Topsail is a 26-mile long barrier island located below the Outer Banks on North Carolina's coast. Boasting three main towns, lots of lovely beaches, and plenty of fun activities, it's a fantastic place to spend a few days when visiting this marvelous state. And entrenched beneath the island's sugar-coated appearance and great attractions is its gritty history that makes it an even more fascinating destination; it was once a missile testing site, and even further back in time it used to be a hideout spot for pirates.
Legend has it that the island acquired its name from people watching out for the "topsails" of pirate ships, which often parked and waited just behind the island. And, as a result of the pirate-infested waters and often horrific weather conditions in Black Beard's heyday, the island's coastal waters are littered with historic shipwrecks, which led to the branding of the surrounding sea as "The Graveyard of the Atlantic."
About Topsail Island
Topsail Island's three principal towns are Topsail Beach, Surf City, and North Topsail Beach, each offering plentiful accommodation, nice restaurants, brilliant activities, and interesting attractions. The beaches are equally as noteworthy, boasting pristine white sands and reef-breaking surf ideal for surfing. But of course, one of the island's major draws is its rich waters full of fascinating marine creatures paving the way for excellent scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities.
Despite sea conditions and silt sometimes limiting visibility and swimming, myriads of underwater life can be observed all along the coastline, including fish, crabs, and even sea turtles. Topsail Island is particularly well-known for its maritime forests and sea turtle conservation, and for the whole 26 mile-length of coastline, loggerhead sea turtles often come ashore to nest and lay eggs between mid-May and August. As it's such a prolific turtle haven, the island is home to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City, which is a must-visit for anyone in the area who wants to see and learn about real-life sea turtles who call Topside Island home.
And that's not all - visitors not into getting wet have lots to discover too; from the Missiles and More Museum and golf courses to restaurants and shopping, the island is an all-around great place for a dry vacation. Moreover, Topsail is also notably a fantastic fishing spot; each of the three towns boasts its own pier coupled with bait and tackle shops and snack bars. All three piers are open from March to November and offer fishing to anyone - even those without a North Carolina fishing license because the piers maintain a collective recreational fishing license that also includes guests.
Snorkeling At Topsail Island
It may not be the best place in the world for snorkeling, however, Topsail Island's underwater world is incredibly unique with tons to see. And even though the surrounding ocean contains a varying amount of silt and sand, the visibility is clear enough to keep snorkelers and divers happy most of the time. Combine this with ample marine life thriving below the water's surface, and it's no surprise that snorkeling is one of the most popular activities loved by guests and locals.
There are plenty of public beaches and piers allowing access to Topsail's waters for snorkeling and swimming in the island's main towns, with many private beaches at various resorts and hotels allowing swimming and snorkeling as well. There are three public beach accesses in North Topsail Beach alone, so there's definitely no lack of places to dive in - however, due to strong currents, snorkeling and swimming are not permitted from New River Inlet, which is just off public beach access number three in North Topsail Beach.
Additionally, it's worth noting that the island's backside offers one of the best-protected snorkeling areas along the North Carolina coast. And since the 26-mile-long barrier island itself is also a populated sea turtle sanctuary, it's fairly common to spot small sea turtles swimming along the piers and jetties that extend right out into the water.
Other great places to look out for sea turtles and marine critters are seagrass beds, where aquatic animals typically go in search of food or shelter. Whilst snorkeling in seagrass beds may be exciting, it is very important to respect the fragile underwater environment, taking care not to kick the grass nor stand on the bottom as this can stir up silt, harm the marine life, and even disturb stingrays and jellyfish that live near the bottom.
The Pine Knolls Aquarium
Absolute snorkeling beginners and those who want to see Topsail Island's marine life in transparent water away from sand and silt will really appreciate the Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium. Situated on the east end of Emerald Isle, the aquarium boasts lots of exhibits and habitats to enlighten underwater enthusiasts - especially kids who always rate the place highly.
If that wasn't enough of a fascination, the aquarium also hosts scientist-led snorkeling and kayaking trips to some of the most fish-populated spots in and around Topsail. They even have a trip geared towards little ones too; it involves an adventure to the mesmeric Bogue Sound area, which is of significant marine importance since being designated as an Essential Fish Habitat by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
On this particular trip, one can see all manners of underwater animals, such as various species of shrimp, blue crabs, tons of juvenile fish, and even five species of sea turtle. Another trip the aquarium offers takes guests to Radio Island where a rock jetty runs next to the beach. Along this entire section located on the island's south end, there are countless hidden spots for marine creatures to camp in, attracting diverse species who are on the hunt for food and shelter. Amazingly, even game fish and some tropical fish can be observed during the warm summer months - how's that for underwater diversity?
With a nickname like "The Graveyard of the Atlantic", it's clear that it's not just the fascinating marine life that makes the waters in and around Topsail Island so extraordinary to explore. Over time, powerful waves and offshore currents caused dozens of ships to be swallowed by the sea just off the coast, and amidst the sand and silt-laden waters, underwater explorers can explore many of the sunken ship's skeletons that still lay at murky depths to this day.
Of particular note for shipwreck snorkeling fanatics are the half-a-dozen sunken vessels just off the beach in Nags Head. Beach-goers can swim 100 to 350 yards from the beach to find ghostly sunken ships resting between 20 and25 feet of water, which means they're fairly accessible to snorkelers - especially those who know how to duck dive.
For more shipwreck snorkeling, visitors can use the Second Street beach access to venture out to the Kyzickes - an impressive tanker located about 100 yards offshore that's also popular amongst scuba divers. And that's not all - heading out for another 100 yards will bring snorkelers to the Carl Gerhard wreck, which is a 1929 freighter now split in half and resting on the ocean floor.
From the Bladen Street access point, visitors can also discover the Explorer - a tugboat that sank in the early twentieth century now lying about 100 yards north of Nags Head Fishing Pier. A further 250 yards north from the same pier, there's also the 1877 gunship named the Huron.
Though many of these Topside Island wrecks are accessible to snorkelers and seem fairly easy, it is always crucial to stay safe and prepare appropriately. Currents can sometimes be strong, which means those who aren't strong swimmers will benefit from going out with a boat. Also, don't forget to wear a wetsuit when swimming during spring, autumn, and winter - it gets cold enough to spark a bout of hypothermia!
Scuba Diving in Topside Island
While some shipwrecks can be explored by snorkeling right off the shore, others require much more of an adventurous journey (and a few scuba diving certifications too). There are a few dive shops in the area offering chartered dive excursions, equipment rental, and even lessons for those who want to learn to dive or earn the next certification level up. These local dive operators are definitely the experts and know everything there is about the island's population of sunken vessels ripe for exploration. As such, they should be any diver's first point of call should they wish to hop on a scuba diving trip.
Every diver in this part of North Carolina has their favorite shipwreck, but one that commonly comes up as a much-loved subaquatic attraction is the Hyde. Located around 26 miles west of Topsail, it was purposely sunk to serve as part of the North Carolina artificial reef program. Encrusted and playing shelter for a plethora of marine species, the sunken vessel now rests upright in about 60 feet of water and is perfect for scuba divers to explore.
On the other hand, a further four miles out west of the New River Outlet is the Cassimer shipwreck - a World War Two tanker now resting at 90 feet deep. Furthermore, a little farther out on the same line is the island's most famous sunken subsea attraction - the U-352, which is an incredible World War Two German submarine that sank into 100 feet of clear ocean.
The Best Time To Snorkel Or Dive At Topsail Island
The best time for snorkeling and scuba diving at Topsail Island depends on a few things. Just after high or low tide is inarguably the most ideal time of day thanks to lesser tidal water movement and minimal currents. Less water movement means that there's far less silt and sand upheaval, which means snorkelers and divers can enjoy better visibility during this time - as well as calmer, current-free water that's much easier and more pleasant to swim in.
If temperature and weather are an issue though, the thermally-challenged snorkeler and diver would be better visiting Topsail for underwater adventures in the summertime from June to the end of August when the ocean is far warmer. Still, pack a wetsuit no matter the season; it's better to have one and not need it than need it and not have it - yes, even in summer. And that's the best free advice you'll ever get from a professional scuba diver!