So who owns that new ‘forbidden island’ off the NC coast? It’s not who you think.

View the new island formed in NC's Outer Banks

A new island has formed off the tip of Cape Point in the constantly changing Outer Banks. Named Shelly Island, the sandbar is about a mile long and three football fields wide.
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A new island has formed off the tip of Cape Point in the constantly changing Outer Banks. Named Shelly Island, the sandbar is about a mile long and three football fields wide.

The new island forming off North Carolina’s coast has captivated attention from Asia to the United Kingdom, but perhaps the most mysterious thing about the mile-long crescent is a question few have asked.

Who owns the island?

“Right now, nobody’s really claiming ownership,” Dare County Commissioner Danny Couch recently told TV station WFMY. “It’s sort of a no man’s land.”

Actually, someone does own what’s being called Shelly Island, and your first guess is likely not correct. The world’s newest land mass doesn’t belong to the federal government nor is it part of the National Park Service’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

It belongs to the state of North Carolina, says Dave Hallac, superintendent of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Even more specifically, it’s under the jurisdiction of Dare County.

However, adding to the island’s allure is the fact that ownership could change overnight without anyone raising a finger.

“If it were to connect with land, I’d have to do research on who owns it,” Hallac told the Observer. “Then, it’s possible that it becomes part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore and management of it would be different. That’s a question we’ll face when it’s in front of us. Right now, there’s plenty of water between the park service property and the island.”

The island, which is about the size of a football field and still growing, is separated from Hatteras Island by a few hundred feet of water, which is no more than 5 feet deep at low tide.

Dare County manager Bobby Outten says he, too, isn’t sure who would own the island if the channel was filled in by the coast’s ever-shifting sands.

Experts say the island could continue to grow, or it could suddenly vanish with the next big storm. Outten says the county has no intention to do anything with the island and anybody else with a plan for it would need state and county permission.

Cape Point on Hatteras Island is crowded with fishermen in this photo looking north from September 2011. CHUCK LIDDY cliddy@newsobserver.com

There’s no question, he says, that the island has been a boon for Dare County, as far as positive publicity. The curiosity factor has brought wide-spread attention and thousands of visitors to the site. Officials have reported seeing 60 to 130 people on the island at any one time.

But those who visit do so with some risk. The National Park Service and Dare County have issued warnings against walking or swimming the few hundred feet to the island, due to sharks and a current that is swift and can change with the tide.

At least five people have been rescued off the island after the tide came in and channel waters deepened and became swift, media outlets have reported.

ABC’s “Good Morning America” featured a story on what it called “the forbidden island” this week, noting it was a mile long and four football fields wide. ABC chief meteorologist Ginger Zee said she saw 15 sharks while making a trip to the island by boat.

Dare County officials don’t have statistics for rescues, nor does the National Park Service.

Outten and Hallac also say they have not heard reports of anything unusual being found on the island, other than whale bones and some of the East Coast’s largest and most intact sea shells. That’s how the island got its unofficial name, Shelly Island.

“I have to admit it’s fascinating as to how it formed itself so quickly,” Outten says. “I can see why everyone is curious.”

National Geographic summed up the phenomenon in a June 27 story: “Along this dynamic stretch of sea, where the cold, southbound Labrador Current churns and crashes into warmer Gulf Stream waters, it is not unusual for patches of ground to emerge and then quickly subside. These are, after all, some of North America’s roughest waters...Yet even for this place, this new formation is of a scale rarely seen...The appearance of this new island is drawing attention from coast to coast.”