Beach Smarts in Wilmington, NC

For at least a century, residents of Wilmington, N.C., have traveled to Wrightsville Beach and the beaches of Pleasure Island to beat the summer heat. The beach is great for leisurely walks, romping in the gentle ocean waves or cruising the waterways. Check out our Wrightsville Beach Beach Smarts section for the inside scoop on beach access areas and parking, surfing, swimming, boating, tides and information about driving on the beach.

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The Sun

On the southern coast of North Carolina the skies are gorgeous, but beware of the sun's rays and intense heat. Dermatologists and health officials caution against prolonged exposure to direct sunlight and opthomologists warn that ultraviolet rays damage vision, so everyone, even small children, should wear UV protective sunglasses. By all means, enjoy your days on the beach, but keep in mind some tips to make your vacation safe and pleasurable, especially if you're determined to return home with a tan instead of a painful and peeling sunburn.

Sun Protection

No matter what your skin type, age or previous tanning experience, always wear sunscreen with the appropriate SPF (sun protection factor) when exposed to the sun. Select one with the best protection you can find and slather it on all exposed skin. Some dermogoligists even suggest applying sunscreen before dressing so your entire body is protected. Reapply after coming out of the water. Make a habit of putting on sunscreen when you are outdoors.

Skin protection is especially vital on the open beach. Sand, water and concrete surfaces can reflect 85 percent of the sun's rays. The intensity of the sun has increased in recent years so it's wise to take steps to protect your skin from burning or sun damage. Don't be fooled by a cloudy day. Ninety percent of the sun's burning rays penetrate the clouds.

Children's skiin and eyes are especially vulnerable to the sun's damaging rays and require special protection. Nearly half of the damage to skin occurs in childhood and early adolescence and much of damage leading to mascular degeneration occurs before age 5. Select colorful, fun styles for your children and guide them toward life-long eye health.

The Sand

Ah, the beach! There's nothing like taking a barefoot stroll on a sandy beach. The benefits include exercise and stress relief, not to mention the fact that sand is a natural pumice for the soles of your feet. Did you arrive with weary, calloused feet? Chances are good that they'll be a lot smoother when you leave.

Keep in mind that we share the strand, and the ocean, with a variety of creatures. Keep your eyes open for broken shells and other items that may have washed ashore. Those strange, translucent critters may be jellyfish or Portuguese Man-of-War. Even dead, they can inflict painful stings, so be careful that you - and your children - do not touch them. If you are accidently stung, contact the lifeguards who can assist you with treatment or summoning emergency medical personnel. There are also, unfortunately, occasional pieces of glass and other items that are left by careless beach-goers or wash ashore from wreck or inconsiderate boaters. Beware. If you must smoke on the beach, please be considerate and dispose of your cigarette butts in the trash recepticles located along the strand. They're not only unsightly, they're dangerous, sometimes fatal, to sea life.

Public access to area beaches is free because North Carolinians are rigid in their belief that the shores belong to the people. Look for the orange and blue signs at frequent intervals along beach roads — they point out easements between homes where you can freely walk  to the beach. Stick to these paths, and don't walk across private property to get to the beach.

You are free to walk the length of all area beaches, including those on private islands such as Bald Head and Figure Eight (although you'll need a private boat or, in the case of Bald Head Island, a passenger ferry to get there). Oceanfront landowners' property lines stop at the high-water mark.

Beach Treasures

Stay alert for hidden treasures in the sand when beach combing. After storms and especially after hurricanes, seekers of shells and shark's teeth are wise to get out early to treasure hunt as the frenzied sea will have tossed abundant loot upon the shore. When searching for shark's teeth, look for a characteristic glint along the water's edge or in wet, course sand. These interesting artifacts are usually ebony in color and varied in shape. Don't limit yourself to just one beach. Travel along the coast and visit Topsail and Brunswick County beaches as well because each offers a different variety of shells.

Are you spending the day on Brunswick County beaches? Frequent finds there are whole sand dollars, but make sure you don't take live ones. The all-white skeletal sand dollars are the ones you want. The brown, furry ones may still be alive and should be returned to the water. In addition, if you're lucky or very observant, you may find arrowheads from ancient Native American tribes. Considering the colorful pirate history in the area, who knows what else you might find in your search?

A Day at the Beach

Preparations for a day at the beach should include a beach matt, blanket or old quilt, towels, a cooler packed with cool drinks and ice and beach apparel for the whole family. A beach umbrella gives some much-appreciated shade when old Sol is really hot. No matter what you do, grains of sand are going to creep into everything, but a blanket will at least give you protection from the warm sand. Make sure everyone has a hat, sunglasses and sturdy foot covering. Asphalt, concrete and sand above the high-water mark all get very hot, making it difficult and painful to walk to and from the parking areas.

Remember to bring something for preventing and treating insect bites as well. Away from the beach, no-see-ums come out late in the afternoon. You can't see the little rascals unless they're in a pack, but they'll think you're a delicious evening snack.

Beach hospitality includes public restrooms, showers and rinse-off spots located conveniently along some, but not all, beaches. Restaurants that offer everything from hot dogs and barbecue to fresh seafood and even vegetarian dining are an easy walk from the beach in many communities.

Some laws worth noting: Don't take glass containers on the beach; dogs aren't allowed on most beaches during season and must be on a leash out of season; don't let your parking meter expire; don't take alcohol to the beach; and don't litter. Take an ashtray with you if you plan to smoke because, as inconsequential as a butt or two may seem, millions of them cause environmental problems. Filters are not biodegradable and can harm sea life. Trash cans are placed on most beaches; please use them.

The most important rule of all: Do not walk in the sand dunes. Protect the sand dunes by not disturbing the sea oats or other precious vegetation. Dunes buffer beach-front property and minimize erosion from tropical storms and hurricanes. Dunes also provide sanctuary for fragile turtle nests and a variety of shore birds. Damaging the dunes or disturbing turtle nests and beach vegetation will incur stiff fines, not to mention the wrath of environmentally conscious residents. Crossovers are provided for you to walk from the street or beach-front property. Use them rather than trudging across the dune line.

Speaking of sea turtle nesting, this is an awesome ritual that has captivated locals and tourists all along the North Carolina coast, but especially from Topsail Island to Ocean Isle Beach. Although five species of these gentle giants have been seen, almost all the nesting effort is made by the most common sea turtle in the region, the loggerhead, which weighs from 170 to 500 pounds. Every year in May, loggerheads find their way here from places as far away as the Azores and Canary Islands. Hundreds of volunteers monitor the beaches, identify the nesting sites and stand guard over them near the end of the approximately 60 days incubation. When the two-inch-long baby turtles emerge from a nest and head down the beach to the sea, excited nest-parents are there to clear a path and make sure no predator will eat them before they reach the water. At hatching time, lights all along the beach are dimmed or extinguished so as not to confuse these intrepid creatures. It's quite an event to behold. Be sure to read the closeup on Topsail Island's Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in our Attractions section.

Nighttime on the beach can be magical, and a quiet stroll in the moonlight is nearly irresistible. In the fall, your walk might kick up a strange phosphorescent phenomenon as you move across the water's edge. A night swim may tempt you as well, but be careful. Currents can push you away from your wade-in spot, and the darkness can disorient you. Remember that the law requires that clothing be worn while frolicking in the waves.

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