Friday, April 10, 2015

A Charleston Barrier Island Tour Highly Worth A Trip To The Past

Eagerly anticipating the arrival of this day, I woke to the sounds of the whelk singing in my ears and for this sort of occasion, the wished for weather was perfectly arranged--not by my hand. With a quick breakfast and implementation of the necessary preparations, I exited my home with camera in-hand and entered my heavily dew-covered truck. The anxious drive to my anticipated destination was marred with the typical nerve racking hustle and bustle of the early morning rush hour commute. Where I was going, such things are unheard of.

With only two minutes to spare, I arrived at the Isle of Palms Marina where the 49 passenger Caretta patiently awaited my presence--by now fully loaded with its precious sightseeing cargo. The last to board, I took a seat on the pontoon boat next to a couple from Murrells Inlet, David and Sharon, whom I bonded with on the excursion.

The Captain throttled the engine and we slowly pulled away from the weatherworn docks into the salty tidal waters of Morgan Creek. The high water marks on the wooden piles perched by pelicans and egrets indicated it was low tide. After entering the nutrient rich Intracoastal Waterway lined with boat docks and island homes, we steadily crept along the no wake zone and our tour guide began his enlightening narration.

Our first stop was an area in the Copahee Sound known to locals as the Shark Hole--a ninety foot deep backwater fish bowl scoured out by the surging tidal currents spilling through Dewees Inlet from the Atlantic Ocean. The open stretch of water is an excellent feeding ground for sharks and an ideal location for bottlenose dolphin sightings. The Captain's dog named Moses, a proficient dolphin spotter, barked wildly when he located a surfacing dolphin to alert the eager passengers attempting to get that one picture-perfect shot.

It was also an appropriate time for our barefooted guide to dispel the first of the many myths people have about marine life, such as, sharks and dolphins do hang out in close proximity to one another when feeding and yes, it is safe to swim in the ocean. Jessen rattled off a long list of things more deadly to us than sharks, like sticking a fork into a toaster or simply stepping off your porch. Mostly, it is a matter of mistaken identity.

After cruising the sun soaked waters of the inlet and satisfied we had seen all the dolphin we were going to see, Courtney accelerated the Caretta to top cruising speed and we headed toward the estuaries of Capers Island and our second stop, Eco Tours crab trap. The waterway was skirted by thick stands of salt grass, oyster mounds, and the occasional fallen tree. It was an idyllic time to absorb the peaceful beauty of the unspoiled surroundings.

With a buoy marking the location of the submerged crab trap now in sight, the captain brought the Caretta to a stop. The guide grabbed a long hook and with the assistance of some of the younger passengers, pulled it onto the deck of the boat. From the trap, he chose three specimens, two blue crabs and one stone crab. He spoke extensively about their habits and place in the estuaries diverse ecosystem. Holding up the blue crab, he asked, "How can you tell which one is the male and which is the female?" With a blue crab in each hand, he continued, "The male is marked by Washington's Monument and the female is marked by the dome of the Capitol Building." He paused and then revealed the punch line. With a grin, he continued, "Men go around doing monumental things, but we all know the female is in charge." Much of Jessen's narration was accented with well placed levity.

It was now time to move on to our final destination. At this point, a course change was made. Instead of proceeding to the southern tip of Capers Island, we headed for the northern tip through the winding and narrow Santee Pass to Price Inlet. With Bulls Island across the way and an eagle perched high above on a pole keeping a watchful eye, the Caretta slid onto the quietly tranquil sands of Capers Island and one by one we disembarked for an hour and a half self-guided exploration of the island.

With each step, the soft, water-soaked sand oozed through my toes and over my feet. I could feel and smell the fresh, salty island air as it encompassed me. Adding to the feeling of remoteness, I navigated around scattered piles of reddish-brown seaweed beached by the ocean's relentless waves. Undisturbed and protected, highly prized trinkets of the beachcomber bleached by the southern sun were randomly strewn about, among them the South Carolina lettered olive. A few pieces of old driftwood laid partially buried near where the sand met the grassy dunes and increased in frequency as I continued up the front beach towards the foremost reason I came to Caper's Island. About a half mile down the beach, I could faintly see the relics of past island erosion rising out of the intruding surf, shimmering in the bright sunlight--the monarchs of Bone-yard Beach. As I stood among the weathered and fallen wooded wonders, I was filled with a sense of fascination and awe. Seeing is believing and a picture truly paints a thousand colorful words.

A trip to Capers Island is like stepping back in time to an era before the colonizing tall ships of the early settlers came to this land and called their new home South Carolina. Barrier Island Eco Tours provides a relaxing and comfortable way to experience it, if you don't mind a little salt spray on a breezy day. Our naturalist guide and Captain for the excursion, Jessen and Courtney, were superb hosts. Jessen knowledgeably shared a balanced mix of information and humor that made it interesting and fun for young and old alike, Courtney handled the pontoon boat skillfully, and Moses kept eager little ones preoccupied. At $42 a person and children 12 and under $32, I highly recommend this tour for the whole family. You will come away with a greater appreciation and understanding for Charleston's versatile and delicate barrier island estuaries--a living wonder.

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