Life on Tangier Island

Island Life

Native islanders proudly follow generations of tradition. Most men fish, crab, oyster or pilot boats; women generally run the shops and deal with the tourists.

You’ll notice a unique accent on the island. It’s less noticeable among the women who adjust for the tourists. The men are not around tourists as much and their accent can be barely understandable to mainlanders.

Colonists from Cornwall, England, settled on the island in 1686 and the way of speaking has been handed down for generations.


Soft-Shell Crab Capitol of the World

Tangier Island is know for its soft shelled crabs which are shipped around the world.

Smith Island soft-shelled crabs
Cooked soft-shell crabs

It’s actually Chesapeake Bay blue crabs just after they molt their shells. On the island, the entire crab is deep-fried and eaten in a sandwich or part of a platter.

Often when you eat soft-shelled crabs away from the bay, the crabs have had time to start to grow back their shell and they’re a bit crunchy. But on the island, when crabs are in season,  they’re plucked out of the water at just the right time.

Tangier Island crab holding tanks
Pens where watermen keep Chesapeake Bay blue craps. There, the wait begins for the crabs to grow too large for their hard shell. When they shed it, the watermen scoop up the now soft-shell crab, pack ‘em in boxes and ship them off around the world. The crabs have to move out quickly before the shells harden again.

Watermen get up at 3am, meet for smokes and coffee, check the previous day’s catch for any molting and head out for more.

Tangier Harbor is dotted with crab shanties (detached garages or sheds on stilts over the water). Outside they may look like they’re about fall into the water, but they have electricity and the insides are the waterman’s version of a man cave with TVs, lounge chairs & refrigerators.

Tangier Island watermen shacks
Tangier Island watermen shacks. Watermen work year-round, digging for oysters in the winter, crabs in the summer & fishing for rockfish and other regional aquiline in between.

The town revolves around watermen’ schedules and the ferries. The shops open when the first ferry arrives and close when the last ferry leaves. Don’t expect to find a restaurant open much after 8pm.

Boats laying on their side in the Tangier Island tidal marsh
Runabout boats in the tidal marsh on Tangier Island

Tangier Island is a unique experience that is disappearing at the rate of about nine-acres a year, depending on the number of storms any given year. Slowly disappearing islands are a natural occurrence in Chesapeake Bay. Islanders know it may be a matter of a couple generations before what they have now is gone.

Tangier Island's main ridge
The main ridge of Tangier Island, where the shops & restaurants are located.

But they constantly work to maintain their island and way of life as long as they can. As one islander said proudly, “We accept everybody, but if you try to change us, well,” after a pause, “that might be a problem.”

Tangier Island Overview

What’s There to See?

Tangier Island Shops & Restaurants

Getting to Tangier Island

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