New and accurate map of NC

Did you Know North Carolina's Outer Banks are known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic?

Conservator Elise shares just why the Outer Banks are called the Graveyard of the Atlantic

Author: Elise Carroll, Conservator

Steamship Metropolis
Steamship Metropolis

The coast of North Carolina is a notoriously treacherous stretch of the Atlantic Ocean and host to an estimated 5,000 shipwrecks along the 300-mile shoreline. Both environmental and manmade factors have contributed to the dense number of wrecks, resulting in the area being called “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Direct access to the mainland is not possible along much of North Carolina, because it is lined by barrier islands. These are thin islands that run parallel to the mainland, built up of sediment deposited by winds and waves. Barrier islands are heavily affected by natural forces such as winds, currents, and storms, causing the islands to grow, shrink, scour, or move on a regular basis and making navigation problematic.

Off the Outer Banks, the northern barrier islands, the cold water of the northern current, called the Labrador Current, and the warm water of the Gulf Stream meet at Cape Hatteras. At this intersection of water, the Gulf Stream continues east towards Europe and causes a clash in water temperature. This meeting of two major currents and temperatures allows for plentiful fishing and surf, but at a cost: unpredictable weather patterns. The coast’s three capes, Hatteras, Lookout, and Fear, each have hazardous shoals associated with them. The shipwreck site Queen Anne’s Revenge is located near an inlet by Cape Lookout. Between the two major currents, the coast jutting out toward the east, and the frequency of large storms such as hurricanes and northeasters, the Graveyard of the Atlantic is subject to intense and frequent changes from Mother Nature.

National Steamship Oriental
National Steamship Oriental

North Carolina lies along many important trade routes in the Atlantic, dating from the Age of Exploration to modern-day shipping. During the height of sailing and trade, mariners used the Gulf Stream to their advantage for returning north toward Europe, completing the final leg of the triangular trade. Sailors capitalized on the Labrador Currents to sail south and then avoid the Gulf Stream to continue to the Caribbean. Since Cape Hatteras is the location at which these two currents meet, this means that the North Carolina coast was a heavily trafficked area for trade. With a comparatively large number of vessels traveling along this stretch of coast, it is only natural that more shipwrecks would occur, but that is not the only reason.

The coastline of North Carolina has a long maritime history. From European exploration through World War II, the coast has witnessed trade, piracy, blockade runners, military engagements, and U-boat attacks. Humans have also attempted to aid in navigation, by adding lighthouses along the coast, warning ships of the dangerous waters they are entering. Even today, with modern technology, it is known that the coast of North Carolina remains an area where sailors must be cautious. With human influences, rich maritime history, and the natural geography of the coast, it is unsurprising that there are so many shipwrecks along the North Carolina coast.


-Boling, Candice. 2016. “When These Two Meet…the Graveyard of the Atlantic,” Accessed June 20, 2022: 

-Lawrence, Richard. 2008. An Overview of North Carolina Shipwrecks with an Emphasis on Eighteenth-Century Vessel Losses at Beaufort Inlet. QAR Research Report and Bulletin Series QAR-R-08-01. Manuscript on file, Queen Anne's Revenge Conservation Lab.

-North Carolina Office of State Archaeology. 2022. “About the Underwater Archaeology Branch,” Accessed. June 20, 2022: 

-Stick, David. 2006. “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” Accessed June 20, 2022:


-A new and accurate map of North Carolina in North America. 1779. London: Publisher not identified. Accessed June 29, 2022: 

-North Carolina. The steamship "Metropolis," wrecked in a gale off Currituck Beach, on the night of January 31st, with the loss of one hundred railroad operatives, on their way to Brazil. 1878. Accessed June 29, 2022: 

-The National steamer Oriental, on shore on the sandpit near Nag's Head, N.C. 1862. Accessed June 29, 2022:

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