Capt. Joe Abbate loves Masonboro Island and the wildlife that lives here. He wants you to love it, too.
Capt. Joe Abbate stands on his dock at Wrightsville Beach. Wearing jeans and a jacket, he’s a short, stocky man; tightly wound black curls sprout from his visor. He fiddles with ropes, checks gauges, and prepares for another trip on the water. Capt. Joe knows things about the sea that most of us do not. “My mission,” he says, “is to enlighten people through getting them out of their everyday lives, and getting them into the world that’s right around the corner. Sometimes you need a guide to bring you in and help you understand the amazing-ness of it all.”
Capt. Joe is the Cape Fear Naturalist, a man obsessed, not with white whales or sharks, but with guiding people around a swath of land and water and introducing them to the diverse critters that live in both.
He takes the helm of The Shamrock, a specialized beach catamaran stable enough for bird watching and stout enough to skid directly onto sand. The boat gives Capt. Joe several options for living out his mission. Sometimes he taxis people over to Masonboro Island, perhaps for a clambake. Other times, he loads up a group for a full-fledged eco-tour, which might involve paddling kayaks out into the tidal creeks and hiking over the dunes. Either way, the trip likely includes all kinds of water and shorebird identification.
He points at birds and fills his passengers’ heads with the magnificent ornithological nomenclature of southeastern North Carolina: American oystercatcher, piping plover, saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow.
“I’m a guide,” he says. “What drives me every day is awakening people to the natural wilderness that’s all around.”
Capt. Joe woke up to wilderness a long time ago. His parents were city folks up North, but they took beach vacations off the Hudson River. Joe always had a desire to be on the water, and after high school, he toyed with the idea of joining the United States Merchant Marine. Instead, he went south to a coastal college, earned an environmental science degree at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and ended up one day with ornithologist Dr. Steve Emslie.
“I remember when I was enlightened,” he says. “It was right when I picked up those binoculars. I can tell you exactly where I was. It was like a time capsule.”
He was on the UNCW campus and spotted an eastern bluebird. But it wasn’t the bird; it was the eyeball. He raised the binoculars, found it close-up, and never looked back.
Now, he has a hundred memorable bird moments, stakes in the ground marking a lifelong passion for flying, nesting, feathered things.
There was a kingfisher in Florida that swooped by with such force that it sounded like an airborne motorboat. He mimics the sound by clucking his tongue: “Bllllllllllll! All of a sudden this rattle, and this little, blue bird flying through this web of trees without hitting its head.”
There was also the blue heron at Wilmington’s Bradley Creek. Not an unusual bird, but the posture was off. When he looked at the bird, Joe thought a fishing line was holding its wings back.
“But this bird was sitting in the sun, and flapped its wings, and was literally sunbathing, and you could see its intricate little feathers,” he says.
He is hooked, and he hooks anybody who rides on his boat. “See, that’s the thing; that’s the whole key,” he says. “You’re going to be out in your yard, and at 4:30, right before the sun goes down, the birds are going to come. And you put that thing up, man, and you start to see the eyeball.”
His own eyes balloon. Capt. Joe peers into an imagined avian wonderland, the memory of all his birds, up close and personal.
“Nature paints a canvas every day that has more color and vibrancy than anything I could ever imagine,” he says. “When you look at a bird’s plumage, and you really get a good view, I mean, it can be breathtaking.”
Capt. Joe’s canvas — his stomping ground — is a giant V of land. On one side, the left, is the Cape Fear River rambling all the way from the middle of the state into the ocean. And on the right side is the Atlantic Ocean. But there’s more to it. Another line, running along the right, like this: V/. Those are the barrier islands where Capt. Joe makes his living ferrying people out to the sandbars, staring endlessly through binoculars searching for the pupils of pelicans.
But here’s the crux. Packed into the middle of that giant V is all this humanity: downtown Wilmington, Mayfaire shopping center, nightclubs, and grocery stores. Although all those people live so close to the water’s breathtaking edges, they rarely experience them as intimately as Capt. Joe.
But it’s not just access. The city produces all kinds of toxicity, and even with valiant efforts to litter-box it away, much of it seeps into the tidal creeks, the river, out to sea.
So here is Capt. Joe, who has worked both sides of the V and now lives smack in the middle of it. For six years, he was director and naturalist educator of the Cape Fear River Watch, a group dedicated to protecting the quality of the river basin (left side), and now he is the Cape Fear Naturalist, running his boat up and down the right side, simultaneously trying to keep everything clean while getting people out into his cherished, pristine wilds.
It has been gray all week, but the sun finally cracks the clouds and shoots down. Everything reflects and catches fire.
Through Capt. Joe’s powerful binoculars, he sees Masonboro Island, an important bird sanctuary and one of the last barrier islands in North Carolina still untouched by development. But not by humanity. Capt. Joe points to a sliver of sandbar where 5,000 people squeeze in every Fourth of July. They bring beer cans and bottles of vodka. They flick cigarette butts and scream at the stars.
“This year we had no trash,” he says with a hint of pride. “Three years ago, I filled my entire boat.”
In part, Capt. Joe has been hard at work, not just ferrying people around or pointing at plovers, but gently turning customers into custodians, introducing them to the barrier islands, and giving them a participatory role.
“I’m out here, and I feel like I’m almost a watchful eye,” he says. “Just being a steward, just being who I am — the Cape Fear Naturalist.”
Capt. Joe is hard to resist. He is shaggy-haired, laid-back, and full of enthusiasm. Plus, he has this bazooka-looking telescope, and now he points it at a single great white egret, standing alone among the dunes and spartina grass.
“These birds started the environmental movement,” he says. “Women wanted bird feathers in their hats. But in 1700, the Coast Guard stopped a merchant ship and wanted to see their cargo, opened up the hatches, and there were — guess how many — 150,000 dead egrets.”
His point is that the horror of that mountain of dead birds, the imagery as it hit the collective imagination, was enough to kick-start some protective policy.
Through the binoculars, the skinny, long-beaked creature looks poised; a breeze stirs its wispy, white feathers, the ones Capt. Joe says were so lucrative in the millinery trade.
Masonboro Island is eight and a half miles long. Untouched. No buildings, no surf shops. It looks pretty much the same as it looked to Native Americans, the first settlers, Blackbeard himself. Across the inlet water sits Wrightsville Beach, where homes, some small, some giant, push right up to the sea.
This is what it’s about for Capt. Joe. There are all these people, right here, only a puddle away, who have a city and a beach, but it is a beach half-covered with impermeable surfaces, so much concrete. Yes, there are critters here, but they don’t always act the same as they do across the water, which is to say, natural.
There can be no bridge. If there were, Masonboro would quickly look just like Wrightsville. The only proper bridge is a boat, and we must drift over to secret places where there are rookeries of pelicans, hundreds of them congregating by a windbreak, adults with their blazing-white heads, a hint of yellow, the juveniles all gray and squawky. And Joe is the captain, sweeping his hand along the coast, and he says, “It was all like this once.” There is a strange tension, knowing that we as people need and want the concrete and movie theaters and sushi restaurants, but we always want to stay here, where it is wild and serene and the same as it’s been forever.
The Shamrock turns back toward home. Capt. Joe hopes to get a new boat someday, a bigger one. He will call it The Leprechaun — his boat names are nods to his Irish heritage.
A few pelicans start tracking with the boat, just drifting and floating alongside, the tips of their massive wings pumping inches above the water. Their eyes are beautiful. Then suddenly there are 20 pelicans, then 30. They form an envelope around the boat and above.
“Whoa,” he says. “Look at that! We’ve got hundreds of pelicans out here!”
There are hundreds. It feels like thousands. It feels like a universe.
“Only on the water,” Capt. Joe says. And then he says it again.
A pelican swoops down and lands on top of the boat. It rides The Shamrock. Its giant, webbed feet smack along the roof. “That’s the first ever pelican on The Shamrock!” Joe says.
Deep down, it is a little scary. Giant birds cloaking a boat, their wings so powerful, their beaks so massive.
Capt. Joe pulls in closer to the dock, and the pelicans fall away, one by one, bobbing in our wake. Regal. Watching. Waiting to see what the people will do next.
Cape Fear Naturalist Bird Guide Services
275 Waynick Boulevard
Wrightsville Beach, N.C. 28480
Josh MacIvor-Andersen is a freelance writer living in Wilmington.