Estuarium on N.C. coast explains fragile natural mix of sea water and salt water

Since 1998, the N.C. Estuarium in Washington has been focusing attention on the watershed region of Pamlico Sound, where “the rivers meet the sea.”


From Charlotte, Washington – in coastal Beaufort County – is about 250 miles; approximately 5 hours.

To see and do

A visit to the Estuarium begins with a 12-minute film, “Journey through the Peninsula,” that draws upon superb photography to show the diversity of plant and animal life dependent upon the environment provided by the Tar-Pamlico River and Pamlico Sound.

The Tar River begins 125 miles inland from Washington and is freshwater; the Pamlico – the lower stretch of the same river – is much saltier. The river changes its name at the bridge in Washington. The Tar-Pamlico tides are affected by the wind. Pamlico Sound is a shallow body of mixed fresh and salt water enclosed by the Outer Banks except for four inlets. Stretching 90 miles from north to south and 25 miles across at its widest point, Pamlico is the largest lagoonal estuary in the U.S. Covering 2,000 square miles, it is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

A visit to the Estuarium is rewarding for adults, but it is also kid-friendly, with lots of hands-on exhibits. In the lobby, for example, stands an elaborate sculpture by Washington resident Whiting Tyler, with 365 wires radiating from the “sun,” 28 wires from the “moon,” and lightweight balls used to represent drops of water. “Evaporating” to the top of the sculpture by vacuum, the balls come down as “rain,” rolling along a meandering chute until they return to earth. It takes a little more than a minute for each raindrop to make the journey. Kids, standing on duck feet painted on the floor, can catch the raindrops.

Inside the Estuarium proper, the “People and the Pamlico” exhibit shows how inhabitants interact with their environment, earning a living in diverse ways. In a video featuring interviews with residents, each person stresses the importance of the region’s water quality and natural beauty. One local sums things up by saying the Tar-Pamlico River and Pamlico Sound are “the centerpiece to our whole region.”

The Estuarium offers boat tours on the Tar-Pamlico River on Saturdays from April through October.