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The Duck Research Pier & Field Research Facility

The Duck Research Pier & Field Research Facility

alt="The Duck Research Pier is shown from an aerial view stretching out into the clear blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean."
Photo: DVIDS

If you’ve ever visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the many fishing piers that dot the coastline from Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills to the smaller communities along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. One particular pier, however, is much lesser-known among both the locals that call the Outer Banks home and the thousands of tourists who come to enjoy a week of surf, sand and sunshine every season: the Duck Research Pier.

Photo: Surfline.com

Stretching 1,840 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, the Duck Research Pier is part of the Research Field Facility, a coastal and hydraulics laboratory located on the northern Outer Banks. Unlike its counterparts that are situated farther to the south—such as the Kitty Hawk Pier, Avalon Fishing Pier, Nags Head Fishing Pier, Outer Banks Fishing Pier, Rodanthe Pier and Avon Pier—the Duck Research Pier is not open to the public and doesn’t permit anglers to set up shop on its planks as they cast a line and search for the catch of the day. Instead, the Duck Research Pier was established by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1977 with the purpose of advancing coastal knowledge by allowing scientists to gather and analyze data regarding area wave action, winds, currents and tides.  

alt="A danger sign near the Duck Research Pier warns visitors of unexploded munitions along the northern Outer Banks."
Photo: Pinterest

Located less than one mile to the north of downtown Duck, a quaint Outer Banks community that is best-known for its wide array of waterfront shops and restaurants, winding boardwalk and picturesque town park, the Field Research Facility and Duck Research Pier sit atop a large, undeveloped plot of land that the U.S. Navy used as a bombing range and target testing site from 1941 and 1965—decades before the barrier island community became such a popular vacation destination among visitors from across the country. In fact, multiple signs can be spotted on both the oceanside and the soundside of N.C. Highway 12 in Duck to warn travelers of the potential dangers posed by the remnants of old practice bombs and other munitions that were dropped by military aircraft along the beaches and sand dunes of this stretch of the Outer Banks back when it was almost entirely isolated.  

alt="The CRAB rolls along the beach on the south side of the Duck Research Pier in Duck, North Carolina."
Photo: Flickr

The concept for the Duck Research Pier—which is composed of concrete and cost approximately $7.5 million to construct—as well as its accompanying Field Research Facility were originally proposed in 1963 by Rudolph Savage, who worked as the chief of the research division at the Coastal Engineering Research Center. The structure was designed to serve as a platform that would assist researchers in measuring nearshore wave action, currents, water levels and bottom elevations—particularly during the severe storms that frequently strike the coast of North Carolina. In addition to an automated rain gauge that measures on-site precipitation, approximately 30 to 40 Baylor gauges are deployed along the sides of the Duck Research Pier at any given time in order to track incoming waves as they approach the beach and to measure wave height. The Duck Research Pier’s most famous piece of equipment, however, is a three-wheeled instrument called the “CRAB,” a 35-foot-tall tripod seafarer with the ability to easily roll along the beach, over the sand dunes and out into the deep water surrounding the pier as it gathers data and performs measurements.

alt="The Duck Research Pier stretches 1,840 feet into the ocean wave as pink clouds dot the horizon."
Photo: Dan Waters

The Duck Research Pier and Field Research Facility employ a permanent staff of 11 people, including oceanographers, computer specialists and technicians. The expertise of these scientists and researchers, coupled with the wide array of high-tech instruments utilized at the facility and along pier itself, have provided a wealth of important information over the past several decades that has helped to improve emergency responses to severe storms and coastal flood hazards—and ongoing studies will continue to provide the data and analyses necessary to better predict the threats posed to the beaches of the Outer Banks by tropical storms, nor’easters and hurricanes for many years to come.

The History of Jennette’s Pier

Whether you’re an angler hoping to snag the catch of the day or you’re a sightseer searching for the perfect spot to snap a photo of a sunrise over the sea, you won’t find a better place to spend the day than one of the many fishing piers situated along the Outer Banks. From Frisco to Kitty Hawk, the Outer Banks is home to eight fishing piers, and while these structures that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean all vary in terms of their age, length and current condition, each has a unique and storied past worth telling. Perhaps the most popular and famous of all Outer Banks fishing piers is Jennette’s Pier, whose history dates back to its original construction in 1939.

Pier House New

Located within the heart of Whalebone Junction in Nags Head, Jennette’s Pier was initially built to meet the needs of vacationers and fisherman who ventured to the Outer Banks as the region first began to gain popularity among visitors. Recognizing the demand for a prime spot to cast a line far out into the surf, the Jennette family purchased five acres of property along the Nags Head oceanfront and set out to build the very first fishing pier on the Outer Banks.

Pier from endThe old adage “build it and they will come” proved true, and visitors from up and down the East Coast and beyond soon flocked to the newly constructed pier to cast their lines into the Atlantic Ocean. A series of small, bare-bones oceanfront cottages—which had formerly housed U.S. Civil Works Administration employees who spent time on the Outer Banks building a line of protective sand dunes from Corolla to Ocracoke during the Great Depression—were transformed into a camp for fishermen looking for affordable accommodations just a few steps from the fishing pier.  

old pier jennettesThe original wooden pier—built by Virginia Dare Construction and Salvage Corporation—stood 16 feet wide and stretched 754 feet out into the Atlantic Ocean. In an effort to provide anglers with ample space to set their lines and plenty of elbow room for reeling in their catch upon the most coveted spot on the structure, the builders of Jennette’s Pier also included a 28-foot-wide T-shaped section at the end of the pier. One of the original cottages from the fisherman’s camp was moved to the dune line and transformed into a pier house that served as a spot for fishermen to change their clothing, have a cold drink or grab a snack.

For decades, the pier was a prime attraction along the Outer Banks, and fisherman came from far and wide to catch species ranging from flounder and mackerel and red drum to bluefish and striped bass. As more and more fishermen and vacationers visited the pier each year, the demand for additional features grew greater. Throughout the mid-20th century, the Jennettes added a restaurant, tackleshop and arcade to the pier house, providing something for everyone in the family—not just fishing enthusiasts. In 2002, surviving members of the Jennette family sold their interests in the pier to the North Carolina Aquarium Society with the goal of the organization turning the pier and attached pier house into an educational facility.

Pier Sign

Not long after the purchase of the pier was complete, however, Hurricane Isabel—one of the most devastating hurricanes to strike the Outer Banks in over a decade—struck the barrier islands. Strong winds and rough surf slammed against Jennette’s Pier as the Category 2 hurricane edged closer to the coastline and eventually made landfall near Drum Inlet. In addition to cutting a new inlet straight through a portion of Hatteras Village and causing hundreds of oceanfront homes to fall into the Atlantic, Hurricane Isabel sliced more than 540 feet off the end of Jennette’s Pier and forced the pier to close down its operations.

old pier house

The North Carolina Aquarium Society quickly came up with a plan to replace the severely damaged wooden pier with a brand-new concrete structure that could withstand the force of the many hurricanes that frequently target the Outer Banks. A groundbreaking event was held on May 22, 2009, and in May 2011 the new pier was officially opened to the public.

Today, Jennette’s Pier stands on thick, concrete pilings and stretches 1,000 feet into the sea, making it one of the longest fishing piers along the Eastern Seaboard. The pier house also underwent a complete renovation and now houses a retail store, snack bar, event space and tackle shop. The facility also offers a wide array of programs designed to educate visitors about the history of this iconic landmark and features an assortment of live animal exhibits that teach visitors of all ages about the myriad species of marine life that call the barrier islands of the Outer Banks home.Pier sunrise

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