There are so many animals from the wild side stopping by or using our Outer Banks beaches that it’s difficult to know where to begin. There is, of course, the ubiquitous ghost crab, which is a fascinating little creature. Take a flashlight and walk along the beach at night and they are everywhere.
But most of our visitors are not seen as often, so we’ll take a look at our rarely seen if common visitors.
There are five species of sea turtles that visit the Outer Banks from time to time: Kemp’s Ridley, green sea turtle, loggerhead, and leatherback. The hawksbill is very rare, so we’ll mention it but not go into detail.
Sea turtles almost always come ashore to nest. Since every turtle on this list is considered either threatened or endangered, it is very important that nests are identified and once identified marked and protected.
The North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island STAR (Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation) Center treats cold-stunned sea turtles in the winter and injured turtles year-round. It’s a great place to see turtles up close.
N.E.S.T. (Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation) is a local organization that has been protecting nests and helping injured sea turtles since 1995.
The most common sea turtle to visit the Outer Banks, Loggerheads get their name from their large head. The head has to be large to support the jaw muscles that are used to crush the shells of whelks, conch, and other mollusks that are the preferred food.
The shell of an adult is about 3’ across; adults weigh on average almost 300 pounds.
The Outer Banks is a particularly important nesting location for loggerhead turtles. The largest concentration nests for the species along the East Coast is between Florida and North Carolina including the Outer Banks, although nests rarely occur north of Oregon Inlet.
A smaller sea turtle weighing between 75-100 pounds, Kemp’s Ridley does not nest in this area, but juveniles and adults are seen from time to time on our beaches.
Its diet is similar to the loggerhead, but the Kemp’s Ridley prefers shallower waters than many other sea turtles. Because they tend to be closer to the shore, they are one of the more common turtles to be cold-stunned if there is a sudden drop in temperature in the winter.
Green Sea Turtle
Almost as large as a loggerhead, the green sea turtle has the distinction of being the only sea turtle that is a vegetarian. Not completely…they start as a hatchling eating worms, young crustaceans, and aquatic insects. As they age, their diet changes to exclusively seagrass and algae.
Unlike carnivorous turtles, their jaws are serrated, enabling them to grab and tear grasses. Their heads are also smaller in relation to their bodies than other sea turtles.
Cape Hatteras is the northern range of their nesting activity.
They prefer shallower waters where seagrasses grow. Because of that, they are often found cold-stunned in the winter.
The largest turtle in the world, the leatherback weighs in at 700-1,200 pounds although the largest ever recorded was 2,019 pounds. Fossil records indicate the species has not changed in 90 million years.
The shell of the leatherback gives the turtle its name. A thin, rubbery skin, it covers a carapace that is composed of thousands of tiny bones creating a shell that is flexible.
Leatherbacks are most often seen offshore in the spring as they migrate to feeding areas farther north. However, they do nest along the Outer Banks at times.
Interestedly, the leatherback diet consists almost entirely of jellyfish, a nutrient-poor food that is 90% water.
Playful, intelligent, and graceful, dolphins are perhaps the marine mammal people are most familiar with. From mid-April through mid-October it is common to see a pod swimming just offshore.
Dolphins are also regular inhabitants of the Roanoke Sound. The Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research has been studying the Roanoke Sound dolphins since 2010, documenting behaviors, relationships, and feeding habits.
A migratory species, they are rarely seen around the Outer Banks in winter.
There are a number of dolphin tour outfitters locally. Nags Head Dolphin Watch collaborates with the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research on their tours.
Seals are not usually associated with the Outer Banks, but they are regular visitors especially during winter migrations.
Most of the seals are harbor seals, although occasionally a gray seal will be in the mix. They are also generally juvenile seals that cannot yet compete with adult seals for food and have been forced out of traditional winter feeding grounds to survive.
In almost every case, the seal is simply resting on the beach. It is neither injured nor sick and should not be approached—no matter how cute it may look.
NOAA guidelines call for people to approach no closer than 50 yards. Keep in mind that these are wild animals and if they feel threatened they will attack.
OBX Marine Mammal Stranding Network is a local group that monitors seals and marine mammals that visit our beaches. They can be contacted at 252-455-9654 if there is any question about the health or safety of a seal.
There’s not much chance of seeing a whale up close on the Outer Banks, but they do show up offshore on a regular basis.
Humpback whales are often spotted late winter to early spring as they migrate to breeding and birthing areas to the south. An adult humpback is 40′-50’ and weighs in at 33-40 tons, so when they breach, they’re easily seen.