Nature & Science

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the nation’s first national seashore, was established to preserve significant segments of unspoiled barrier islands along North Carolina’s stretch of coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Barrier islands are narrow, low-lying, dynamic landforms which parallel ocean coasts, are separated from the mainland, and are constantly moving and reshaping in response to storms, ocean currents, sea level changes, and wave and wind action. These processes continue to influence the islands today through the processes of erosion and accretion of the shoreline; overwash across the islands; and the formation, migration, and closure of the inlets.

Piping plover adult, seabeach amaranth, and baby sea turtle.
Federally protected threatened or endangered species include the piping plover, seabeach amaranth, and sea turtles

Plover image credit US Fish and Wildlife Service

These forces of nature, combined with human activities on these islands, have resulted in the development and constant change of beach, dune, grassland, shrub thicket, maritime forest, and salt marsh habitats throughout the islands. Each of these habitats supports a great variety of wildlife, some commonly observed and some not so easily spotted. Although many of the plants and animals you will see throughout the Seashore are common to eastern North Carolina, the Seashore does also support several threatened and endangered species, such as the piping plover and loggerhead sea turtle.

Not only does the Seashore support a rich diversity of plants and animals, it also offers amazing views of the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico-Albemarle Sound, beautiful and dark night skies, and dynamic weather patterns including hurricanes and nor'easters.


Research Publications
Migratory and Wintering Shorebird Monitoring at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, 2006-2007, National Park Service, Natural Resource Program Center; M.W. Byrne, J.M. Maxfield, J. DeVivo (pdf, 800 kb).

Seal hauled up on the beach on Ocracoke Island
Seal hauled up on the beaches of Ocracoke Island

National Park Service

Marine Mammals

In the winter months, seals show up on the beach when low ocean temperatures persist throughout winter and spring. They haul-out on the beach to rest during their travels. If you see one, the biggest thing remember is to maintain a safe distance: at least 50 yards as recommended by NOAA. Never approach a seal with dogs, never touch a seal, and never feed a seal.

Unlike seal, dolphins and whales do not come to the beach to rest. If a dolphin or whale is found on the beach, there is something wrong with it. Keep your distance and never touch them.

Any marine mammal sightings—dolphins, whales, or seals—should be reported to the Cape Hatteras Stranding Hotline: 252-216-6892.

Sightings elsewhere in the Outer Banks should be reported to the OBX Marine Mammal Stranding Network: 252-455-9654.

  • Timber Rattlesnake on walkway
    Reptile List

    A Comprehensive List of Reptiles Inhabiting Cape Hatteras National Seashore

  • American Oystercatcher on beach

    Information on Birds of Cape Hatteras National Seashore

  • Green Sea Turtle on beach
    Sea Turtles

    Information on Sea Turtles at Cape Hatteras National Seashore

  • Plant growing out of a shell

    Information on Plant Life at Cape Hatteras National Seashore

  • A coyote is seen standing in a field of long grass.

    Learn more about coyotes on the seashore.

Last updated: September 3, 2023

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Contact Info

Mailing Address:

Cape Hatteras National Seashore
1401 National Park Drive

Manteo, NC 27954


252 473-2111

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