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A Trip to Masonboro Island

10 May Posted by in Blog, In the Media | Comments Off on A Trip to Masonboro Island
A Trip to Masonboro Island

A trip to Masonboro Island reveals an undisturbed coastal treasure, perfect for exploring and communing with nature.

Article was published in February 2008 in “Our State” magazine.

A pristine retreat awaits visitors to Masonboro Island.

Joseph Abbate, owner of the Wrightsville Water Tours and Taxi, earns my full attention when he says he’ll take my family and me to a place that everyone in North Carolina should visit. He outlines our destination: Masonboro Island, which is the largest undisturbed barrier island on the southern part of the North Carolina coast.

The island, running approximately 8.4 miles in length, is located between Wrightsville Beach to the north and Carolina Beach to the south. More than 90 percent of the island is in state hands and is officially protected. It’s managed through the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve.

We climb aboard his 22-passenger motorized beach catamaran, harbored at the dock on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway across the street from our Wrightsville Beach hotel, The Blockade Runner. Abbate, who received his master’s degree in environmental studies at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and also serves as environmental education coordinator for the Cape Fear River Watch, is a wealth of information as he points out a variety of birds and other wildlife as the boat merges through the water. He passes out binoculars so all aboard can get a closer view of the winged creatures as he tells about each one.

The boat ride from the dock to Masonboro Island is a quick half hour. After the boat stops close to shore, we climb down a ladder to begin our exploration. My children immediately delight in the abundance of seashells, and Abbate loans them buckets for hunting their treasures and promises to identify their finds at the end of the trek. He points to a small sandy path that cuts across the dunes and leads to the beachfront on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island. We follow Abbate down the deserted path as sea grass swipes at our legs and ankles.

The only way to visit this island is by watercraft. The empty, undisturbed beach seems startling after spending time on Wrightsville Beach and other coastal areas, where a menagerie of people congregates on the shore amid all the regular sights of beach life: umbrellas and blankets stretched in the sand, cars, hotels, condos, and restaurants. But here, on Masonboro, there are no man-made inventions to compete with the beauty of nature and the pure voice of the sea.

“People come on vacation, and they are so stressed out,” says Abbate. “They enter a water-world wilderness — an island sanctuary — and all of the stress is just floated away. I just watch the change in people. And it does it to me everyday, too.

“What my boat and ecotourism business does is it allows people to get out of every day and see an ecosystem in its pristine condition,” he adds. “People have an opportunity to visit a place that’s really an endangered species. To have an undisturbed island — almost nine miles long — that’s a really big win for North Carolina. For the visitor, it provides a really beautiful snapshot of what the early colonists saw when they came off the ocean.”

For the birds

Recently, Masonboro Island was selected as part of the North Carolina Birding Trail because it’s such a compelling place to go bird-watching.

“The trail itself is a map that links great birding sites across the state. We finished the coastal plain in spring of 2007,” says Andy Wood, education coordinator for the coastal office of Audubon North Carolina and author of Backyard Carolina.

Wood explains some of the history of the Birding Trail — an initiative that took three years to become reality. Organizers are working now to map the trails in the Piedmont and mountain areas of the state. Currently, a trail coordinator employed by the state’s Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) heads the project. But it began as a partnership between six agencies: the WRC, Audubon, North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Sea Grant North Carolina, North Carolina State Parks, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Lots of waterbirds use Masonboro Island for nesting and foraging, and the shorebirds are really spectacular there,” says Wood. For examples of shorebirds in the area, Wood lists willets, ruddy turnstones, and Wilson’s plover.

There are other birds that nest in the area, like the black skimmer, least tern, and American oystercatcher. “We help with bird management,” explains Wood. “We determine where the most likely nesting habitats will be, and we put up posts and ropes so people will know it’s an area you are not supposed to venture into.”

Abbate, who is also a certified guide for the North Carolina Birding Trail, says the sand shoals on the island are critical for the shorebirds. “What I see a lot of right now is the skimmers all go to the shoals,” he says. “They stage and group together. If you didn’t have the shoals, it would affect them. We need to keep these sand shoals and manage them for the shorebirds. North Carolina boasts some really nice species.”

A threat to the bird population on Masonboro Island are dogs who are allowed to run loose. “It’s a very popular place for people to take dogs,”explains Wood. “But unleashed dogs can be a problem for nesting sites. All it takes is one or two disturbances, and the birds will abandon the site. The birds become acclimated to people and dogs walking a certain distance away. But if you breach that trust, the birds get very upset.”

In addition to the birds, Masonboro Island is a significant area for loggerhead and sea turtles. There’s also a rare, federally protected plant called seabeach amaranth that’s found only on barrier islands.

Special concerns

Anthony Snider, an assistant professor in the environmental studies department at UNCW and the former southern sites manager for the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve, says the biggest threat to the island right now is visitor impact.

The island is open for the public to explore and even camp. And while researchers encourage people to explore this special place, they emphasize the need to take special care of it.

“Because it’s one of the few undeveloped islands, it receives a lot of visitors, and some are less responsible than they should be,” says Snider. “They are littering and camping in dunes. A lot of people don’t realize that it’s not a park. But it was specifically set aside as a research location. The main reason the state purchased the island is to serve as a field station of research into barrier island sytems.”

Habitats on the island include subtidal soft bottoms, tidal flats, hard surfaces, salt marshes, shrub thicket, maritime forest, dredge spoil areas, grasslands, ocean beach, and sand dunes.

Another thing most people don’t realize, and something researchers are keeping a close eye on, is that Masonboro is not renourished. Surrounding islands, like Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach, add sand to their beaches. But Masonboro only receives sand collected periodically from the engineered structure at Masonboro Inlet that would have migrated to the island naturally if the jetties at the north end of it did not exist. As part of the natural process, Snider says, the island moves about 12 feet per year toward the mainland.

Also, because the island is undeveloped, its waters are very clean and healthy. “It has a very vibrant ecosystem,” says Snider.

“What is the value of a pristine ecosystem?” asks Abbate. “To me as a biologist, there’s no amount of money. It’s invaluable to have this system stay intact and not disturbed. When you are thinking about shellfish, the back side of Masonboro is still healthy. You can still harvest hard-shelled clams and oysters. The fact that it is still harvestable is super important.”

Further exploring

Snider says one of the best ways to really get a feel for the island and its wildlife is to paddle through the area in a kayak. He says traveling by kayak allows people to get remarkably close to the birds without upsetting them.

Abbate is also developing new boat tours for Masonboro Island, including a Desert Island Package, which provides visitors with transportation, wood, and a cooler for an overnight camping trip on Masonboro. “You can take a boat tour and just tour from the water, or you can explore it and camp,” says Abbate. But they all stress that when people camp it’s crucial to pack all the trash out with you.

We climb back aboard the boat, and Abbate looks through the shells my children and other kids on the trip have collected. Some still have living creatures inside, which are promptly released back into the water. He identifies others and shows them pictures from a wildlife book.

Abbate was right — the trip to this undeveloped masterpiece melted all tension and provided us with a look at a true North Carolina paradise: A perfect place to relax and enjoy the undiluted beauty of the coast.

Marla Hardee Milling and her family made the trek to Masonboro Island from their home in Asheville.