Kiptopeke and Chincoteague 2019

Last updated June 24, 2019



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Day One | Day Two | Day Three

The plan was to visit Chincoteague Island to spend time with my in-laws (Joyce, Jimmy) and their kids. But after seeing the Kiptopeke Breakwater photo in my Spring 2019 issue of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation "Save the Bay" magazine, I figured it was also worth a side trip to visit the Concrete Fleet and get some drone photos. Chincoteague is on the way to Kiptopeke, the latter being a 3 hours and 42 minute drive from Savage. It isn't too often we drive that far south on the eastern shore. So this was definitely a good opportunity to do some out-of-the-way exploring.

Day One, Saturday, June 15, 2019

Norma, Daphne, and I got an early start, making it to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge by 0700. We wanted to beat the traffic and we most certainly did. For a lot of kids, yesterday was their last day of school so we figured a lot of families would be heading towards the eastern shore today. The weather this weekend was also expected to be very nice which would compound traffic issues.

The drive down was uneventful.

We arrived at Kiptopeke State Park. The wind was about 15 mph and expected to pick up as the day went on so I wanted to fly my drone ASAP. Flying drones is not permitted in Virginia state parks so I went to the far north end of the park and flew it from a secluded area near the boundary. I also made sure never to actually fly over the breakwater which is part of park property. Instead, I stayed to the north of it. Flying it from SUP was not an option due to the wind. I need very calm water to do that.

I launched my drone from land and flew it out about 2000 feet to an area just north of the northernmost concrete ship. My drone supposedly has a range of 800 meters (2625 feet). I would have liked to have flown it out further to get the park in the background but the picture on the monitor was starting to break up. I didn't want to push it any further.

Looking south, I could see the four ships that comprise the northern section and the five that make up the southern part. See first photo. The ships of the Concrete Fleet, all named after pioneers in the science and development of concrete, are listed below from North to South:
  • S.S. Arthur Newell Talbot
  • S.S. Edwin Thatcher
  • S.S. Robert Whitman Lesley
  • S.S. Willis A. Slater
  • S.S. Leonard Chase Wason
  • S.S. Ricard Kidder Meade
  • S.S. John Grant
  • S.S. William Foster Cowham
  • S.S. Willard A. Pollard
  • - from Atlas Obscura - Kiptopeke's Concrete Fleet

    The tiny thing just to the left of the first concrete ship is a kayak (second photo). So just how big are these ships?
    The C1-S-D1 class of ships were 366 feet long, had a beam of 54 feet, and produced 1,300 horsepower via a steam engine with one screw. Their top speed of seven knots was dismal, and not fast enough to outrun a submarine.
    - from ESVA Tourism - Kiptopeke Concrete Ships

    Here's a closer view of the northernmost ship (S.S. Arthur Newell Talbot) and the curious kayaker, third photo.

    These concrete ships work great as breakwaters (fourth photo). But have such boats served other purposes? Yes.
    One entrepreneurially minded ferry director started a private drinks-and-poker club aboard one of the half-sunken ships, all of which arrived from the war effort completely furnished and ready to accommodate 48 crew members. Not surprisingly, the ships became a popular attraction for mischievous teenagers as well.
    There was talk once of putting historic markers up on one or more of the ships and arranging for some sort of officially allowed public access, but nothing ever came of it. But it's still fun to admire the ghost ships nowadays, whether just eyeing them from the shore or by paddling or motoring out for a closer look.
    - from Secrets of the Eastern Shore - The Ghost Ships of Kiptopeke

    Here's a zoomed in shot of the previous picture (fifth photo).

    On the return flight, I got a view looking at some more conventional stone breakwaters just north of Kiptopeke State Park, sixth photo.

    I packed up my drone and then caught up with Norma and Daphne.
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.

    Almost anyone that has paddled with me knows that I love visiting ship graveyards. One place that has been on my bucket list for a few years is Kiptopeke Breakwater. Today, I finally had my chance to kayak in and amongst this Concrete Fleet.
    The Concrete Fleet, also known as the Kiptopeke Breakwater, consists of several concrete ships lined end to end just west of the former Chesapeake Bay ferry terminal. The crumbling hulks consist of 9 of the 24 concrete ships contracted by the U.S. Maritime Commission during World War II. In 1948 the ships were brought to Kiptopeke Beach in order to bring protection to the Chesapeake Bay ferry terminal during severe weather. Once arranged, their bilge-cocks were opened to bring on water and they were left to settle on the bottom of the Bay.
    The ferry was closed in 1964 when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel opened but the breakwater still protects the pier and beach while providing a home for coastal fish, shellfish, and birds.

    - from Atlas Obscura - Kiptopeke's Concrete Fleet

    These concrete hulks are McCloskey ships (first photo) .
    Just as steel had become scarce during the First World War, the Second World War was again consuming the country's steel resources. In 1942, the United States Maritime Commission contracted McCloskey and Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to build a new fleet of 24 concrete ships. Three decades of improvements in concrete technology made this new fleet lighter and stronger than its WWI predecessors.
    - from Concrete Ships - The McCloskey Ships of The Second World War

    These ships are divided into two sections: four in the north and five in the south. The main ship in this picture (not the little white one) is the northernmost one. See second photo.

    Over the years, these ships have sustained significant damage (third and fourth photos).
    The surges of many a storm have cracked the decks, and have even exposed rebar rods in some of the ships. Moss grows on the bulkheads of the ships, and a plethora of barnacles and oysters are attached to the hulls, making them an ideal habitat for marine life of all sizes.
    - from ESVA Tourism - Kiptopeke Concrete Ships

    These ships were made of concrete (fifth photo) because of the steel shortage resulting from World War II. But concrete?! Seriously?
    Yes, concrete floats just as surely as steel does. Measuring 120 yards in length and weighing some 5000 tons, those ships made lots of commodity runs to the islands in the Caribbean for produce, sugar, and other essentials.
    - from Secrets of the Eastern Shore - The Ghost Ships of Kiptopeke

    Receiving very little credit, concrete ships (sixth photo) helped us win World War II.
    The Allies sank a couple of these ships off Normandy to try and create a breakwater that might protect the guys landing on D-Day. Out in the Pacific, concrete ships were used as giant floating storage containers, supplying the Pacific fleet directly from the water.
    - from Secrets of the Eastern Shore - The Ghost Ships of Kiptopeke

    Once the war ended, the ships (seventh photo) became obsolete overnight. The U.S. government parked them in various military bases around the country and basically put them in mothballs.
    - from Secrets of the Eastern Shore - The Ghost Ships of Kiptopeke

    Here's a view looking north at the south-facing side of the four northernmost ships, eighth photo.

    If the ships look more weather beaten in this picture (ninth photo), it is because this is the side that faces open water. All the other photos are of the side that faces land. In the distance, a flock of brown pelicans fly away.

    The main ship in this shot (tenth photo) is the northernmost one of the five that comprise the southern section.

    This is the southernmost ship, eleventh photo. On the starboard side of the bow are the characters "H20". It is the S.S. Willard A. Pollard.

    Because of exposed rebar, loose concrete, underwater obstructions, and a variety of other dangers (twelfth photo), there are signs posted to stay at least 50 feet away. Many people did not heed this warning and it was not enforced.

    These ships serve well as a breakwater. On the east side (the side facing land), the water was fairly calm, thirteenth photo. But on the west side, the 15 mph wind and boat wakes were kicking up two and a half foot waves. Daphne would not have been happy. She wisely stayed ashore with Norma...though I suppose that was more due to our wisdom than her's.

    I've seen other concrete ships but these are the largest and most interesting ones I have seen so far, fourteenth photo.

    I saw four or five dolphin while kayaking at the southern end. I was not fast enough to snap a picture of them. After I got home, I searched through all my kayak photos that day, hoping to have gotten a picture of one of them inadvertently. I was not so lucky.

    There is kayak rental available at the park. One certainly doesn't have to paddle far to get up close to these relics. But whether or not a beginner should do so all depends on the weather. Unless the water is calm, I don't recommend that anyone without a lot of experience venture out to the bay side of the ships. The conditions there can get rough pretty fast. Betweeen the two sets of ships can also get difficult because that is where the channel lies so there is a lot of power boat traffic. Be careful!
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.

    While viewing the Kiptopeke Breakwater, I also came across dozens of brown pelicans. I have seen a small few (maybe three) at or north of my latitude but generally I find them much further south of Savage.

    This flock was not the least bit shy and didn't mind me kayaking close to take their picture. I found them unusually easy to photograph such as this big fella (first photo).
    Brown pelicans grow to about 50 inches in length with a wingspan of 6 feet and weigh eight to ten pounds. Adults are mostly dark all over their body, with chesnut and white coloring on their neck and a pale yellow forehead.
    - from Chesapeake Bay Program - Brown Pelican

    I love snapping pictures of pelicans with their mouths open, second photo. These are juveniles.
    Their large, grayish bill is 9 to 15 inches in length, and there is an elastic throat pouch underneath the bill. Their legs and feet are grayish-black. Juveniles have a brown head and back with whitish underparks.
    - from Chesapeake Bay Program - Brown Pelican

    Immature pelicans...will gradually acquire their adult plumage over a period of about three years.
    - from National Zoo - Brown Pelican

    Seeing all these fine birds makes it hard to think they were at one time endangered, third photo.
    The current abundance of this species in the United States represents a success story for conservationists, who succeeded in halting the use of DDT and other persistent pesticides here; as recently as the early 1970s, the Brown Pelican was seriously endangered.
    - from Audubon - Brown Pelican

    Here's a brown pelican in flight with the Kiptopeke Breakwater concrete ships in the background, fourth photo.

    A juvenile airing out its armpits, fifth photo.

    Brown pelicans use their pouch, swimming ability, and extremely keen eyesight to catch fish. Flying over the ocean [or flying over the bay, sixth photo], they can spot a school of small fish from heights of 60 to 100 feet (30 m). After spotting the fish, the pelican folds back its wings and dives deep into the water, submerging completely or partially before emerging with a mouthful of fish.
    - from National Zoo - Brown Pelican

    Brown pelicans feed on mid-sized fish and some invertebrates. They require up to 4 pounds of food per day. Brown pelicans typically live 25 to 30 years.
    - from National Zoo - Brown Pelican

    Though I haven't seen a lot of these birds, they are quickly becoming one of my favorites, seventh photo.
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.

    After kayaking out to see the concrete ships, Norma, Daphne, and I did a short circuit hike in Kiptopeke State Park. We walked on the Baywoods Trail then out to the Chesapeake Bay via the Wood Warbler Boardwalk. Here, the Bay is about 16 miles wide so it feels more like being at the ocean. After exploring the beach, we walked on the Peregrine Boardwalk back to the Baywoods Trail and then to the Butterfly Garden.

    Here's Norma and Daphne on the Wood Warbler Boardwalk (first photo). Norma is wearing my Vietnam tiger stripe jungle hat. This is my favorite military camouflage pattern. It looks better on her than me. Looking down from the boardwalk, we spotted a fawn hiding in the grasses, second photo. This boardwalk took us to the beach.

    There are two beaches at the park. The north side is the more popular one but is off limit to dogs. The south side is less crowded, dog friendly, and has interesting shells and other natural things to see. I definitely prefer the south side.
    The site was purchased by the Virginia Ferry Corporation for the northern terminus of the Norfolk to Eastern Shore Ferry. In 1949, when the terminus was moved from Cape Charles, the site was named Kiptopeke Beach in honor of the younger brother of a king of the Accawmack Indians who had befriended early settlers to the area. Kiptopeke means Big Water.
    - from Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation - Kiptopeke State Park

    On the beach, I found the dead remains of what I believe to be a striped burrfish. If you step on one of these, you will definitely have a bad day. It is as sharp as it looks, third photo.

    Also on the beach, I encountered this red drum fish, fourth photo. Michael B. identified it. Here are the teeth of the red drum, fifth photo. It felt a little like a rough file. Shown here (sixth photo), the red drum has teeth-like crusher plates in its throat. According to Mike B., this anatomy allows the red drum to swallow prey whole, then crush it in its throat. Sounds like something the creature in the Alien movies might do.
    The drums or croakers typically feed on invertebrates and small fishes on the seabed. The red drum (Scianops ocellatus)...possesses large, pointed pharyngeal teeth for shredding shrimp, fish, and other soft-bodied prey.
    - from Science Direct - Pharyngeal Teeth

    Back on the Baywoods Trail, we spotted this writing spider, seventh photo.

    At the parking lot near the trailhead, there is a big sign that reads "Tourinns Motor Court." This sign is obviously from years past back when this area was something like a privately owned trailer park.

    After visiting Kiptopeke, Norma and I drove an hour and 24 minutes to Chincoteague to meet up with her sister and her sister's family. It would have been nice to explore the Kiptopeke area longer but that was just a side trip. Chincoteague was the meat and potatoes.
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.

    Day Two, Sunday, June 16, 2019

    If you like remote wilderness camping, Chincoteague is not the place for you...Assateague is better. But for Norma, Daphne, and I, our goal was to spend time with Norma's sister and her family. They drove their travel trailer out to the island and set it up at the Kampgrounds of America (KOA). This place is more of a resort than a campground. It has a huge water park (where we spent much of the day), jump pillow playground, and deluxe cabins/bungalows for rent. Not my kind of place but the kids really liked it.

    Still, I managed to find plenty of wildlife. The kids found it too. They enjoyed catching frogs, of which there was no shortage. Maybe they will look back on this trip someday and view it as a "gateway adventure" that got them passionate about the outdoors.

    There is a kayak launch site at the campground which we never launched from. At low tide (not when this shot was taken), there isn't much water. The tidal fluctuation is about two feet. This is the view to the west (right) which will take you to deeper water, first photo. This is the view to the east (left). In the distance on the right is the Assateague Lighthouse, second photo.

    There were hundreds of fiddler crabs at the campground near the kayak launch site. Best to see them from the pier at low tide, third photo. The ones in the previous picture are right handed. This fellow here (fourth photo) is a southpaw.

    I saw this diamondback terrapin racing through the campground, fifth photo. I was surprised at how fast they move. Someone said it laid eggs not long ago. Maybe it is faster now because it isn't carrying as much weight. Someone said this fellow (sixth photo) got into their tent. Sue M. said it too is a diamondback terrapin.

    I tried to take a nap during the day but a car alarm kept going off. It went off about eight times.

    Daphne and I did a little exploring on our own. We stopped in at the Donald J. Leonard Park and found this muddy kayak launch site (seventh photo).

    Then we visited the Captain Timothy Hill house, built circa 1800.

    Lastly, the two of us walked on the paved loop of the Island Nature Trail. The part southwest of Hallie Whealton Smith Drive is dog friendly, well maintained, and very wooded. The section of the trail on the other side of this road is not dog friendly. The whole Chincoteague experience is leaving a bad taste in my mouth because there are so many places on or near the island that are not open to dogs.

    It was sunny, but not too hot, dry, and windy. This would be one of our last nice spring days before the hot humid weather set in. While the wind kept me off the water, it also kept the mosquitos down. My new Thermacell MR300 also helped. Not sure yet how much I like it. It doesn't have a scent so I'm not reminder that it is working.

    We went out for ice cream that night at Mister Whippy. I thought the place was overrated but the kids seemed to enjoy it and that's what matters. Maybe next time we'll try Island Creamery which is very close to it.
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.

    Day Three, Monday, June 17, 2019

    On the early morning of our final day, Norma, Daphne, and I packed up the tent, and then went kayaking. We launched from Curtis Merritt Harbor at the southwest end of the island. We paddled out to the north side of Toms Cove hoping to find dolphin. We did not. For a moment, we thought there were two small dolphin. But it turned out to be a ray flapping its wing tips out of the water. Fortunately, I saw a few dolphin while kayaking two days prior at Kiptopeke. It would have been nice to have stayed out longer but I had to get to work for a meeting in the afternoon.

    Most people think of ponies rather than dolphin when they think of Chincoteague.
    Chincoteague Island gained national fame in 1961 when Twentieth Century Fox premiered the movie Misty of Chincoteague. The movie was based on author Marguerite Henry's award-winning children's book Misty of Chincoteague, which she wrote in 1947 while staying at Miss Molly's Inn on Chincoteague Island. The book and movie helped to forever transform Chincoteague Island from a tiny fishing village into a world-class tourist destination.
    - from Chincoteague

    Near the launch site, I found a hole surrounded by what I believe to be the remnants of turtle egg shells (first photo). Despite all the development on this island, there is still a significant amount of wildlife.

    Unlike the last two days, the wind was low so the water was fairly calm and the bugs were out.

    At one of the islands across from Curtis Merritt Harbor, we saw about five oystercatchers. See second and third photos.
    The American oystercatcher eats oysters and other mollusks, as well as fiddler crabs. It probes through sand and mud to find its prey, thrusting its powerful, blade-like bill between a mollusk's open shells and stabbing the mollusk's adductor muscle, then feeding on the meat. It will also use its bill to hammer a mollusk's shell until it cracks.
    - from Chesapeake Bay Program - American Oystercatcher

    We landed briefly at Assateague Island, fourth photo. Daphne was not welcome here. Still, she went ashore but very briefly.
    Pets are prohibited in the entire Virginia portion of Assateague Island, even in your car.
    - from National Park Service - Assateague Island

    We saw this snowy egret on the marshy portion of Chincoteague Island, just south of Curtis Merritt Harbor. Notice its yellow feet in the fifth photo. Getting the feet in the picture is what I call the "money shot."

    The elevated house on the right in the sixth photo is our landmark for getting back to our launch site.

    I've only seen two egret rookeries in my life. There is no shortage of this beautiful bird, seventh photo. Their white color makes it hard for them to hide. I wonder there they have nests on Chincoteague.
    They [snowy egrets] breed once a year and females lay three to five greenish-blue eggs that hatch in 21 to 28 days. Their platform-like nests are built primarily of twigs and are located in low tree canopies or along the ground.
    - from Department of Natural Resources - Maryland Birds - Snowy Egret

    We took one final break before ending our trip. Here's Daphne running through the bay grasses at Chincoteague while wearing her personal flotation device (PFD). See eighth photo.

    After loading up the boat, we started our long drive home.
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.

    The drive home took a little longer than expected. Norma and I took turns driving although she drove more than me since I still had to go to work. I figured leaving Monday morning would be a good way to beat the traffic returning from Ocean City but apparently, quite a few other people were thinking the same thing as us. I was surprised that there were more eastbound lanes than westbound lanes on the Bay Bridge. It should have been the other way around.