Even a hurricane has a silver lining

Life at the Outer Banks is remarkably different from Chapel Hill.  The people are more laid back.  The seasons change more slowly.  And you learn to accept nature, and whatever it might throw at you, as part of your daily life.  I realized coming in that storms had always been a part of this area’s history, and that we might experience them since we’re here during hurricane season.  But major storms don’t happen here often, and since there was one five years ago, there couldn’t be another this year, right?

About two weeks before Fall Break, my assumption was proven wrong.  Hurricane Matthew, which peaked at a Category 4 in the Caribbean, was predicted to strike our coast and hang around a while before turning east.  We were advised to head inland for a couple days to wait it out and return for a full week of work before Fall Break week so we would lose as few valuable class days as possible.

Unfortunately, high rivers and extensive flooding in the flat coastal area kept us away for six days, with many of us staying in Chapel Hill in an awkward limbo between off-site work and early break.  We all figured we’d have a lot of ground to make up in both class and Capstone work with all the time lost.  And maybe for your typical college classes, it would have been a loss.  But the classes here work pretty much the same way everything else does, surviving and adapting to whatever nature throws at them.

Crews wasting no time fixing up the beach.
Crews wasting no time fixing up the beach.

After returning, we immediately began making up lost classes outside the classroom, discussing the hurricane’s impacts on both the environment and culture of the place while seeing firsthand how the infrastructure was being rebuilt.  Trips to Nags Head Woods and the Kitty Hawk beach accesses showed us exactly how badly the environment had been damaged, but also exactly why this place is so enduring and resilient.

The whole environment seemed a little different, maybe a little more fall-like, after the weather settled down.  New insects and birds appeared, and the plants seemed spurred into rapid change after the relative drought we had up until the storm.  The experience was a great example of why adaptability is so important here, and how even a hurricane can have some positives if you get used to taking what nature gives you.

Water so high it's crowding the wetland.
Water so high it’s crowding the wetland.
Definitely hadn't seen any of these before the storm/
Definitely hadn’t seen any of these before the storm.

Nest or N.E.S.T. ?

When I first came to the Outer Banks in August, I was not sure what to expect. I have grown up surrounded by water, both in Long Island, New York, and in Swansboro, North Carolina, but I had never been on the coast solely for education. So much has changed since I arrived in August, and chasing degraded  sea turtle corpses stuck in the surf now seems completely normal.

As a part of my internship, which I’ll talk more about in a future blog post, I work with an organization called the Network of Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.). The non-profit group is devoted to the protection of sea turtles as well as other marine animal’s habitats. My first experience with N.E.S.T. was supposed to be a nest excavation since the turtles had hatched days before; however, I received a call on my way to Southern Shores that there was a report of a live stranded dolphin in Nags Head. img_9391I decided I would stop off in Nags Head since it was on my way, and when I arrived on the beach I walked for about half a mile until I reached a group of people. They were all surrounding this distressed spotted dolphin, who was up on the sand. Two girls were trying to calm the animal and keep him comfortable, and I quickly joined in and followed instructions. The plan was to keep the animal calm and comfortable until the biologist, my internship mentor, arrived. Onlookers would ask questions about what was going on, and we made sure they were informed of the situation. A N.E.S.T. volunteer explained that, when a dolphin comes onto shore, there is a chance that their organs were ruptured from the waves, meaning the animal would need to be euthanized. When my mentor arrived, she had the N.E.S.T. volunteers bring the dolphin further up the beach.  The dolphin at hand was convulsing and curling its tail, which let my mentor know that the dolphin was sick and needed to be euthanized. She administered a vile into the animal, and I took notes on the reaction of the animal and its movements during the final moments of its life. We later took the deceased dolphin to a separate location where it would be measured and put in a freezer so that it could be transported to UNC Wilmington for educational and research purposes.

The next big move for me with N.E.S.T. involved the degraded leatherback sea turtle corpse that I mentioned earlier. My internship mentor asked me if I wanted to see something stinky, and naturally I was up for the challenge. I had to retrieve a muscle sample from this degraded mess of sea turtle and put it in a vile of alcohol. My mentor sent me alone to meet up with some lifeguards to retrieve the muscle sample. We struggled at first to bring the turtle onto shore since the corpse kept breaking apart. However, the afternoon ended successfully, and we were able to finally retrieve a muscle sample.

I’ve done other things with N.E.S.T. since being here, and I finally got to do a turtle excavation, but these two activities were my favorite and really made an impression on me. I am really excited to graduate in December, but I would not want to be doing anything different for my last semester at UNC Chapel Hill.

Hands On Learning At The Outer Banks Field Site

The day to day routine of shuffling around from lecture hall to lecture hall at UNC-Chapel Hill can get old really quick. While lectures are an important part of the learning experience, after a year of the same old same old, I was ready to take a break from the norm and escape the traditional classroom setting. So I came to the Outer Banks.

Thus far, I have not been disappointed by my choice. The learning experience is exactly what I had hoped it would be. Instead of being stuck in a classroom for five days a week, we are often out and about, exploring the Outer Banks and learning about the coast.

Just a few weeks ago, Lindsay held ecology class outside. And what’s a better place to learn about estuarine systems than right outside of CSI, surrounded by marshland?

Views from the third floor of CSI
View from the third floor of CSI

Lectures can oftentimes become disengaging when your instructors seem to be talking about abstract topics that are hard to visualize. Thankfully, at the Outer Banks field site, the course material is right outside the window.

Lindsay trekking through the mud to show us various plant species

During her lesson on estuarine systems, Lindsay was able to first explain the adaptations that plants have to the conditions they are in, and then we all walked a hundred feet away and she showed us.

All in all, I have learned about as much outside of the classroom as I have inside, and that is how I like it. Getting outside and observing nature allows me to focus better in class, and really get the most out of my in-class experiences. Andy wasn’t lying when he said that the Outer Banks field site was different from all the other field sites. It is truly a unique, hands on experience that is very intellectually satisfying, and most importantly, fun.

An Ode to OBX Aquatic Life

When most of my friends think of a beach day, they instantly picture a beaming sun above a sandy beach, with daydreaming eyes under a pair of gritty sunglasses, stained with sunscreen and sweat.

I picture a beach day as something a little different.

Hailing from the distant land of Charlotte, I grew up with artificial beach days. Long summer afternoons by the pool, same sunscreen, same sweat, same sunglasses. No sand, but a nice hum from countless A/C units as electricity bills slowly climb skyward.

Those beach days lacked a crucial element for me: the living things that swim and scurry and pinch and filter and take your last shrimp clean off the hook.

I’m talking coastal fauna, in particular aquatic life.

Seahorses at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island
Seahorses at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island


In my free time during the past few weeks on the Banks, I’ve personally come into contact with more biodiversity than I have over any stretch of time back in the woody suburbs of the Queen City. I’ve been in love with the creatures and critters of nature since I was just a wee lad, and the estuaries, wetlands, sounds, and shifting shorelines of the Outer Banks have reminded me of the youthful exuberance I associated with the natural world, before things like school and the great indoors lulled me away from the outside forces of nature.

The life found in these precious waters comes in many different forms: gooey, slimy, instagram cute, and everything in between. If you can think of an adjective, there’s some aquatic critter out here that matches it nearly perfectly. Every one, no matter how bizarre, finds its niche in its ecosystem.

No matter the odds of life, nature carries on. Whether its an R or a K type organism, a broadcast spawner or a mate for life, the surprising resiliency of the species I’ve encountered on the OBX is a shining example to how nature will continue to surprise us even as we learn more about it.

The little coastal treasures hiding in the dunes and surf are what make the perfect beach day for me. Beachcombing in itself isn’t what I’m referring to, but the sheer possibility of finding a Scotch Bonnet, tropical scallop, ghost crab, or even the occasional whale, whilst walking along the crushed manifestation’s of the waves is more than enough to make my beach day.

Aquatic life isn’t the only thing that’s out here on the OBX, but I personally find it enough of a reason to make this special little place a destination for me again and again in the future.

That's right, whales do indeed wash up on the very beaches you swim at. #OBXswag
That’s right, whales do indeed wash up on the very beaches you swim at. #OBXswag


Not to forget all of the sportfishing you can do out here!