A Last Sanctuary

by | Jan 13, 2021 | Online Exclusives, Outdoor Recreation, Topsail Island

Several organizations are working together to ensure that Lea-Hutaff Island remains an undeveloped, pristine habitat for birds and other animal and plant species.

Accessible only by boat, Lea-Hutaff Island offers 5,641-acres of sandy shoreline, beach dunes and tidal marsh. This 4-mile oasis between Topsail and Figure Eight islands is one of the state’s last remaining uninhabited and undeveloped barrier islands.

Colonial waterbirds such as pelicans, egrets, herons, terns, skimmers and gulls nest here by the thousands. Other avian visitors include black-billed plovers, American oystercatchers, greater yellowlegs, willets, sanderlings, semipalmated sandpipers and short-billed dowitchers — to name just a few.

Lea-Hutaff Island offers a rare and much-needed sanctuary to these birds that are frequently threatened by habitat loss, sea level rise and human disturbance. Because of this, the island has been designated as one of North Carolina’s Important Bird Areas (IBAs) by Audubon North Carolina.

Aerial Lea Island Surf City NC
Two Become One
Lea and Hutaff Islands were originally separate land formations divided by Old Topsail Inlet. That changed in 1998 when a storm eradicated the inlet and geographically united the two privately owned properties.

Lea Island (closest to Topsail Island) was purchased in 1918 by J. H. and Pearl Lea of Hampstead. Hutaff Island (closest to Figure Eight Island) was purchased in 1925 by George Hutaff of Wilmington.

Whereas Hutaff Island remains in the same private family trust, Lea Island has experienced ownership changes and minor development over the years. According to Bert Lea, Jr., his grandparents purchased the island for fishing purposes. Recognizing the allure of the island to others, they erected several small huts and rented them.

Lea remembers his mother sending him over to the island in a jon boat as a young teenager to post notices on the doors of each of the fishing huts.

“It was in the days of squatter’s rights, and my family wanted to make sure we retained the properties,” Lea says. “We charged a dollar per year for use of the huts, and the notices instructed the men to either mail their payments or drop them off at the fish house.” The fish house he’s referencing is the former J. H. Lea & Sons Seafood along U.S. Highway 17 in Hampstead, now Atlantic Seafood.”

The Lea family owned the island until the late 1960s, when Lea’s uncle, who was to eventually inherit the property, died unexpectedly. In order to provide for his children, the family sold the island to a man from Virginia Beach and put the proceeds in a trust fund for the children.

Following the sale, the new owner divided Lea Island into approximately 40 residential lots. Several of the lots sold, but only three landowners ever constructed homes on their properties. Due to the nature of erosion, shifting sand and high winds during storms, all three have since been destroyed, returning the island to its natural habitat.

Lea Island Topsail Island, North Carolina
Preservation and Conservation Efforts
North Carolina Coastal Land Trust deems the conservation of Lea-Hutaff Island a priority and over the past several years has begun purchasing private lots whenever owners are willing to sell for fair market value … and whenever they have the funds available.

According to N.C. Coastal Land Trust Director of Land Protection Janice Allen, the bids for public conservation dollars are highly competitive and available funds have diminished from a one-time high of $100 million to only about $10 million currently.

The properties that the Coastal Land Trust has purchased to date have been transferred to the State of North Carolina Parks and Recreation Department to manage as a State Nature Area. This differs from a State Park in several ways, including that no public amenities such as picnic shelters or restrooms are provided.

Audubon North Carolina also actively participates in the conservation of the island. Their biologists and volunteers seek to provide a safe place for the birds to raise their young, weather the winter and refuel during migration. Toward that effort, they post signs during the spring and summer nesting seasons to alert visitors of sensitive habitat areas, monitor bird populations and help protect sea turtle nests. They also monitor plant life such as the endangered seabeach amaranth and the invasive beach vitex.

“Audubon plans to work hard to make sure the island remains an undeveloped, pristine habitat,” says Ben Graham, communications manager of Audubon North Carolina’s Wilmington office. “That said, barrier islands are not supposed to be static; dunes and shorelines move. It will still be a wonderful barrier island 10 years from now, but it won’t look exactly the same. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Want to Visit Lea-Hutaff Island?

If you don’t own your own boat, Tuck’s Water Shuttle on Topsail Island offers transportation to and from Lea-Hutaff. For hours and pricing information, call (910) 616-7106.

Who to Contact If You Discover an Injured Bird or Sea Turtle

Ways You Can Help if You Visit

  • Do not disturb posted nesting areas.
  • Keep dogs on a leash. When running unleashed, dogs scare adult birds away from eggs and chicks, leaving them vulnerable to temperature stress and predators; frighten away resting birds during migration season; and dig up sea turtle nests.
  • Walk along the waterfront only. Many birds nest and roost within the protected interior.
  • Do not leave any trash on the island.
  • Contact your local legislators to request that funds be allocated to the N.C. Land & Water Conservation Fund to help purchase additional lots on Lea-Hutaff Island.

Photography by Adam Hawley – Unique Media & Design

About the author

Dalene Bickel

Dalene Bickel

I am a freelance writer and founder of Lasting Legacies (lasting-legacies.net), where I serve as a biographer, nonfiction book coach and legacy speaker. I am the author of The One-Year Collection of Weekly Writing Prompts, have co-authored multiple autobiographies and have contributed to anthologies, local magazines and online publications. A resident of Hampstead for more than 20 years, I enjoy spending time at the beach, reading and sipping java at area coffee shops. I am a history buff who enjoys discovering the stories of the past (both near and far) while also appreciating the amazing opportunities of the present. Life is truly an adventure, full of people and experiences worth writing about! Follow me on Facebook at LastingLegaciesBios.