Changing tides reveal new island off Outer Banks coast


courtesy of Chad Koczera @chadonka

Averi Creef, Staff Writer

Visitors and locals had a little more “beach” this summer with the emergence of a massive sandbar on the tip of Hatteras Island’s Cape Point.

The island formed in the spring and as of August, the island totaled 27 acres and measured almost a mile long.

Known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the island formed in an area where the southbound Labrador Current meets the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream. This shallow area is treacherous with turning tides, unseen shoals and severe winds. While it is not uncommon for new sandbars to pop up in these waters, it is unusual for one to be this large.

“There are several factors that cause sandbars like Shelly Island to form on the Outer Banks,” earth science teacher Lisa Serfling said. “We had a lack of storms this summer, circular ocean currents (eddies) off of the Gulf Stream, lack of Northeast winds, long period ocean swells and a ready supply of sand from East facing barrier beaches. The southward littoral drift carried the sand in the water column south and was stopped by Cape Point and Diamond Shoals; this is when the sand was deposited and Shelly Island was formed.”

While the island continues to grow, recent hurricanes have jeopardized the island’s status. Currently, the island connects to Cape Point, a part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, at low tide. Following Hurricane Irma, a stream of water 20 feet wide and 6 inches deep flowed between the island and the coast at high tide.

The island gained popularity quickly. With national news covering it, the new island, possibly, drew more visitors than usual to the area. Part of the appeal: an abundance of seashells.

While visiting the island in May, an 11-year-old boy commented on the copious amount of shells and nicknamed the island “Shelly Island.” The nickname stuck.

“I found a lot of shells there, of course,” sophomore Uma Perry said. “Most of the shells washed up right away, but my mom did find a shark tooth inside of one.”

Getting to the island can be tricky. Most often, visitors park at Cape Point and go across by boat, kayak or stand up paddle board. Some have braved the waters by walking across to the island at low tide, but with the strong currents and possibility of sharks, this is discouraged.

“[My cousin and I] walked across the islands and into the water,”  junior Maddie Phillips said. “It was shallow in places but chest deep in other places. I did have a good experience we found a ton of conch shells.”

The strong currents around Shelly Island have already lead to multiple rescues by the Hatteras Island Rescue Squad and visitors in small kayaks or vessels. In July, warnings were issued against trying to swim or wade across the channel. While some visitors have made it across safely at low tide, the trip back during high tide can be much more dangerous.

“[Crossing to the island] was pretty cool, but I knew that it was a little dangerous,” junior Tripp Phillips said.  “I felt confident crossing, [but] some people were falling down. Some lady lost her phone and wallet.”

Island or no island, the sandbar remains a popular destination. People can be seen daily crossing the sandbar and returning with a collection of sea treasures.