You’ve seen all the famous attractions: lighthouses, beaches, botanical gardens, etc. Now it’s time to head off the beaten path and explore hidden Outer Banks havens where tourists are scarce but natural beauty abounds. You may find that these uncrowded spots are the most memorable activities of them all!
In other words, ecotourism is about having a deeper experience wherever you’re traveling while having less impact on the environment.
Ecotourism Opportunity: Oyster Reef Restoration
The Outer Banks have a special ecotourism opportunity: Oyster Reef Restoration. Oysters are a delicious staple of coastal cuisine, but they also perform a very important environmental function: Clustered oysters can be home to up to 300 species of plants and animals, and just one oyster can filter about 50 gallons of water per day. Oyster beds also protect coastal areas from erosion by buffering ocean waves and storm surge.
Oysters: Popular to the Point of Extinction
Oysters were once an important trade commodity in North Carolina — they were easy for colonists to exchange for much-needed supplies. After the Civil War, people all over the country developed a taste for oysters and vast oyster houses and canneries sprang up all along the East Coast. To keep up with market demand, oyster fishermen nearly decimated oyster beds in the late 19th century. In the 20th century, building along the coast, agricultural chemicals, and timbering also threatened oysters. In the late ’80s, a disease specific to oysters was nearly the final blow for everyone’s favorite bivalve.
Restoring Oyster Sanctuaries
Oysters grow in estuaries, or unique areas where fresh water mixes with ocean water. Estuaries are protected from the full force of the ocean, so they are a safe place for fish and birds to grow up. In fact, estuaries are among the most critical habitats in the world, and oysters love them.
Currently, 85% of oyster reefs have been lost, making oyster reefs the most severely impacted marine habitat on the planet. Pamlico Sound in the Outer Banks was once home to an extensive oyster reef habitat. However, more than 50% of the original habitat was lost to overharvesting, poor water quality, and disease.
In 2002 the Nature Conservancy began testing ways to restore oyster reefs around Pamlico Sound, resulting in more than 65 acres of new habitat.
Improved oyster habitats have yielded a regrowth of these hardworking mollusks, reduced erosion, improved water quality, and improved habitat for fish and plants that depend on oyster beds.
Another benefit is a slight rise in populations of the American Oystercatcher bird. The oystercatcher is a black-and-white bird with a bright red bill. Flocks of oystercatchers are a beautiful sight along the coasts, where they feed on clams, oysters, and mussels. Other environmental issues such as sea level rise and a loss of territory threaten oystercatchers, but an increase in clean oyster beds increases their chances of survival.
How Oyster Beds Are Seeded
Free-swimming oyster larvae need a hard surface where they can attach and grow together, and recycled oyster shells make the perfect nursery. If you’ve been to an oyster roast recently, you may notice that discarded shells are collected in large barrels and separated from trash. Oyster shells are handed over to conservation groups, who clean and bag them, then place them in oyster “sanctuaries” to attract new oysters.
Restoring oyster reefs is a community effort. First, fishermen take oysters only from state-regulated oyster beds with populations healthy enough for harvesting. Local residents and restaurants save and recycle oyster shells, then volunteers and environmental groups clean, bag, and store shells until it’s time to plant them in the summer.
Planting oyster shells means taking bags of shells to oyster sanctuaries in shallow water and spreading them along the bottom in sections about 12 feet apart. Some volunteers are also needed to monitor the sanctuaries and check water quality.
Nags Head Woods Oyster Reef Restoration
Enjoy a Unique Natural Environment
Natural beauty is undoubtedly one of the biggest draws of the Outer Banks. If you’re a nature lover, rent a kayak and spend the day taking in quiet water trails that wind through the islands, along the shore, through maritime forests, salt marsh canals, and estuaries. Floating in the bay for sunset is an unforgettable experience, as is paddling through a sound as birds and river otters play around you. Of course, no Outer Banks tourism guide would be complete without a mention of the area’s pristine wildlife refuges. Visit Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve,
Currituck National Wildlife Refuge
Here are some of our favorite nature spots in the Outer Banks:
Hatteras Island Ocean Center, Hatteras
Located near Hatteras Village, the Hatteras Island Ocean Center is a good starting place for your Outer Banks vacation. With a fully interactive setup, the center features exhibits, programs, and special events to help visitors of all ages learn about the unique environments of the Outer Banks. Want to develop your turtle sense? Looking to see, touch and hear some of the Outer Banks’ most popular marine wildlife? This is the place!
Duck Soundside Boardwalk, Duck
The Duck Boardwalk will take you through almost half a mile of sea breezes and scenic views of stunning Currituck Sound. There are multiple entry and exit points so you can pop in and out of the Waterfront Shops and Town Park for snacks and shopping breaks. Plan to take this walk slowly and really soak up your surroundings. This is a wide, level boardwalk, so it’s also an ideal way for those with wheelchairs or mobility challenges to enjoy an easy but majestic nature walk.
Duck Town Park, Duck
If you’re headed for the Duck Boardwalk, don’t overlook the Duck Town Park. This 11-acre green space features winding trails that lead through Maritime Forest, expansive green spaces, a swamp, and past breathtaking views of Currituck Sound. If you’ve got your own kayak, paddleboard or canoe, you’ll find an easy launch at the boat pier. This is a perfect dog- and kid-friendly place to hike — there’s a picnic shelter, playground, and even a water fountain just for your furry friend.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Nags Head
It’s hard to decide whether to join the action or just sit and watch at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. This area sports the largest natural-living sand dune in the east, and due to the steady breezes, is a haven for hang gliders. There are miles of hiking trails, picnic tables and public restrooms, so bring your lunch and spend the day flying a kite or watching the daredevils soar.
Nature Conservancy at Nags Head Woods Preserve, Kill Devil Hills