Corolla, North Carolina is a must see nautical village scented with the spray of the salty sea. It's located on NC Highway 12 along a thin strip of land bordered on the east by the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean, and on the west by the inland waterway of Currituck Sound. Corolla is home to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, whose beacon first beckoned to sailors at sea in 1875, and to art noveau Whalehead Club, a turn of the century hunt club for sportsmen. The quaint village is also home to one of North Carolina's natural history gems called the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education. The center, which opened in 2006, is an impressive and marvelous 22,000 square foot interpretive center for young and old alike to explore the history and vast diversity of North Carolina's wildlife.
The center is located on the grounds of Currituck Heritage Park. Sharon Meade, the centers curator and public relations liaison said the setting is perfect. "It's a beautiful setting of 29 acres of oak trees, and families can stroll the grounds and even bring a picnic while they enjoy the view and the setting before or after visiting the center."
One of the key displays is a massive living aquatic ephemera of fish, native to the region, housed in an 8,000 gallon aquarium where families can get up close and personal with a rich variety of finned swimmers. "You have to remember we have a variety of marine eco-systems here. The ocean, the sound and an estuary so it is pretty diverse."
Part of the diversity includes the Nest Turtle Program run by educator Karen Clark who gives talks at the center and runs the program which is a network for endangered sea turtles.
"We were known as the sportsman's paradise, especially in regards to duck hunting, and it is historically ingrained in the lifeblood of the region. We have a large collection of collectible and artistic antique waterfowl decoys to prove it. I think there are over 200 on display. Also, Ducks Unlimited got it's start in the area way back when," she explained. If you want to step back in time, they have a duck blind display set up in a simulated salt marsh to revisit the old days when hunting was the sport of kings and province of exclusive hunt clubs, such as the Whalehead Club located next door to the center.
A film presentation, "Life By Waters Rhythms" is shown at regular intervals to transport you on a celluloid journey through the natural and cultural history of the region. Motorboat aficionado's will think they have died and gone to outboard motor heaven when they peruse the centers delighful and definitive display of vintage outboard motors, which to the outdoors person has the same appeal common to car buffs going to a classic car show. "The outboard motor display has become somewhat of a nostalgia attraction. When people see a particular motor for example, they say, 'My grandfather had one just like that', so the appeal of the display is universal in that regard. We currently have 22 of them on display at the center and they truly are works of art," explained Meade.
Nature lovers can't visit a Wildlife Center without making a stop at the in-house gift shop. Merchandise that celebrates and educates about wildlife is as abundant as a flock of geese flying to winter in Currituck during hunting season. The shop has a large selection of books, nicknack's, periodicals, posters, clothing and wildlife art in various forms to adorn home or office.
The best part of the center for kids? Easy answer according to Meade. "It has to be Banks the Bear. It's a stuffed black bear in the lobby and kids can pose with him and love to touch him. We had a naming contest and "Banks" for Outer Banks, won and was the name given to him.
Once you've taken in all the center has to offer, your adventure in the area's cultural history continues when you visit the Currituck Beach Lighthouse next door. The keepers house is Victorian in style, and was home and hearth to keepers throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th when, just as the horse and buggy, hands-on lighthouse maintenance went into the dustbin of history when automation took over of most of the functions. The old light fell into disrepair and was subject to vandalism but by the Eighties a restoration project got underway, and although not quite complete yet, it is open from Easter through Thanksgiving as a Museum Shop with with models of Outer Banks lighthouses, books and other nautical items.
We are talking wildlife here, and the wildest species you may encounter are the banker horses. These wild mustangs are direct decendents of horses brought over by the Spaniards centuries ago that have thrived in the wilds of the Outer Banks. According to Karen McCalpin, Executive Director, Corolla Wild Horse Fund, much still has to be done to protect them. "The wild horses of Corolla have lived on the Outer Banks for nearly 500 years. Development as a resort area began in earnest in the 1800's. Horses were pushed south and north of Nags Head. Up until the mid 80's, anyone who wanted a horse just captured one. As a result, many of the horses with the most colorful markings were sold off," she explained.
"The US Fish & Wildlife Service still considers wild horses as an exotic, invasive species and has been trying to force us to comply with an outdated management plan that calls for a maximum herd size of 60. Sixty will cause a genetic collapse." In order to see the wild horses now, visitors can rent a beach home in the four-wheel drive only area, drive on the beach for a day trip, or take one of the commercial horse tours.
There is plenty to do and to learn at the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education and Heritage Park. Admission to the Center is free, although donations are accepted, and appreciated. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., all exhibits are wheelchair accessible, they even provide hearing assistance devices for the hearing impaired. The center is located at 1160 Village Lane in Corolla. Visit their website at NC Wildlife Commission.
It's a great family odyssey to explore the coastal region and North Carolina's, wild, wildlife! Don't forget to say "hello" to Banks the Bear!