Seals Return to Outer Banks Beaches

Seal on the beach in Nags Head.
Seal on the beach in Nags Head.

Yes, that is a seal on the Nags Head beach.

There’s not a lot of them, but surprisingly, every winter a few seal do stop by the Outer Banks. For the most part they’re harbor seals, although an occasional gray seal is also spotted.

They seem to be following colder ocean water temperatures, as a 2015 Cape Hatteras National Seashore study noted.

“When ocean temperatures plummet during the winter and spring months, seal sightings are a common occurrence. Coming from the north, the seals migrate along the Outer Banks coast following the colder water while feeding.”  (Marine Mammal 2015 Summary)

When seen on the beach, they are usually resting. It’s almost unheard of for a colony to take up residence along an exposed beach on the Outer Banks.

During the winter months, however, there are small colonies that inhabit some of the islands in Outer Banks sounds, especially Pamlico Sound.

About a half mile south of Oregon Inlet, Green Island is a wetlands patch of grass and sand that seem to be a favorite resting spot of seals. The 2015 Summary pointed to Green Island as a particularly good good belle weather for seal activity.

“Historically, the south end of Green Island has been used by Harbor seals as a haul-out site for consecutive years, therefore a sighting doesn’t necessarily imply one individual; the most observed at one time in 2015 was 2 but up to 33 seals have previously been observed,” the study’s authors wrote.

There are concerns that construction noise and activity as the new Bonner Bridge is being built will scare seals away, but there is some uncertainty about that.

Although a seal on the beach may look cute, it is important to leave it alone. It is Federally protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act so approaching it is illegal. Beyond that, seals are wild animals and they weigh 200-250 pounds.

If there is concern that the seal is injured or sick,  contact N.E.S.T. (Network for Endangered Sea Turtles) at 252.441.8622.

Unprecedented-Cold Stunned Sea Turtles on Outer Banks


loggerhead turtle
Cold Stunned Loggerhead at Roanoke Island STAR Center

We sure had a warm December on the Outer Banks. Then suddenly earlier this week, temperature plummeted, we had a dusting of snow and a whole day where the temperatures struggled to reach the freezing mark. Inconvenient and a little bit miserable for us warm blooded animals, but for for cold blooded animals—especially sea critters, it’s a disaster.

For evidence, look no farther than the unprecedented number of sea turtles washing up on Hatteras Island beaches—somewhere around 350 at last count.

The STAR Center at the Roanoke Island Aquarium was designed as a care facility for injured and sick sea turtles, but never anything on this level. The problem, according to Christine Legner who oversees the facility, with all the warm weather, the turtles “ . . . just didn’t get the cue to leave.”

It is taking an amazing community and cooperative effort to help the stricken turtles. An otherwise cold stunned turtle will recover if they are kept in a relatively warm environment that will allow their bodies a few days to readjust. Every year the STAR Center gets a few dozen cold stunned turtles—mostly green sea turtles with a few Kemps Ridley and an occasional leatherback—and they are prepared to handle a typical winter influx.

350 or so? No. No facility is ready for that. Yet the aquarium team working with N.E.S.T. (Network for Endangered Sea Turtles) volunteers have managed to do an amazing job, losing to date just six turtles.

Walking into the STAR Center, there are bins and buckets everywhere with one, two or three turtles recovering. In the large tanks, some of the turtles are engaged in what is called a swim test—the last step before they are released.

The problem with releasing them is they cannot be released into local waters and have to be sent south. The first batch of 85 was sent to Florida earlier this week; the next batch is scheduled to be released into the Gulf Stream by the Coast Guard from Fort Macon, NC early next week.

Things have slowed down with milder weather and hopefully, the sea turtles who are still swimming about got the cue and headed to warmer waters.