SWANSBORO – The glistening waters off the coast offer much more than what meets the eye from the mainland. To give people an idea, the N.C. Coastal Federation is bringing bring people closer to wildlife in its natural setting through a series of cruises.
Rachel Bisesi, educator for the federation, takes people to Jones Island on the White Oak River cruise. Photo: Tess Malijenovsky
Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this summer, the federation will offer boat tours that will give people a chance to see birds, collect seashells, learn local history, identify plants, catch aquatic life and watch dolphins.
“Our goal is to give people who live in and visit our coast an opportunity to experience it firsthand by being out on the water. We hope these educational programs allow guests to learn more about North Carolina’s beautiful coast while gaining an appreciation for all it has to offer,” says Rachel Bisesi, an educator for the federation.
Bisesi welcomes a mixed group of locals and out-of-towners at the ferry dock of Hammocks Beach State Park near Swansboro. They’ve come to take a ride on the White Oak River and to learn about its history and nature.
The White Oak River cruise — along with several others that the federation is offering this summer — is on an estuary, a special place where the freshwater from streams and rivers meets the saltwater from the ocean. Each one is a complex of islands, mudflats, marshes and sandbars.
These dynamic environments provide habitat for hundreds of species to breed, nest and feed. Estuaries are important to the economies of coastal communities and to the health of coastal waters, which is what the environmental group hopes the public will learn firsthand on its summer cruises.
The boat moves slowly down the Intracoastal Waterway. Bisesi pulls out a large laminated map to show the group the White Oak River watershed that begins and ends in the coastal plain.
“The White Oak River is a black water river. Does anybody know what it gets its color from?” Bisesi asks the group.
She tells them how the tannins of decayed plants dye the river black, before the boat picks up speed, skirting between the scenic waterfront of Swansboro and a few docked shrimp trawlers.
They are en route to Jones Island, one of the three barrier islands that make up Hammocks Beach State Park. The N.C. Natural Heritage Program considers its coastal fringe evergreen forest a rare and regionally significant coastal ecosystem. And in 2007, the federation helped the state park acquire the island.
While exploring Jones Island, you might find a piece of Native American pottery near the shoreline. Photo: Tess Malijenovsky
The group huddles on the island at the foot of the lapping water where a patch of marsh grass was recently planted and a sill made of bags of oyster shells runs parallel to the shore. These are features of what’s called a living shoreline, which reduces erosion, restores water quality and provides estuarine habitat. Jones Island is often a demonstration site for the different techniques that the federation advocates to restore water quality.
There, between the river and the live oaks, everyone learns about the plants and the wildlife around them and the first settlers who lived on the island. The Native Americans used wax myrtle as an insect repellent and yaupon holly to purge themselves during ritual purification ceremonies. History is at the groups’ fingertips on Jones Island, where pieces of Native American pottery are found scattered along the shoreline.
This is only one of the cruises the federation is offering this summer.
Departing from the Wrightsville Beach boat ramp, Coastal Advocate Mike Giles will guide guests on the Rich Inlet Boat and Beach Excursion. Rich Inlet is the gateway to the unspoiled Hutaff-Lea Island barrier island complex. It is an important bird area where some of the most threatened migratory birds in the world, like the red knot and piping plover, stop over to refuel on their long flights. Come see how a natural inlet lives and fluctuates and adjusts to winds. The first trip is Thursday with more to come this summer.
Also in the Wrightsville Beach area, federation members can get discounts on scenic bird-watching boat trips, Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. The view from the boat is a great way to see the black skimmers in action, the great blue herons hiding in the cordgrass or the endangered piping plovers in a feeding frenzy.
On the Trawling Adventure, people can try a variety of catch-and-release techniques like using a seine net. Photo: Sam Bland
Aside from the White Oak River cruise, there are three other cruises that launch this summer from Hammocks Beach State Park near Swansboro. On the Dolphin Watch, you’ll be on the lookout for Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Dolphins are one of the most intelligent species on the planet, and Bisesi will be there to talk about their communication techniques, social behavior, habitat, anatomy and diet.
Or start your day with a nice, long beach walk searching for seashells. You’ll take a cruise to The Point of Bear Island — where there are more shells and fewer people — and make the first footprints in the sand. Bisesi will be there to talk about the marine invertebrates that came from each shell. Then you can take home your prized finds.
On board the Trawling Adventure, folks will try different catch-and-release techniques using crab pots, clam rakes, seine nets and dip nets to see what’s living in the estuary. Helping Bisesi pull a net behind the boat will be Sam Bland, the federation’s coastal specialist. They’ll be trawling in the deeper channels for short periods of time.
“All of the animals collected will spend a minimal time out of the water before being released alive back into the estuary,” said Bland. “We will trawl using a small recreational net that has been modified without a tickler chain to prevent disturbing the surface of the bottom.”
Any keeper-sized blue crabs can go home with you on the cruise near Manteo. Photo: Sam Bland
And if you live near Manteo, don’t miss Boat the Bay. This cruise goes around Shallowbag Bay, which cuts into Roanoke Island from the sound, for a scenic view of historic downtown Manteo and Roanoke Island Festival Park. Sara Hallas, another federation educator, will talk about the plants and wildlife in the estuary. To give you a close-up look, she’ll pull a trawl net behind the boat and pull up a crab pot. You’ll get to take home any large crabs for dinner. Also, Hallas will show you how she tests for water quality and make a stop at Jockey’s Ridge State Park to see an example of a living shoreline.
Come take a boat ride in the estuary near you and learn more about what the federation is doing to preserve it. For registration or details about the cruises, check the federation’s events calendar.