century, long before the Outer Banks became the bustling vacation destination it is today. When the land was deemed a wildlife refuge, hunting was no longer permitted, and huge congregations of birds began to take up permanent and seasonal residence along the soundside ponds and shallow salt flats.

Richmond Navigator
Photo Credit: Richmond Navigator

Today, visitors can take a trip over the Bonner Bridge from the southern edge of Nags Head to Hatteras Island, where they will be treated to beautiful stretches of unspoiled shorelines and opportunities for a wide array of recreational activities, including birdwatching, surfing, shelling, kayaking and standup paddleboarding. A small visitor center is located on the west side of NC Highway 12, about five miles south of the bridge. Here you’ll find a set of informational kiosks, public restrooms and a gift shop, as well as a staff of volunteers who can direct you to the various spots of the refuge you’d like to visit.

seashell seaside vacations
Photo Credit: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

Comprising 5,834 acres of land and over 25,000 acres of water, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a unique vacation destination that can be explored by foot or by sea and sound. Two nature trails wind their way through the refuge: the North Pond Trail and the Salt Flats Trail. Access to the half-mile-long North Pond Trail begins behind the visitor center and takes hikers around a series of ponds where they will witness various types of wildlife up close and personal. A wooden boardwalk allows visitors to cross what is known as “turtle pond,” a body of water full of freshwater turtles that can easily be spotted from the walkway above. This trail also features a double-decker observation tower and three observation decks—all of which contain mounted binoculars and interpretive panels—that give visitors a higher vantage point for viewing area wildlife and scenery.

birds over waves
Birds soaring over the Oriental, a shipwreck off the coast of Pea Island

The Salt Flats Trail, which is situated at the northern end of North Pond, meanders along the top of the dike that separates North Pond and the Salt Flats area. This trail boasts an off-the-beaten-path type of terrain and is a bit more challenging to travel than the neighboring North Pond Trail. Hikers can expect to see various species of birds ranging from falcons to snowy egrets as well as more than two dozen species of reptiles. The trail ends with a scenic overlook station that gives visitors the chance to see a large cross-section of the soundside portion of the refuge. In the summer months, volunteers provide programs that discuss the various animals and habitats that comprise the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and are on hand to answer any questions visitors may have about the area.

pea island lifesaving station
Pea Island Lifesaving Station

While the region is most commonly explored by foot, experiencing the refuge by canoe or kayak is an Outer Banks activity unlike any other.  The New Inlet boat ramp provides easy access to the shallow, brackish waters of the Pamlico Sound, where paddlers can put their vessel in the water and embark on a unique journey through the wide canals and salt marshes along the margins of the refuge. As you paddle through the calm waters of the sound, keep your eyes peeled for the hundreds of species of migratory birds and various species of amphibians that thrive within this saltwater habitat.

sea turtle 1
Photo Credit: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

Although both nature trails and the majority of wildlife are found on the sound side of the refuge, visitors to the Outer Banks shouldn’t skip a trip to the wide, natural beaches bordered by towering sand dunes on the eastern edge of the park. Stroll the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean and search for the assortment of incredible shells that wash up on these secluded stretches of sand, and be sure to keep a lookout beyond the breakers for pods of dolphins that can be found dancing in the surf. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is also known for attracting several species of sea turtles to its undeveloped and unpopulated shores. While loggerhead sea turtles are the most commonly found species to venture out of the sea and lay their eggs safely above the high tide line here, a handful of other species—including leatherback, green, Kemp’s Ridley and hawksbill sea turtles—have also been spotted nesting within the confines of the wildlife refuge.

SeaTurtle-Orsulak-520x289 FWS
Photo Credit: FWS.gov

Whether you visit the Outer Banks in the middle of a cold winter or during the dog days of summer, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge—with its hundreds of diverse species and array of recreational opportunities to enjoy—offers something for everyone to enjoy during their time spent on the barrier islands of North Carolina.

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