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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.