The Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge extends 22 miles along the Atlantic Coast consisting of over 35,000 acres of beach and sand dunes, salt marsh, maritime forests, tidal creeks, fresh and brackish water impoundments, and 31,000 acres of open water. Zealously protected, it is home of the cleanest and nutrient rich waters in the world. Bulls Island is the southern boundary and consists of 5000 acres--to put that in perspective, a little larger than Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms combined. These were all pertinent facts our barefooted biologist/guide shared with us as the captain steered the ferry away from the dock and guided it through the winding estuary waters towards Bulls Bay.
We cruised past a couple of perched brown pelicans and a few great egrets foraging for food along the edge of the marsh grass. In the estuary, you are either a producer or a consumer, and birds are consumers. Other birds were flying about in the near distance. Nick pulled out a pair of binoculars to get a closer look. After identifying a few of the 293 species in the Refuge, he turned his attention back to his narrative.
He picked up a cluster of oyster shells from off a table in the middle of the ferry. "Notice the larger shell surrounded by smaller ones," he says pointing, "The biggest oyster in a cluster is the female, the smaller ones are males." He continues, "In the estuary, its hard work being the female, producing an ample cluster." To the oysterman who work the Bulls Island estuary, the larger female is what they prize, hacking it from the cluster with a hammer. Now, came the provocative piece of information. "To replace the lost female, one of the males changes its sex to female." He added, "If need be, the female can likewise change its sex to male." Oysters from the Bulls Island estuary are the best in the world.
Next, he pulled a skull from the collection of bones and shells. "Who can tell me what creature this belongs to?" One of the passengers calls out, "It’s a sea turtle." "Yes, but what kind of sea turtle?" He informs us, "It is a loggerhead sea turtle, the largest turtle in the world." Only 1 in 1000 loggerheads survive to adulthood. On Bulls Island, there are about a hundred protected nests--each marked with a PVC pipe sticking out of the sand to warn the beachgoers and shell collectors. Each nest produces about a hundred eggs. So, the dilemma is obvious and protecting the nests is imperative." With its powerful jaws, it can crush the shells of blue crabs, stone crabs, whelks and other shelled creatures crawling around in the estuary's waters, but interestingly its favorite food is jellyfish.
As we neared the north end of Bulls Island and our drop location, Nick discussed the importance pluff mud plays in the ecosystem of the estuary and shared a local story about a rusted out piece of abandoned machinery along the shoreline of Bulls Island. Then, he drew our attention to the island's trees and a steel tower located at its midpoint. He asked, "What happened in 1989?" Several passengers responded, "Hurricane Hugo." Continuing, he said, "Subjected to the full fury of the storm, the trees on Bulls Island were totally wiped out. Notice the height of the trees in comparison to the tower. Before Hurricane Hugo, you would not have been able to see the tower."
The drop location was in sight and Captain Richard slowed the Caretta and eased it up onto the shoreline. A walking plank was extended from the bow and one by one we disembarked the ferry and stepped onto the gently upward sloping beach. Just below the surface of the water, blue crab scurried along the edge of the shoreline. For the next three hours, we were free to explore, collect shells, swim or simply plant a beach chair on the soft sand and sit back to soak in the wonder of it all. From our drop location, on the Bulls Bay side of the island, it was about a two mile walk to the famed Boneyard Beach--my destination.
Still water-soaked from high tide and cool to the touch, the islands soft, virgin sands gave way to my feet as I walked, leaving an imprint of my steps behind. Large groups of pelicans basking in the warm morning sun socialized along the water’s edge. As I rounded the northern tip and trekked southward towards the Boneyard, the beach grew larger with every passing minute. The tide was on the wane and the surf was retreating back into the Atlantic Ocean, exposing more beach. Beyond the low grassy dunes to my right, I could see some of the backwater impoundments. Trapped tidal waters spilled onto the beach cutting a path of swiftly moving water to the ocean. Just beyond, rising out the sand, bleached white from the sun and rubbed smooth by the wind and surf, stood the first grouping of the hauntingly weathered trees of Boneyard Beach.
Uninhabited and secluded, Bulls Island is a place where civilization only makes periodic and scheduled visits. It is a natural maritime wonder teaming with wildlife and covered with pristine beauty. The Bulls Island Beach Drop offered by Coastal Expeditions is 5 hours of "wow" well worth the $40. Our biologist and guide for the excursion was friendly, knowledgeable, and willing to answer any and all questions. His narrative to and from Bulls Island was informative, entertaining, and ingeniously laced with a balanced blend of wit and humor. The three plus hours spent on the island soaking in the unmatched beauty was thoroughly enlightening and deeply soul soothing.
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