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The Ghost Crabs of Corolla


Searching the beach sands along the eastern shores has taught me the wonders of aquatic nature as it interacts within itself.

Moonlight is the best light for ghost hunting.

Moonlight is the best light for ghost hunting.

The Outer Banks (OBX), North Carolina

The Outer Banks is full of memories for myself and my family. When the children head back to school at the end of summer, it's our cue to pack up the car and head for that strip of land known to beach tourists as OBX.

We want a deserted beach—one without a mass of blankets and chairs lined up along the surf—facing the ocean. After school starts up, the long lines of cars waiting to cross over the bridge into the OBX have disappeared, a strong indicator that we will enjoy a much more deserted seashore, less traffic, no long lines to get into restaurants and more time to relax.

As June slips into July and July bleeds into August, I get antsy, excited to breathe that first breath of salty air, and by the time September is at the doorstep, it is all I can do to hold myself back until we can pack up the car and drive south.

On Our Way From Pennsylvania to Corolla!

When we cross over into North Carolina, I watch the sides of the road for clues that we are getting closer to the water. I scan for the first signs of sand in the soil that replaces the blackish hue of residual coal and other minerals along the highways in Pennsylvania and parts of Virginia. I know where the treetops start to shorten as we leave the mountain ranges behind us and I know at exactly what mile marker the hillsides will disappear and the road ahead of us will stretch out flat.

The view on both sides of the road as we head east ends in water, and the ocean trail stretches ahead of us, cluttered with beach houses that block my view of the water. The first breath of salty air is just ahead and the smell of fishy water is so near. Seagulls disturb the quiet, but their sound is strangely restful and adds a calm to the background noise of the waves crashing and rolling across the sand.

In our Pennsylvania mountains, when the air is still, crows break the silence or a hawk screeches as it searches the ground below for its prey. But here, near the land's edge, it's the seagulls that disturb the quiet and strangely add restful bliss to the background noise of the waves crashing and rolling across the sand.

Even blindfolded, I think I would know the way to Corolla, just by following the sounds and smells of the coast.

The Currituck Beach Lighthouse continues to illuminate a dark stretch of the North Carolina coast.

The Currituck Beach Lighthouse continues to illuminate a dark stretch of the North Carolina coast.

Unbearable Anticipation

The car has to be unloaded before we race off for the beach. It's an unwritten rule; one that I would break easily if no one was watching. I know that the beach is just over the sand dune, and though I can't see it, I itch to dig my toes into the sand. A glimpse between the rooftops from the upstairs deck of our rented vacation home only aggravates me more.

I rush through the chores, shoving perishables into the refrigerator and stuffing my suitcase in the closet. I will deal with the contents later. Right now, the anticipation of cold saltwater washing over my feet is driving me mad. I want to feel it all the way up to my knees as I run straight into the sea, meeting and greeting the waves as they tumble onto the beach. I envision the distant horizon that I cannot reach and I am screaming inside to see the waves crash around me.

Witness to the Sunset

Shoes on, hoodie zipped, my grandson, Cameron, waits at the front door. His excitement is as obvious as mine. Dusk is drawing in around us with just enough daylight to see where the sand stops and the water begins. It doesn't last long and the sun is here and then gone, fallen behind us as we face east toward the water.

We take those first steps over the sand dunes, and I feel the lift of the wind as it billows my jacket, snatching my hood from my head. I raise my arms and tilt my head back, feeling the salty air push against me as I breathe deeply of its healing powers. Shifting sand quickly gives way to smooth, hard-packed surface as we approach the surf.

Appearing as the sun drops from the sky, ghost crabs dot the sands of the outer banks, scurrying so fast that they seem to float over the wet beach.

Appearing as the sun drops from the sky, ghost crabs dot the sands of the outer banks, scurrying so fast that they seem to float over the wet beach.

The Appearance of "Ghosts"

As the light disappears, auditory perception becomes more powerful than visual. I hear rather than see the water come closer as the tide continues to make its way toward the sand dunes lining the beach. The surf threatens to swirl higher around me and I step back quickly to keep my pant legs dry.

Standing quietly, watching the sun slip away, a flashlight beam to my right distracts me as it floats over the top of the dunes. There are more and then the lights are joined by voices but I can't pick up what they are saying because of the crashing waves and wind. Slowly, they make their way across the beach, but stop every few steps swinging the flashlight beams in an arc around their feet. They are looking for something I assume, maybe a pair of lost glasses or a camera?

I feel rather than see movement at my feet and I react by swinging the flashlight so that its beam casts in the area immediately encircling me. Startled, I take a step back and feel something brush against my ankle. I jump and as I do, the flashlight beam catches a dozen or more pairs of tiny eyes, circled around me, all staring up at me from ground level. They don't move, just continued to stare...up.

All around me, translucent little forms, each attached to a set of eyes, stand stationary. It's like Halloween night, as if the ghosts have come out in all sizes, some very small and others much larger. The music from Dance Macabre floats into my head and briefly, I wonder if skeletons live on the beach as well.

Like spirits, they seemed to float across the sand, virtually coming from nowhere.

These nearly translucent crabs are barely visible against the yellow sand.

These nearly translucent crabs are barely visible against the yellow sand.

Elusive Crustaceans

The little creatures were nearly invisible against the sand. When they moved, they were there one second and then gone, lifting up some of their four pairs of legs to run faster, making it seem as if they were floating over the sand before they disappeared down a hole.

I took one step forward and the little crustaceans stood their ground. No one moved. They just kept staring up at me. One or two floated left or right, but not one backed away.

In the shadows behind the flashlight beam, more bodies moved across the sand; life had erupted on the beach. It was like a scary movie where the graveyard comes to life at night. These little creatures had come from underground and now floated across the sand, like spirits appearing virtually from nowhere.

I had just met my first ghost crab.

I hadn't noticed the holes in the sand until now, but now that I knew what to look for I could see they were everywhere. Each hole was a round smooth circle with sand neatly piled around the perimeter. Closest to the water, the holes were no more than a half-inch to an inch in diameter, but farther away from the water, where the sand is not hard-packed by the efforts of the tide, the holes were much larger, maybe two to three inches in diameter.

These holes, I later learned, were where the crabs took refuge from the heat of the day. By dawn, most if not all of them would disappear down their own hole to stay until sunset tomorrow.

Children love to carry a flashlight when exploring Corolla's beaches in search of "ghosts."

Children love to carry a flashlight when exploring Corolla's beaches in search of "ghosts."

Tips for "Ghost Busting" in Corolla

Finding the tiny translucent ghosts on the beach is not really that difficult. Take a walk after dark on a summer night and more than likely, if you have a flashlight and a little patience, you will see ghost crabs.

Come Prepared

Take a couple of things with you. You will need a good flashlight and a camera or camera phone. Wear a jacket and closed-toe shoes. The beach is cool at night, and just in case your toes come in contact with a crab claw, they should be protected.

Walk Slowly and Carefully

Step carefully and cast the flashlight beam in a circle around you. Ghost crabs are easy to photograph or video. If you are still, they are too. If you approach them, they may become defensive, but most likely they will turn and run.

Step carefully. Although they run fast, one of the environmental concerns for ghost crabs is sand trampling.

Let Your Little Ones Carry the Flashlights

Children love this activity, but in order to avoid the temptation to pick the crabs up, we do not permit them to carry buckets. Respect the crabs' environment. Placing them in a bucket is stressful, and if they grab a child's finger, it can cause bleeding and eventually infection. We let our children carry the flashlights to keep their hands busy so they are not tempted to try to pick up a crab, causing injury to themselves or the crab.

Leave No Trace

We teach by example to watch the crabs without chasing them or trying to take anything home that we shouldn't. But by all means, observe them and take souvenirs home on your camera.

Give Yourself About 30–40 Minutes to Explore

About 30 to 40 minutes is a good time block to allow to observe the ghost crabs; most children will grow weary of the adventure in that amount of time.

A Unique Memory

"Ghost hunting" captivates many of those who haunt the beaches along the east coast in the summertime. Share it with your family and friends and make it a part of your memories. You won't be disappointed.

Remember These Points

  • Only look for ghost crabs at night.
  • Capture memories on camera.
  • Respect the crabs by not trying to pick them up or step on them.
  • Wear a jacket and closed-toe shoes.

Outer Banks - Love it or not?

© 2014 Patty Poet


Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 02, 2021:

I could envision your excitement of unpacking and making that first venture over the sand dunes into the surf. You brought it alive with your descriptions. Your article about ghost crab sightings at night is fascinating. The video of the one at the bottom of the page was obviously taken in daylight.

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