Virtually every vacationer to the Outer Banks during the late spring and summer months will encounter a sand crab, though most will never notice it. These small critters which usually lurk just under the ocean floor's service go by a number of names, including sand crab, sand digger, sand flea, and mole crab, and no matter how you call it, a sand crab is essentially the same. Small with a mildly hard shell, these crabs are notorious for their skittish movements along the ocean's edge, as the sand crab is constantly hauled onshore and left to frantically dig under the sand to find a little protection.
This daily routine is an entertaining spectator sport for Outer Banks vacationers, and beach visitors who notice the small sand crabs can easily spend hours watching the small critters engage in their burrowing dance all afternoon and evening. In addition to being endlessly entertaining for beach loungers, sand crabs can also make incredible surf fishing bait in a pinch, and can keep young ones giggling for hours as a caught sand crab tries to harmlessly "burrow" its way into a child's hand.
On your next beach vacation, keep your eyes peeled for these quick-moving local residents along the shore. Incredibly common and a pleasure to watch, the sand crab is just another fun and fascinating surprise that awaits Outer Banks vacationers.
Sand crabs are generally only found along the Outer Banks beaches in the summer months, but that doesn't mean that during the winter they have all but disappeared. The sand crab is one of the rare crab species that has no functional legs with which to navigate themselves along the beaches, and in the late fall they are generally swept offshore to low-lying sandbars, where they stay until they can make their trek back to the beaches in the spring.
The sand crab is generally very small in size, ranging from an 1/8" to 2" at the most. The female sand crabs are generally much larger than the male crabs, but neither gender is clearly very large. As for appearance, sand crabs are egg-shaped creatures with a light gray or pink hued shell, and two antennas topped with eyes protruding slightly out of their oval shaped body.
Unlike most crabs that traverse the beaches from right to left, sand crabs are backwards burrowers, and when launched ashore, will furiously burrow into the sand with their rear claws until they are safely out of harm's way. This is the sand crab's signature movement, as when an Atlantic wave washes ashore, it carries a sand crab with it, and as the wave recedes, the sand crab furiously starts to burrow leaving only its eyestalks and antennae just barely visible above the sand. This is how the crab moves, and also feeds, as the small feathery antennae located just beneath the eyes will scratch the surface looking for food.
Unfortunately for the sand crabs, they have plenty of predators lurking along the Outer Banks beaches. Sand crabs are prime targets for both larger fish who are waiting to catch the small crabs while they're skimming along in the water, as well as shore birds who are happy to snatch them up once they've made it to the beaches. As such, the life of a sand crab is a daily exercise in trying to avoid being prey to both ocean and land dwelling species, an exercise that can be daunting and, depending on the local Outer Banks wildlife population, seldom fruitful.
The good news for the sand crabs is that reproduction occurs in vast numbers, with a female laying up to 45,000 eggs at one time. The sand crab breeding season occurs from February until October, and once laid, these eggs drift out to the ocean and take about a month to hatch. After hatching, it will take an additional 4 or 5 months to become fully adult sand crabs. Granted, a number of eggs become lost during the incubation period to predators as well as rough ocean surf, but generally enough survive to create what biologists call "recruits" that live along the beaches. These baby sand crabs can also be found during the summer, and are distinguished by their almost iridescent bodies, and incredible small sizes - most of them are a cemimeter long at the most. Mid to late spring visitors have the best chances of spotting these junior sand crabs, as they appear in clusters along with the incoming ocean waves.
Fun facts about Outer Banks Sand Crabs
Sand crabs are easy to catch and examine. In the summer months, simply stand or sit by the ocean wash and wait for the sand crabs to come piling in. In case you don't notice any drifting in and out with the waves, find a spot of beach and start digging. The best areas to find sand crab are moist stretches of shoreline that are occasionally covered by a little ocean over wash. A simple digging expedition along the wet stretches of shoreline can usually unearth plenty of sand crabs that have just been deposited onshore.
Another method of finding sand crabs is to walk along the shoreline, particularly in the late spring and early summer, and look for discrepancies along the shoreline, in the form of small, circular patches of sand that are bumpy or ridged in appearance. Chances are there are plenty of sand crabs hidden just beneath the lumpy surface, and a little digging can produce dozens if not hundreds of the critters in one location.
Parents who need a little beach break should be advised that kids absolutely love sand crabs. Not only are their frantic digging efforts a fascinating sight to watch, but simply picking one up in the palm of one's hand, and splashing a little water on top, will induce the frantic digging movement that is well-known to make kids giggle. In addition, sand crabs, unlike most other varieties of crabs, do not bite or pinch, making them completely harmless. Just be sure to leave you sand crabs right where you found them on the beach. Sand crabs cannot be transferred to aquariums as pets, and are dependent on the ocean environment to survive.
While female sand crabs can generally be determined by their size alone, during the summer months, a female sand crab may have an additional identifying characteristic. A sand crab with a spongy orange "cluster" around its belly is actually a female crab with a case of eggs ready for depositing. If you find one, it's best to let it back into the ocean shoreline to ensure the safe deposit of its eggs.
Sand crabs can serve as an incredibly effective source of free bait for surf fishermen as well. The larger varieties have been known to reel in mullets, blues, croakers, spots, and an assortment of other smaller or moderately sized game fish. Hooking a sand crab is easy - simply run the hook from the body to the head, so that it is positioned horizontally along your hook. Catching sand crabs, however, can be slightly more difficult. If you're not able to obtain sand crabs by the standard search and digging methods, consider bringing a small rake to the beach, and comb the shoreline just on the oceanside of the breakers. Ocean waters that are an average of 2"-6" deep are ideal hunting grounds for sand crabs. Just be sure to catch no more than you will use. Because of their exceptional bait possibilities, one of the sand crabs' most dangerous predators are humans, so be sure and use only what you will need for fishing.
If you can't find any sand crabs, occasionally local tackle stores will sell frozen sand crabs for bait. Simply ask any Outer Banks tackle store for availability of sand crabs, and guidance on the best way to use them. Many of the tackle stores on the OBX have been manned for generations by local fishing experts who are more than happy to offer a little guidance.
Sand crabs are a little known attraction to Outer Banks newcomers, even though they are consistently always in plain sight for summer visitors to enjoy. Kids love them because they are purely fascinating to watch, with hind "legs" that burrow constantly whenever they are washed ashore. They're also easy to find, and easy to dig for, making a day at the beach a fun hunting excursion. Surf fishermen also love sand crabs because they provide an ideal bait that is completely free of charge and generally easy to scoop up in droves.
Regardless of whether you admire these creatures for their ability to entertain children for hours, or for their ability to reel in mullets and bluefish, or for their simply amazing feats of navigating the shoreline, sand crabs are one Outer Banks local resident that everyone will love getting to know.