Ghost Crabbing on the OBX


by Jessie S.

Atlantic Ghost Crabs on the Outer Banks

One of the qualities of the Outer Banks that makes it so special is that there are plenty of activities for visitors of any age and all interests. Whether you’re into watersports adventures, beachcombing for the perfect shell, or sampling all the fresh seafood you can find, the Outer Banks has you covered! One unique activity that has become very popular among families is ghost crabbing… but what exactly is ghost crabbing on the OBX?

What are Ghost Crabs?

Ghost Crabbing is very similar to beachcombing except instead of looking for seashells, you’re looking for ghost crabs. You may have also heard this activity referred to as “hunting for ghost crabs” or “ghost crab hunting.” Atlantic Ghost Crabs (Ocypode quadrata) live in the coastal areas of the East Coast in North America and South America. They have been found from Rhode Island all the way down to Brazil but one thing is certain: there are plenty of ghost crabs to be found on the Outer Banks beaches. These small critters survive by digging small burrows all over the beach and feasting on insects, clams, vegetation and other food sources they can scavenge.

a ghost crab scurries on the beach - ghost crabbing on the obx

Ghost crabs have eight legs (four pairs) and two claws. Although they range in size, they are fairly small averaging just 2-inches long. Ghost crabs are a sandy brown or light gray color with the ability to blend their shade in with their surroundings. The species is not currently considered threatened or endangered.

Spotting Ghost Crabs

Have you ever seen people walking along the shore at night with flash lights? They were probably ghost crabbing! It isn’t uncommon to spot ghost crabs darting along sand burrows during the day so you may have encountered ghost crabs while you were set up on the beach and not even realized what you were seeing. However, ghost crabs are scavengers who feed at night when they are more hidden from predators like seagulls and other shorebirds. This is why ghost crabbing occurs once the sun goes down.

Although the term “crabbing” usually refers to harvesting or fishing for Blue Crabs, the term does not mean the same thing in the case with ghost crabs. The phrase “hunting” is also arbitrary—ghost crabs are not harvested for consumption. Instead, the sport of ghost crabbing, or hunting for ghost crabs, is simply looking for and seeking out the scurrying creatures (the same way you would “hunt” for a bargain)! This activity is particularly fun for kids who will absolutely love watching the crabs run around in the dark of night.

a ghost crab in the sand - ghost crabbing on the obx

Ghost Crabbing Tips

Although you need a few simple supplies, ghost crabbing is generally a cost-free activity that the whole family will love! Ghost crabbing can be done on any of our beaches on any day of the week. All you need is a flashlight (headlamps also work great, especially with kids who may lose the flashlight). Although it's tempting to run around barefoot on the beach, you should also wear sandals so you don't accidentaly step on a crab and get a pinch on your toe. The final item you'll need is a camera for documenting your finds!

Try to go out to the beach on a clear night with lots of stars to give you extra light. This makes the crabs easier to spot and the kids will also love seeing all the stars out above the ocean. Just remind them to be very, very quiet. You don’t want to spook the ghost crabs! To find the most ghost crabs, try to pick a spot on the beach away from other people. It’s also a good idea to pick a beach without off-road vehicles. Lots of activity may keep the crabs in hiding.

Walk along between the tide lines and look for holes in the sand—the entrance to their burrows. Be patient and you may spot a crab crawling out! Simply shine the light beam across the sand and when you spot one, try to follow it’s track with the light and see where it goes. You can also try to see who can spot the most—kids will love the competition!

kids on the Outer Banks ready to go ghost crabbing

Ghost Crabbing Etiquette

When you find a ghost crab, you should never poke them, pick them up, or hurt them in any way. Ghost crabs can and will pinch if they feel threatened. If you want to get a closer look, have your camera ready as soon as your light hits them. Like a deer in the headlights, ghost crabs will freeze temporarily giving your kids plenty of time to look! Some ghost crabbers even choose to scoop them in a net and put them in a bucket for a closer look. Just remember that if you do catch any ghost crabs, you should release them within a couple minutes and let them be on their way. Happy crabbing!

Jessie has been coming to the Outer Banks since she was just 5 years old. She loved it here so much that she finally relocated in 2018. Now her mission is to show the world that the Outer Banks is an incredible place that everyone should experience. When she isn't working, you can find Jessie hanging out with her friends, chilling at home with her awesome cat, Yoji, or discovering a new Outer Banks adventure. 

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