North Carolina and the Gulf Stream

Audubon's Shearwaters are common in the warm blue water of the Gulf Stream. Photo copyright of Angus Wilson©, 1994

The Gulf Stream is a warm water current that begins off the tip of Florida, where it is called the Florida Current, and ends off the coast of Ireland. In North America, the 'Stream' passes closest to shore off North Carolina's Outer Banks. The exact distance varies but can be as little as 12 miles. At the northern end of the Outer Bank's, the Gulf Stream collides with the colder Labrador Current resulting in an up-welling of nutrient rich water. The interplay between these two currents determines the exact position of the boundary and this may vary from year to year. The Gulf Stream is then deflected out into the Atlantic Ocean basin and meanders across the Atlantic towards Ireland. Occasionally warm water breaks away from the main stream in masses that are called eddies or rings.

Satellite image from the SeaWifs Imaging Project

The north wall of the Gulf Stream can be reached fairly easily from the fishing ports of Manteo or from Hatteras which is some 70 miles further south. Intensive exploration during the last two decades has revealed a remarkable variety of seabirds using different parts of this complex and continually change marine structure. Details of organized pelagic trips can be found on the web sites of Brian Patteson and Armas Hill/FONT. These trips go from Oregon Inlet 'The Country Girl' from Pirate's Cove Marina) near Manteo at the northern end of the Outer Banks or from Hatteras (The 'Miss Hatteras' from Oden's Dock) at the mid-point.

In spring (end of May, beginning of June) there can be excellent seawatching from the beach at Cape Hatteras Point. Light easterly winds push northward migrants close against the shore just south of the point, forcing them to swing outwards as they round the point - except for jaegers which may cut directly over the point and the heads of lucky seawatchers! Six species of shearwater, three storm-petrel, all three jaegers, South Polar Skua, Brown Booby and Arctic Tern have all been recorded. In some years, Sooty Terns occur at the smaller ternery on the point and in winter alcids are possible. If this is not enough, Cape Point is one of the east coast's top gull spots in winter.

Helpful Literature:

John O. Fussell III (1994) A Birder's Guide to Coastal North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. (available from
Brian Patteson (1999) North Carolina Pelagic Birding - Part I. American Birding Association's Winging It, 11(1) January 1999 issue.
Brian Patteson (1999) North Carolina Pelagic Birding - Part II. American Birding Association's Winging It, 11(2) February 1999 issue.
Brinkley, E.S. and Patteson, J. B. (1998) Gadfly petrels in the western North Atlantic. Birding World. 11: 341-354.
Brinkley, E.S. and Patteson, J. B. (1998) Seabirds of the southern Gulf Stream. Birding World. 11: 421-429.

Possible Species

Depending on time of year, the following species might be encountered.
Northern Fulmar - winter
Black-capped Petrel - all year
Fea's Petrel - rare but almost regular in summer
Trinidade Petrel - rare but almost regular in summer
Cory's Shearwater
Greater Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater - spring, often inshore
Manx Shearwater
Audubon's Shearwater
Wilson's Storm-Petrel
White-faced Storm-Petrel - rare, mostly likely in August
Leach's Storm-Petrel - most in spring
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - most reliable in summer

Black-capped Petrels are one of the signature species of the Gulf Stream. Photo copyright of Angus Wilson©, 1994

White-tailed Tropicbird - summer
Red-billed Tropicbird - summer
Northern Gannet
Masked Booby - summer
Red-necked Phalarope
Pomarine Jaeger
Parasitic Jaeger
Long-tailed Jaeger
Great Skua - winter
South Polar Skua - spring and summer
Black-legged Kittiwake - winter
Royal Tern
Sandwich Tern
Common Tern
Arctic Tern - predominantly in spring
Least Tern
Bridled Tern
Sooty Tern
Black Tern
Dovekie - winter
Razorbill - winter
Common Murre - winter
Puffin - winter
Fin Whale
Humpback Whale
Sperm Whale
Northern Right Whale
Short-finned Pilot Whale
Cuvier's Beaked Whale
Bottlenose Dolphin
Common Dolphin
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin
Risso's Dolphin
Leatherback Sea Turtle
Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Bluefin Tuna
Yellowfin Tuna
Skipjack Tuna
Little Tunny
Blue Marlin
White Marlin
Long-billed Spearfish
Mola/Ocean Sunfish
Mako Shark
Sargassum Weed with its unique inhabitants


[Note: inclusion of these sightings does not imply acceptance by the relevant rare bird committees.]
Yellow-nosed Albatross
Black-browed Albatross
White-chinned Petrel
Bermuda Petrel
Bulwer's Petrel
Cape Verde Shearwater
Swinhoe's Storm-petrel
Brown Skua
Brown Noddy
Pygmy Sperm Whale
True's Beaked Whale - first ever live sighting
Blainesville (Dense) Beaked Whale
False Killer Whale
Clymene Dolphin
Striped Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin
Rough-toothed Dolphin

Trips out of Manto usually go on Captain Allan Foreman's 57 ft 'The Country Girl', a fast sport-fishing boat slightly larger than this one, aptly entitled 'Tuna Fever'. 'The Country Girl" is capable of 30-35 knots, sufficient to keep you eye-to-eye with a puzzled Pterodroma petrel! Once these birds have had enough, however, they change the shape of their wings, kick into another gear and zing off over the horizon.....

Mahi-Mahi are a regular and spectacular catch in the warm waters of the Stream.


Many thanks to Paul Guris for helpful comments on this page and his enthusiasm for pelagic trips in general.

Page and photos copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002 All rights reserved.
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