Gazing out across the horizon, it can be easy not only for the mind but also for the eyes to begin to play tricks on you. Gulls flit about, while cormorants slip quietly below the surface in search of their next snack. The sun begins to illuminate each and every surface; the sand begins to warm, schools of fish form bait balls in the hopes to ward off the next predator. The dark spheres they form, undulating with the waves can resemble all sorts of things when scene from shore. Bobbing along in the midst, two all black figures, stealthy and sleek, side-by-side. You squint, trying your best to discern one from the other. Seals perhaps? A very good guess but in this case no. Try again. Two surfers, clad head to toe in neoprene patiently waiting on their next wave. But that’s how it goes with the sea — always worth a second glance, as looks can be very deceiving.

“It’s very easy to get the two confused,” says Terri Kirby Hathaway, marine education specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant, which provides research, education and outreach opportunities relating to current issues affecting the North Carolina coast.

Most people associate seals with more arctic or far-flung landscapes, we actually get our fair share during the colder months, she says, “but it’s not unusual to see them in our area. Even this time of year, you might see some of the younger ones who are continuing their trek south. We’ve seen harbor seals, grey seals, and even a juvenile elephant seal once.”

As an educator, Hathaway spends her time teaching other educators.

“If I can educate 25 teachers, and they take the information I’ve left them with and share this with all of their students, think about all the people we’ve reached.”

If it has to do with the ocean, the beach and the treasures they hold, Hathaway is your gal. In fact, if you looked at her desk right now, you might just find sand samples from the Caribbean: a scute from a sturgeon, a sea star, and sea beans that drift along with the currents.

“You never know what you may find,” Hathaway says. “It’s hard to care about something you don’t know about or understand. I want to inspire people to care about the ocean.”

With programs such as Beach Combing Biology, Hathaway takes it upon herself to act as a salt-water muse.

Ever find yourself walking along the beach after a storm and think you’ve found a strand of DNA? Almost. These are whelk egg cases.

“There are three species of whelk in North Carolina,” she says. “The females create the zygotes or larvae, the capsules they are contained within, and the strand that keeps them all together. They are then anchored into the sand until they hatch at some point.”

Should you find one of these spiral, salt rattlers and notice that it is still pliable, throw it back. The whelks inside may still be alive.

How about the shells?

“Ever wonder where they come from?” Hathaway asks with a smile. “Some animals such as clams have male and female organs. When they produce a baby, it needs a home, so it begins to take calcium carbonate out of the sea water with its mantle and make a crystalline structure. As the mollusk grows, it adds to its shell over time.”

Quite the industrious little critter. In fact, they all are, each with their own agenda, silently driven by a primal force to move, create, nest and feed.

“It’s different out there every day,” Hathaway says. “Even the sand is moving. Get out there early, and you never know what you might find.”

Fran Marler has lived on the Outer Banks for nearly a dozen years. She estimates 60 percent of her life on the Banks is spent fishing, boating, surfing, swimming and enjoying the bountiful beauty of the Outer Banks.

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