Albemarle Peninsula offers best stargazing on East Coast

Published 10:33 am Tuesday, July 28, 2020

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(This report was adapted from an article by Dave Shaw in Coastwatch Magazine, Spring 2020.)

The Outer Albemarle Peninsula offers some of the darkest skies on the U.S. Atlantic seaboard, with sites for unsurpassed stargazing and a nightscape experience full of wildlife at play under the music of the spheres.

Here on the Outer Albemarle Peninsula, you can stare into the soul of the Milky Way, watch the moon rise, or follow the night’s new river of light across a black inlet out to the horizon.

Here, nighttime cues the cacophony of tundra swans. Your shoes will find solid earth, but the terrain also includes bays, marshes, ghost forests, and pocosins, made for boots. This country belongs to wild creatures and critters, to red wolves, alligators, black bears, otters, and manatees.

Over 2.4 million acres of public lands and waters stretch across the Outer Albemarle Peninsula (OAP) and the surrounding estuaries and barrier islands.

Locals live in small towns on the peninsula’s perimeter like Columbia, Stumpy Point, Engelhard, and Swan Quarter, or in crossroad communities like Goat Neck, Alligator, and Gum Neck.

This part of the state remains mostly untamable, and, at night, strikingly dark. All of which makes the peninsula one of the country’s best kept secrets — an expanse of land and sky that offers the rarest of settings.

The OAP stages a nightscape that not only awes visitors but that might provide a much-needed boost to ecotourism in northeastern North Carolina.

“These are world-class natural resources,” says Stan Riggs.

Since the early 1970s, North Carolina Sea Grant has supported numerous research initiatives Riggs has spearheaded, including his latest, the Night-Scape Resource Project. Riggs, now coastal and marine geologist with NC LOW (“North Carolina Land of Water”), is exploring the Outer Albemarle Peninsula after dark.

“It’s truly a magic place,” he says, “once you get off the main highways.”

The OAP’s 780 square miles of national wildlife refuges, state parks and reserves, and vast swaths of public game land seem to unfurl endlessly because of an additional 2,900 square miles of publicly owned buffer enveloping it all.

Albemarle Sound to the north, Croatan and Pamlico sounds to the east and southeast, and Pamlico River Estuary to the south surround the OAP.

Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores further protect the peninsula to the east, as do the Pea Island and Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuges. To the west, broad stretches of agricultural fields sprawl across the lower Coastal Plain.

“When you have a vast area of public wetlands surrounded by expansive estuarine bodies of water, with minimal human activity, the 360-degree vistas of the horizon provide a never-ending parade of night sky magic,” Riggs says. “Thunderheads illuminate the stage with dramatic lightning, as spectacular cloud displays at day’s end introduce a zenith of planets, constellations, and an astronomical wonderland that is becoming an endangered environment along our coast, because of increasing light pollution.”

Because of the OAP’s immense tracts of protected and unpopulated terrain, these night skies are some of the darkest on the U.S. Atlantic Coast between Boston and Miami.

In large part, the conspicuous black sky over the OAP that appears on nighttime satellite maps of the Eastern Seaboard prompted Riggs to document this terrain.

Naturalists and astronomers covet such conditions, which offer a paradise for both professional and amateur explorers alike — with significant implications for the future economic health of the whole region.

NC LOW trained survey teams to journey across the peninsula to catalog night landscapes and soundscapes, as well as the viewscapes of those deep and spacious skies untouched by artificial light.

The teams would visit sites on national wildlife refuges (Alligator River, Pocosin Lakes, Mattamuskeet, and Swanquarter), state parks and reserves (Pettigrew, Somerset Place, and Buckridge), and vast parcels of public game lands (NC Wildlife Resources Commission).

The Night-Scape Resource Project studied the quality of darkness and many other environmental factors at 83 sites.

Not only did the project produce comprehensive site profiles, but its data on light pollution possibly could earn the OAP a regional designation as an “International Dark Sky Reserve.”

“A majority of our survey sites on the OAP offer starry nights that the International Dark Sky Association’s guidelines rate as gold or silver,” Riggs says.

The dark sky designation, Riggs adds, along with the accompanying stamp of approval from the International Dark Sky Association, would enhance the peninsula’s visibility, infusing the region’s slowly growing ecotourism industry with instant marketability.