Photo by Howard Costa

As you explore the endless array of outdoor activities on Hilton Head Island, you are sure to come across the natural inhabitants. Winged, feathered, scaled or furred, they are all impressive and enjoyable to observe, but require the utmost respect as you come upon their terrain.

Several rules of engagement exist to ensure a pleasant experience for all.

If you’ve ever golfed on Hilton Head, then you’ve definitely come across our most famous creature, the alligator. Sunbathing on the banks of ponds and lagoons, and even making the rare appearance on the sandy beaches, these large reptiles demand and deserve your respectful distance.

Fall and spring are the best times to see these cold-blooded reptiles, as they escape the water to raise their body temperature. Hilton Head ’gators grow to be about 12 feet long.

It is illegal to feed the ’gators, for a number of reasons. An alligator can outrun humans and most other animals for a short distance, and when provoked, become aggressive. Mother alligators are especially protective if you approach their young. It is wise to stay away from the banks of lagoons and never fight over your fishing line if an alligator snags your catch.

Hilton Head is the place to be for bird watchers. You can observe both shore birds and inland birds. Shorebirds, with their long skinny legs for walking through the tides and long beaks for capturing fresh fish, are entertaining and remarkable to watch. You’ll find brown pelican, ibis, wood stork, egret, osprey and more walking on the shores, marshes and greenways.

One of the wonders of nature that few people get to experience is the loggerhead turtle. An endangered species, the turtle starts life buried in sand as a hatchling no more than three inches long, scurrying madly to the ocean for safety. The large creatures can grow to be 350 pounds and can swim up to 25 miles-per-hour.

Strict laws protect these beautiful giants, especially their nests found along the shore. Mother turtles make the journey at night to the high-tide line to deposit anywhere from 80 to 150 small, round white eggs in a nest four feet long and a foot deep. After the mother has covered her eggs, she makes the journey back to the sea and leaves the eggs to hatch in about two months.

If you happen to come across a nest, contact the Coastal Discovery Museum (843-689-6767) or the Sheriff’s Department (843-785-3618). Be sure to leave the nest undisturbed. Fines and jail time can be enforced upon those who disrupt the nests of these endangered species.

There are citizens on the Island who have dedicated their lives to protecting these turtles. The community even passed an ordinance banning lights on the beach after 10:00 p.m. to avoid confusing the turtles as they make their dash to the ocean.

As you adventure out on the waters of Hilton Head, you’re sure to make friends with the Island’s friendliest mammal, the bottle-nosed dolphin. There are many tours provided on Hilton Head that will take you to popular dolphin gathering spots around the Calibogue Sound and Broad Creek. Dolphins are friendly so don’t be afraid when these curious friends approach your boat or kayak. However, keep in mind that the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act strictly prohibits the feeding, touching and harassment of dolphins and other marine animals. Resist the urge to pat their heads or throw them a bite to eat. If reported, civil or criminal penalties could be imposed.

While driving through the resort plantations or teeing off on a golf course, you may very well run into the most over-populated island inhabitant – the white-tailed deer. Due to increased inbreeding of these island animals, these deer only grow to be 130 to 200 pounds and three to four feet tall. They can, however, run in front of your car at a speed of 28 miles per hour causing considerable damage. Keep a lookout when driving at night along the moonlit streets.

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