Sand, sea, sky

Sand, sea, sky

Flowing together as clouds and sun touch the water’s edge

Gently rippling water laps at the seaweed strewn shore   

Marked by the footprints of some small creature

Sand, sea, sky

There are days that no distinction can be perceived as you look out towards the horizon of the sound. The color of the water, stretching to the west, and the color of the sky seem to melt into one.

The allure of Hatteras Island is this closeness of sea and sound. We are on a sand bar between two great bodies of water; one the vast Atlantic Ocean and one bound by the mainland and the barrier islands. The waters are always so near.

Pamlico Sound is an estuary, a body of water in which river and ocean waters are mixed, creating a brackish water full of nutrients. It is shallow, with a reported average water depth of twenty feet. The largest estuary formed by barrier islands along the east coast; it is the second largest estuary in the nation. Pamlico Sound covers over 2,060 square miles and is linked to the Albemarle Sound by the Croatan and Roanoke Sounds. Its boundary on the west is the mainland and on the east, the Outer Banks. It is 60 to 80 miles long and 20 to 309 miles wide.

Some of the rivers that flow into this sound are the Tar-Pamlico River, the Neuse River, and the Pungo River. The rivers bring a much greater flow of fresh water into the sound than the major inlets bring in ocean water at Ocracoke and Hatteras. The land bordering the sound is swamp and wetlands, low in elevation, flat, and poorly drained. Lunar tides affect only the area of the sound close to the major inlets.

Pamlico Sound supports a wide variety of creatures and serves as a breeding place and nursery for many ocean dwelling fish.

There are several habitats in Pamlico Sound. The estuarine waters are shallow and are mixed by tides and wind. Blue crab, flounder, weakfish, spot, Atlantic croaker, and shrimp are commercially harvested by local fishermen and sought after by sports fishermen. The winds that blow over the sound draw kite boarders and windsurfers as well.Intertidal flats are areas of sand and mud that are covered at high tide with water and uncovered at low tide. This is where oysters, mussels, and clams live. As the water covers and recedes over these areas, sediment and decaying plant and animal material is deposited.

The bottom of estuarine water is referred to as a subtidal bottom. This is a large area of sediment that supports many types of animals, algae, and some rooted plants. This habitat is composed of mud and sand and is very similar to the intertidal flat. If you have ever walked in the sound, you know that the bottom is sometimes sandy, muddy, hard, or squishy beneath your feet. The grassy areas are good hiding places for blue crabs. There are grass beds and oyster reefs as well.

Many types of wetland plants live in the Pamlico estuary. These plants have adapted to the wet conditions that many other plants could not live in. As conditions along the wetlands change, so do the plants that are found in them. The type of wetland is determined largely by salinity and flooding frequency.

Some of the types of estuarine wetlands found in the region of the Pamlico Sound are tidal marshes called salt marsh and brackish marsh. Nontidal marshes are called brackish marsh, freshwater marsh, and forested swamp. Many types of animals live and feed or breed in the various types of marshes. Decaying plant matter is also found in marshes. This matter releases many nutrients into the water during the decomposition process. These nutrients in turn provide fertilizer for plants and food for some types of animals.

Marshes serve the ecology of an area in other ways as well. Some marsh grasses absorb the energy of waves, and so protect inland shores. Other marsh grasses absorb runoff from the land, filtering out sediment and chemicals. This process helps to clean water before it enters the estuary.

Pamlico Sound provides habitat for creatures, a living for Outer Bankers, and recreation for vacationers. It is a vast area of water about which little is known. Hermit crabs depend on it. Seagulls fly over it. Kite boarders soar above it, and fishermen pull their living from its sandy bottom.

Ocean waters invigorate, sound waters are calming. On the Outer Banks, one can enjoy the sunrise over the ocean in the morning and a beautiful sunset over the sound in the evening. Colors play out as light bounces off clouds and diffuses through the misty sky. We can learn about the sound; we can photograph it; we can paint it; we can write about it; we can splash in it. Life lived out close to the waters.



  1. I’m so glad my daughter told me about your blog. It has led me down memory lane, and I don’t want to leave. I recall going down to the sound, reaching up under the bank, and pulling out globs of black clay after my mother told me that she and her friends used to fashion dolls from the stuff. Thanks!


  2. Makes me want to come back to Hatteras Island. It is such a beautiful and unique place. Thanks for the reminders and the visual images of a place where I lived for a year–my first year of teaching 1976-77.
    Bill Brown


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