South Carolina’s barrier islands are home to beautiful beaches and vital marshland, offering refuge to a remarkably diverse set of waterfowl, turtles and fish. On a family road trip, writer and photographer Joel Caldwell explores the area’s unique ecosystem and the conservation efforts that are helping it survive and thrive.
My wife, Hailey, and I drive south from Charleston on a breezy day. We’re recent transplants to the Carolina Lowcountry, and have set out to explore the barrier island ecosystem that surrounds our new home. To our left, a salt marsh—waterfront land that bears the brunt of the lapping tide—glimmers in the morning sun, a kaleidoscope of green cordgrass and shimmering mudflats reflecting the brilliant blue of the sky above. White yarrow and purple coneflower line the two-lane highway. Our seven-month-old daughter, Land, chatters happily from the back seat.
Our first stop is Edisto, one of South Carolina’s many barrier islands. As we come in off the low bridge, the maritime forest seems to close in around us. Sun filters through a canopy of flowering magnolia, sweet gum and loblolly pine. Turning onto Botany Bay Road, the asphalt peters out into smooth sand. It feels remote, timeless and magical.
A half-mile walk along a shell-packed trail takes us through the marsh and onto Botany Bay’s “boneyard beach.” The sun-bleached skeletons of hulking oak trees, stripped of bark and foliage, stand sentry at the waterline, an indicator that this island is losing its endless battle with the sea, eroding and receding landward. It’s otherworldly, like something out of Robinson Crusoe.
These barrier islands are popular vacation destinations, but their greater purpose is built into their name: The chain of low-lying islands serve as barriers between the Atlantic Ocean and the mainland—a crucial first line of defense from potentially damaging storm surge. The salt marsh that thrives on their landward side also serves as an important habitat for millions of migrating birds.
Yet this is a fragile ecosystem, one threatened by rising sea levels as well as increased human population and development. On this trip, Hailey and I hope to gain a better understanding of what it means to live in the Lowcountry in the twenty-first century, and how we can be stewards of these beautiful natural systems.
Leaving the beach we drive twenty minutes down the road to explore the town of Edisto, where pastel cottages on stilts line the sandy beach. We park at the southern end of the island and walk through the dunes to the water. There, we eat tomato sandwiches and lounge in the sunshine before piling back into our Crosstrek, feet sandy, shoulders pink.
I take a turn in the back of the Crosstrek with Land while Hailey drives. Land is asleep within moments. At over six feet tall, I’m always surprised at how comfortably I fit in the back of this car. Behind me, within reach, our cooler is well-stocked with snacks and drinks. I love the feeling of self-sufficiency that comes with prepared and efficient travel.
We continue another two hours south to Savannah, listening to old country music with the windows open, arriving at The Perry Lane Hotel around happy hour. We are whisked through the lobby—masks on—and into our room where, to our delight, Champagne awaits. Before dinner, we walk the city’s historic squares, the humid air fragrant with the scent of jasmine.
The following morning while Hailey and Land sleep, I drive across Beaufort County’s historic swing bridge to reach St. Helena Island in the pre-dawn. Photographer and naturalist Eric Horan meets me at Russ Point Boat Landing on the Fripp Inlet just as pink begins to streak through the sky. Through his business, Lowcountry Photo Safaris, Horan gives three-hour boat tours to small groups—five guests or fewer—only during dawn or dusk, what he calls “the best light of the day.”
It’s high tide as we head out on the calm water in his 21’ Carolina Skiff. Horan, friendly and soft-spoken, is an encyclopedia of knowledge, and I take full advantage of this opportunity to talk ecology.
The barrier islands’ salt marsh is a unique potpourri for the senses. First, there is the distinct odor. It’s a substance known as pluff mud—a viscous, dark brown miasma of decomposing grasses—that produces the “oh so pleasant rotten egg smell,” as described to me by one Georgia native. The auditory experience is no less curious. From the kekk-ing calls of unseen clapper rails, known colloquially as marsh hens, to the distant popping of snapping shrimp claws, it’s almost as if this fickle marine environment is teasing to the abundance of life all around.
The salt marsh is one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, supporting an astonishing multitude of vegetation per acre, and requiring a rare confluence of forces to exist. Freshwater, carrying sediment from distant mountains, empties into the coastal plain, where it is immediately met by opposing tidal forces pushing saltwater shoreward. The low elevation allows the existence of vast estuaries, home to a rich diversity of wildlife, from phytoplankton to diamondback terrapins, the only turtle that lives in the salt marsh, having developed glands to process the salt.
The magic ingredient: sporobolus alterniflorus, a perennial deciduous grass that’s “a huge source of nutrients to an abundant diversity of species,” Horan says, as we drift past a shell rake hosting five willets and a ruddy turnstone. What’s more, these islands are situated along the Atlantic Flyway, a major migratory route for birds traveling from as far off as Greenland and South America. Beaufort County has the largest population of American oystercatchers on the eastern seaboard. We watch these beautiful wading birds—black heads, long legs, and brilliant orange beaks—walking across oyster beds, hunting for partially opened bivalves.
On our way back to the dock Horan abruptly cuts the motor. I sit still, confused, as we drift silently. Then I see them. A pod of dolphins, surrounding us on all sides. A mother and her calf surface a mere ten yards from the boat, rolling up out of the water, eyeing us calmly, before submerging again. Magic.
“When I first came to this part of the world in 1980, you wouldn’t be in a boat for more than an hour without seeing dolphins,” Horan says. “But I’ve seen big reductions in numbers. Birds too.” He restarts the engine. “It’s the human element. Development. We’re just not good for the natural world.”
When I arrive back at the hotel, Hailey and Land are up and dressed. Our next stop is St. Marys, Georgia, where we’ll catch the Cumberland Queen ferry to Cumberland Island, Georgia’s largest sea island, known for its beach and roaming wild horses.
As we drive, I find myself preoccupied with Horan’s words. We’re just not good for the natural world. How do we shift our paradigm? How do we begin to place the health of the environment over short term gain?
For us residents, much of the work of preserving the salt marsh ecosystem starts, quite literally, in our backyard. The land is named Lowcountry for a reason: Everything that happens upstream eventually drains here. The decisions that we make at home matter. If we use fertilizer to grow a garden, for example, the nitrogen in the runoff can seed algae blooms, which can be detrimental to fish and wildlife.
But conservation is not just about what we shouldn’t do; it’s about taking action. We can grow native plants in our yard to create an oasis for pollinators and birds (see TK STORY, page TK for more on planting a pollinator garden). And we can donate time and/or money to local conservation groups, like Lowcountry Land Trust, a nonprofit organization whose staff and volunteers come together for trash clean-ups, or to build oyster reefs to prevent coastal erosion. LLT staff also work to acquire land for the purpose of limiting commercial development and preserving open space, habitats and waterways.
Visitors can do their part, too. Respect seasonal closures for nesting birds and turtles; increased human presence disrupts sensitive wildlife. Look into the restaurants where you plan to spend your money, to make sure they are investing in sustainably sourced foods, particularly from local fisheries. If you’re cooking at a rental condo or Air BnB, shop at markets that source sustainably.
The Ace Basin Project, which has been active in South Carolina since 1988, can be a model for the world. The project’s task force brings private conservation groups together with government organizations, including the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, to collaborate on protecting natural areas along the barrier islands. Since launching, the project has saved more than 160,000 acres of wildlife habitat from being overtaken by shops or condos—showing just how much can be accomplished when everyone works together.
The last morning of our trip, we head southwest into the interior of northern Florida. Ichetucknee Springs is a network of crystal-clear springs that bubble up from the Floridan aquifer through porous limestone, reminding me of the famous cenotes in Mexico. It is a mecca for divers, known around the world for its vast and complex underwater cave system.
We arrive midday and find that we have the place entirely to ourselves. We take turns swimming in the blue-green water until a raucous group of teenage boys arrive. After drying off, we walk a short nature trail through towering longleaf pine, the spring-fed river to our right.
Leaving the springs we head to Gainesville, bellies rumbling by the time we pull into Satchel’s Pizza. Satchell’s is part restaurant, part art installation, and, usually, patrons have the option of eating in a funky van, under a vintage plane, or in a greenhouse. Today we dine al fresco, tables spaced ten feet apart, while a country musician plays a steel guitar. It’s a wonderful combination.
Tomorrow, we will turn north and head home. Hailey and I have only scratched the surface of the Southeast’s natural wonders, but we’ve gained an appreciation for the land here, and the delicate balance that we need to strike as residents and stewards. It feels good to explore such a beautiful place with the intention of learning how we can better partner with nature, doing our part to help this ecosystem continue to exist, unspoiled, in perpetuity.