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Explore the waters that take you to Washington, N.C.

Explore the waters that take you to Washington, N.C.

Navigating the rivers and sounds of North Carolina’s vast estuary immerses cruisers in a wilderness of wetlands and dense forest. The wildlife, both on land and in the water, is abundant. In fact, more than 90 percent of the seafood caught by North Carolinians — blue crab, shrimp, flounder — has spent at least part of its life in the estuary.

While much of the region is remote, it has seen its share of development. The associated problems that occur when wetlands are destroyed to build waterfront homes — flooding, for example — spurred several groups of concerned North Carolinians in the mid-1990s to take action. They banded together to form Partnership for the Sounds, a non-profit organization that promotes environmental education and sustainable economic development through nature-based tourism on the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula, the mainland side of the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.

Located on the east end of the Washington waterfront, the North Carolina Estuarium is one of three Partnership facilities, and for cruisers it’s a must-see, since the more than 200 exhibits relate directly to the waters traversed while on passage. The estuarium opened in 1998, after a four-year fund-raising effort amassed the $4 million needed to construct the sprawling 12,000-square-foot building.

Upon entering, an immense sculpture by local artist Whiting Toler immediately captures the eye. Composed of several elements to depict the water cycle of the estuary, it shows the path of a raindrop from the mountains of western North Carolina, down to the lowlands, and finally out to sea. The most impressive part of the display is the artfully woven bits of driftwood used to symbolize the mountains.

The self-guided tour of the Estuarium begins with a 15-minute movie, “Journey Through the Peninsula,” which captures the beauty of the region with scenes of the rivers, sounds and fishermen at work, as well as montages of wildlife in their natural habitats. Aerial shots of the waterways and landmasses provide stunning views of the places cruisers pass through en route to Washington, and satellite images reveal the vastness of the Albemarle-Pamlico region. Shallow Pamlico Sound covers 2,000 square miles, an area larger than Rhode Island.

After the film, the first of four exhibit rooms takes visitors into the lives of various reptiles, amphibians, crabs and fish that inhabit the estuary, with living aquariums showing these creatures moving about. The smallest aquarium is 130 gallons, while the largest is 650 gallons. There is an interesting interactive exhibit showing the effects of wind-driven tides, which are a factor behind the barrier islands, where lunar tides are mostly non-existent.

The next exhibit is all about life on the creeks, rivers and sounds — from the human standpoint. The exhibits start in prehistoric times, move on to Native Americans, and progress to more modern ways of life. There are many artifacts on display, including such obscure items as a trot line roller, a special device used to harvest crabs before the advent of the common crab pot. A 2,700-year-old dugout canoe and a net boat, once used to set pound and seine nets, present quite a contrast.

Moving along, the next exhibit room is dedicated to the history of Washington’s waterfront. Old photographs reveal the town as it once was, and there’s a video that shows interviews with residents from the Washington area. As they share their memories, it’s easy to imagine what life is like in Washington.

The last exhibit is all about the effects of pollution and development on the wetlands and forest, and the importance of preserving the natural habitat for wildlife. Of particular interest is an interactive exhibit on what Washington did to address the problem of river pollution from runoff. In 2000 the city created a 5-acre area of wetlands on the waterfront to act as a filter. A special sewer system was built to bypass the older one that dumped runoff directly into the river. The new sewer diverts the first half-inch of rain runoff, the most polluted water, into the wetlands, where it’s filtered before making its way into the PamlicoRiver.

A great place to visit for adults and kids alike, allow at least an hour to explore the estuarium. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for students (K-12), and free for kids younger than 5. The estuarium is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call (252) 948-0000 or visit www.partnershipforthesounds.org , and click on the link for the estuarium.