Edisto Island: South Carolina’s Hidden Sanctuary

I recently traveled to Edisto Island, South Carolina, for a short vacation this summer, where I found a hidden sanctuary not just for vacationers, but also for animals. Edisto Island’s pristine beaches and pleasant climate are very different from what I am used to in Colorado. Last week I traded thin air, hailstorms, and mountain vistas for thick humidity, gentle rain showers, and endless ocean views.

A map of South Carolina, indicating Edisto Island. (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

A map of South Carolina, indicating Edisto Island. (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

Edisto is one of South Carolina’s larger barrier islands. Bordered by the North and South Edisto Rivers and the Atlantic Ocean, it was once populated by the Edistow Indians who lived there as long ago as 4,000 years. Shell mounds, used for burial sites, ceremonial sites, or refuse heaps, can still be found all along the coastline as evidence of their life on the island. Later, Spaniards came in search of gold. Not finding any, they abandoned the area, which later became owned by a British nobleman who bought the island from the natives for the low, low price of a few trinkets.

Plantations sprang up on the island, first growing rice (which failed due to the salinity of the water), then indigo, and finally cotton. Sea Island Cotton became known as the industry’s new high standard, eclipsing Egyptian cotton in quality. Thus began the most prosperous time in Edisto’s history, and Edisto’s Golden Age. Today, Edisto’s main crops are melons and vegetables.

I’m so used to dry, cooler weather in the summer, but here it’s like wearing a warm, wet jacket every time I step outside. During the day it is hot, 80-90 degrees, but at sunrise and sunset the temperature is perfect. In the morning, the mist comes off the sea, putting a soft-focus on the landscape. The sunsets are among the most photographed in the area and often featured in tour magazines.

Bay Point, Edisto Island, at sunset. (Credit: Darcy Martineau)

Bay Point, Edisto Island, at sunset. (Credit: Darcy Martineau)

Edisto Beach State Park features 1,255 acres including an open salt marsh perfect for birdwatching. It also includes a huge live oak forest and a mile and a half of beach, which can be combed not only for some of the world’s best seashells, but also for shark teeth and prehistoric fossils.

It’s easy to see why fishing is so popular here. Inshore fishing nets flounder, mackerel, pompano, seatrout, and whiting. Offshore includes barracuda, dolphin, wahoo, yellow fin tuna, king mackerel, marlin, and sailfish.

Fishing off the pier at Bay Point Marina. (Credit: Darcy Martineau)

Fishing off the pier at Bay Point Marina. (Credit: Darcy Martineau)

A favorite pastime on Edisto is crabbing. Because Big Bay Creek flows into the Atlantic Ocean there, the brackish water is the perfect place to net some fresh crustaceans. Of course to fish it’s better to charter a fishing boat, and crabbing can be done from the shore with very few supplies. The brackish water is also a favorite of dolphins that congregate at the conflux of river and sea to frolic in the gentle tide pools there. They jump and flop around like kids in the tepid water there.

An adult Loggerhead Turtle. (Credit: Edisto Island Public Library)

An adult Loggerhead Turtle. (Credit: Edisto Island Public Library)

Edisto is a perfect nesting place for endangered Loggerhead Turtles. They nest all up and down the eastern coastline of the U.S., but they love the temperate climate and the warm ocean water in South Carolina and northern Florida more than any other place in the world. I visited there during one of the high points of nesting season, when nests of about 100 eggs have fully incubated and the hatchlings are ready to be born. Babies hatch at night, so there is an ordinance that porch and parking lights are off or covered so the little guys don’t get distracted as they make their way from the nest to the ocean for the first time. It’s also unlawful to touch the nests, which are marked off on the beach. After tasting the sand on the beach, hatchlings use the wave patterns and magnetic pull to navigate to the Sargasso Sea, where they spend most of their lives. They use the same navigation to return home, using the memory of their first taste of beach sand to pinpoint their nesting area. Loggerheads had been hunted in past years, but what keeps them endangered today is their incidental deaths due to the fishing industry. The aquarium in nearby Charleston has several Loggerheads that they rehabilitate and re-release into the ocean; they released one the day we visited nearby Ft. Sumter.

The food in this area of South Carolina is incredible. We ate our fill of she-crab soup, shrimp, clams and oysters prepared in a wide variety of ways, and other low-country and Gullah-inspired traditional dishes including the low-country boil: a giant pot is filled with corn on the cob, shrimp, potatoes, and sausage, and everything is boiled until cooked. Then the contents of the pot are dumped on a large table and everyone grabs a plate and feeds. Manners are not necessary, and everyone eats with abandon. It’s a good thing these meals don’t happen very often, because it is easy to overindulge.

My plate at the Low Country Boil. (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

My plate at the Low Country Boil. (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

The only real downside to Edisto Island is the bugs. I’m not used to many bugs at home in high altitude, but at sea level, the bugs are a nuisance. Most of the time down by the water, a nice breeze keeps them away, but in the still of the evening, bugs seem to find my skin particularly appetizing.

One of the first things we said as we deplaned back in Colorado Springs, after a few lungsful of thin air, was how glad we were to finally be dry. It sure is a different experience in South Carolina, but I’m glad to be back home.