Masonboro Island: A Coastal Treasure
By Joyce Deaton
Masonboro Island, which lies just offshore between Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach, is a unique treasure of delights for Cape Fear area boaters.
The island’s history is notable. Evidence suggests that what’s now Masonboro Island was described by the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano during his expedition for Francis I of France in 1542. The mainland shore of the island was settled in the early 18th century by farmers and fishermen. Summer homes for affluent landowners followed, and later Confederate soldiers were stationed on Masonboro near Whiskey Creek, the area’s largest salt works, destroyed by Union troops in 1864.
Masonboro is no less interesting today. The island includes 5,100 acres of undeveloped land and marshes – increasingly rare in these days of overdevelopment of coastal areas. And all of it is available for recreational use within the bounds of its management by the North Carolina Estuarine Research Reserve and the North Carolina Coastal Reserve.
The NC Coastal Reserve includes more than 30,000 acres of land and waters along that are managed for research, education and compatible recreational uses. In addition, Masonboro, along with three other N.C. sites, have been designated as National Estuarine Research Reserves through a partnership between the state and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Through research and education, the 27 national reserves help communities develop strategies to deal successfully with coastal resource issues. At Masonboro and nearby Zeke’s Island, reserve staff and researchers from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and other universities monitor weather and conduct studies of plants, animals and coastal land changes. “This provides a bellwether for things that are happening at other coastal areas,” says Dr. Anthony Snider, southern sites manager and stewardship coordinator for the N.C. Coastal Reserve and the NCERR. “It shows what would happen if we didn’t do anything to influence change, such as beach nourishment, for example.”
Masonboro Island is accessible only by boat, and since it is set aside for research and education, there are no recreational facilities. But opportunities abound for hiking, camping, kayaking, bird watching and fishing.
Camping is permitted anywhere on the island. There are no trails or campsites, so most people hike the island’s perimeter and camp at either the north or south end. It’s strictly primitive camping, so hikers should bring their own water, food and insect repellent and be prepared to pack out their trash.
Masonboro is part of the North Carolina Birding Trail and is home to several unusual species including black skimmers, Wilson’s plovers, red knots and oystercatchers, along with more common coastal birds. The greatest variety of birds can be seen during the fall migration season.
Hikers can see an abundance of other wildlife as well. Endangered loggerhead and green turtles nest on the island, and marsh rabbits, opossums, raccoons, river otters and red foxes (introduced long ago by the British for hunting) are often seen. Snider has even seen a coach whip – a beautiful, non-poisonous snake with a brown leather-colored upper and coal black lower part – on his travels around the island. “They’re very reclusive and shun contact with humans,” he says. “That was the only one I’ve ever seen.”
Motorboats can anchor or pull up at the island, but there’s no dock. Small boats may be able to go into some creeks, but navigating interior waters requires a kayak. Fishing is great off Masonboro, with 44 species of fish reported in its waters.
Area residents often wonder aloud if the island will remain undeveloped. Most likely it will. The coastal reserve owns 93 percent of the land, with the remaining portion owned by estates and managed by the NCERR. Snider says permits for development would be difficult to obtain and development would be “unwise” because the island is unstable. Since the sea level is rising and the beaches are not nourished by importing sand, Masonboro is moving landward at an average of 12 feet a year. “Human activity is causing water temperatures to increase. This causes water to expand, which causes the sea level to rise,” he explains. “This is causing the island to roll over itself toward land.”
Beloved by surfers, kayakers, birders and boaters, Masonboro is regularly cared for and cleaned up by a large cadre of volunteers. More are welcomed. To volunteer, call Snider at 910-962-2300 or check the reserve’s web site at www.nccoastalreserve.net.