Gazing out to Sea from the Beaufort Waterfront

Readily visible just beyond the tangle of boats clustered around downtown Beaufort Waterfront docks is the Rachel Carson Estuarine Research Reserve, a three-mile strip of land encompassing Carrot Island, Town Marsh, Bird Shoal and Horse Island. Along this strip, a herd of feral ponies graze contentedly, descendants of mustangs that swam ashore from a Spanish shipwreck nearly 400 years ago. Standing next to the ponies, almost without fail, are snowy white egrets, large distinctive birds with long, spindly legs.

It is an odd association, these ponies and birds, but it is what they called back in science class a symbiotic relationship. The ponies attract bugs, pests that make them toss their tails and flinch their withers, and the egrets are on perpetual standby waiting for those fat, juicy insects to show up for lunch. The arrangement works very well for everyone, except possibly the bugs.

Rachel Carson, for whom the reserve is named, has been called the first environmental writer, best known for her 1962 “Silent Spring,” a diatribe against the use of DDT and other pesticides in agricultural crops. But her first book was “Under the Sea-Wind” (1941), later followed by “The Edge of the Sea” (1955) and “The Sea Around Us” (1961) — among many titles devoted to both land and sea.

Carson was a marine biologist, and one of the first women to work as a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on nearby Pivers Island, another offshore sight that can easily be seen from Beaufort’s downtown district. You could easily swim over to Carrot Island from Beaufort, but most people take any number of ferries, catamarans and sailboats available for the excursion. A well-marked half-mile loop trail on the island gives hikers a chance to visit with the wildlife and get a closer look at those ponies.

Approximately 30 ponies live here, completely self-sufficient, and on the next island further out, Shackleford Banks, there are quite a few more, as many as 120. Because there are so many more wild ponies on Shackleford, they are a little more managed, depending on how many foals are born in a given year. Researchers study their growth, look at their health, and if their population seems a bit too large for their general well-being they adopt them out.

Another sight you are likely to see if you sit long enough at the cafes or on the benches along the boardwalk in Beaufort, NC is a school of dolphins moving in and out of Taylor’s Creek, heading up toward Newport River for a midday meal. Depending on the time of year, these could be the famed Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, but dolphins migrate so chronically that the ones you see here in the summer are not the same ones you are going to see in the winter.

Also depending on the time of year, someone might be playing live music under the big clock that stands near the main parking lot. One of the major festivals is the Beaufort Music Festival in May, which serves as a bit of kind of a kick-off for summer, and of course the really colossal summertime festival is next door in Morehead City, the annual North Carolina Seafood Festival.

As previously noted, there are no large hotels along the Beaufort Waterfront, no putt-putt golf courses, no rides or costumed characters — unless you count the docents that conduct the historic tours. People staying at beach rentals come out for the day and there are several quaint bed-and-breakfast accommodations in town. A variety of rental homes are available and most fill vacancies practically year-round, with only a few winter months turning what most people might define as cold.

There is something to be said for winter beaches, as beautiful as at any other time and all but abandoned, and not everything closes down along the Beaufort Waterfront, though a lot of things do. In the fall there is a King Mackerel Tournament and several other major fishing competitions, spring and fall being the prime times that fish are running from one place to another, either up or down the river. The water stays warm enough to swim in through October.

One primary pastime in Beaufort is to buy an ice cream cone, go for a stroll through the shops and streets, and find a ringside seat somewhere along the Beaufort Waterfront to watch the boats come and go. Sunsets over the docks turn the water about the shade of Blackbeard’s gold dust.