It was our last day on the beach in Duck, NC. It had been an excellent week spent mostly observing and photographing Brown Pelicans. What was supposed to be a washout week, with rainy weather every day, turned out to be sunny and beautiful. I already had used up most of my 16-gigabyte memory card but had a few shots left. We had time for one last walk along the beach, late in the afternoon….
The weather forecast that morning (the last time we checked) called for another beautiful, sunny day. We decided to take a small plastic bag along to protect my new camera just in case we had a quick, light shower. People who know us well, know we are planners and are usually on the cautious side. To say we don’t like to live life on the edge would be an understatement! ☺
Our routine was to walk down at least to the Army Corps of Engineers concrete pier with iron (or steel) pilings, roughly a mile or so away from our beach rental. It is an isolated spot due to the Federal Government owning the beachfront. A wire fence with No Trespassing signs are posted everywhere to keep us beachcomber types off the property.
We were fairly close to reaching the pier, when we noticed cumulus clouds building quickly, surrounded by blackness. The dunes/berm had blocked our vision from the building storm until it was too late.
I noticed several Brown Pelicans approaching me, just above the crest of the building waves. They took a sharp turn and headed out to sea. I snapped what would be my last picture of the day before all hell broke loose!
It was too late to head back to where we came from. There were no homes to run to. We couldn’t stay out in the open on the beach. We couldn’t trespass onto government property, not to mention we’d be on higher ground. The only place to hide and seek shelter was under the pier.
Within minutes, we were in the eye of a wicked lightning storm. With cold, driving rain pelting us sideways, the pier’s cover did little to protect us from the elements. The white-capped waves were crashing against the huge concrete based, rusty pilings as Jen and I stood huddled close together. My little plastic bag was gripped tightly in my right hand, protecting all of my 3,000 bird pictures taken during the week and my Canon T5i camera.
Always the cautious one, I suggested we put our rubber-based flip-flops on to ground us in case of a lightning strike. I had a flashback, remembering my elderly Aunt always running to put her sneakers on whenever there was a lighting storm.
The lightning bolts lit up the darkness, with bolts coming straight down toward the water. We both thought this could be the end, knowing that we were all wet, and on a wet beach in a violent lightning storm.
Just prior to the lightning strikes, a beach lifeguard rode up to us on her four-wheel ATV and informed us we needed to get off the beach, and that a bad storm was on the way. We informed her we had no place to go. She told us to call 911 or the Duck fire station if we needed help and rode off, leaving us behind.
After 45 minutes of hoping and praying for it to subside, the darkness was beginning to lighten. When the sun broke through and the perfect storm blew out to sea, we made a mad dash back down the beach in the direction we came.
In my quest to capture the magnificence of the Brown Pelican, we experienced what now seems almost surreal. We are so grateful to be sharing this story. It was pointed out to us afterward, that it happened to be Friday the 13th and a full moon!
I guess now when we go birding, we not only have to check the radar more closely, but the calendar, and the lunar charts. We had our SPF 30 on, hats and sunglasses, we had our little plastic bag for the camera in case it sprinkled, and we had our flip-flops in case the road back to the beach house was hot. We had no idea what we were walking into!
Now, behind every pelican painting I paint and every picture I post, I will always have this cautionary tale to draw on. I will paint them with passion and energy while remaining grounded (lightning speak). ☺ It was an exhilarating week watching the Brown Pelicans, for sure!!!
Lightning can strike more than 25 miles from the thunderstorm in which it originates.
Lightning travels easily through salt water and can kill multiple people near the strike.
Do not go back out onto the beach until at least 1/2 hour after the last thunder is heard. The most deaths from lightning occur either 1/2 hour before the storm arrives or 1/2 hour after it passes.
If you are caught in the open and cannot seek shelter, squat down on the ground with only your feet touching the ground. Stay away from fences, electric poles, metal objects, trees. Get as low as possible.