The UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, which is based in Morehead City, recently acquired Phillips Island, a 17-acre private island in Carteret County.
The donation comes from UNC alumnus Llewellyn Phillips II, who said that the island, which had been in his family since 1932, would do better in the hands of the University and its Institute for Marine Sciences.
Phillips said he and his two siblings often played on the island as children, and it was important to him to find someone that would care about the island as much as he and his family do.
“I wanted to make sure that other people got to benefit and appreciate the island as much as I did, and that’s what started the search for something to do with it,” Phillips said.
As part of the donation agreement, the island will continue to be named Phillips Island.
The process of giving the land away took nearly two years to complete. When rumors began that Phillips was considering donating the island to UNC in 2020, a PhD student at the Rodriguez Coastal Geology Lab, Joshua Himmelstein, created a high-resolution map of the island.
“We did map the island in 2020, so I can see going back in 2025 and making another high-resolution drone map and then tracking the change in the area and elevation of the island and using that to predict where it’s been eroded from or where it’s gaining elevation, or perhaps how waves and sea levels have reshaped the island,” Himmelstein said.
This map will help the Institute track erosion on the island for years to come. While it seems that erosion happens quite slowly, when the Phillips family originally purchased the island in 1932, it was 22 acres, compared to its current 17.
The only man-made objects on the island now lie in a smokestack remnant of a 1953 factory fire.
Rick Luettich is the director of the Institute of Marine Sciences. Due to how recent the donation of the island is, he said the Institute is still planning how it will be used for research, classes, and other things. The island will, however, be public now that the University owns the land.
“I think the next step is to get out and do a little bit more of a complete survey of it to see just simply what’s there in terms of flora and fauna, and all of that,” Luettich said. “Our expectation is that it becomes a very useful field site for the kind of research we already do here.”
Phillips Island is experiencing erosion similar to much of the North Carolina coastline the Institute already studies. According to Luettich, doing this research will help the Institute better understand what the causes of this are, as well as looking at erosion at a more detailed level.
“Research into how effective different types of strategies [on how to protect the coastline] might be would be a really good topic, perhaps for work on Phillips Island, as well as a variety of other things,” Luettich said. “Still, it may be used for bird migrations and things and that would be interesting to know a bit about. And just simply some of the areas around the periphery of it are marshes and may be important for fisheries and other parts of our local ecosystem.”
Libby O’Malley, the development manager at the Institute for Marine Sciences, described herself as the “primary liaison” between the local campus and the main campus throughout the process of the University obtaining the island.
O’Malley found that, after the donation, everyone at the Institute was thrilled. Because the process of obtaining the island from the Phillps family took around two years, the faculty was all the more excited when the deal finally went through.
“The faculty was already dreaming up ways of how we were gonna take this asset and further the research that we do, and have the students that come down from Chapel Hill and stay with us, and how are we going to use this island to make their experiential learning experience that much more deep and engaging,” O’Malley said.
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