The Lowcountry’s ecosystem is what makes this area worth visiting. It has defined our history, guided our development, and drives our economy. Our ecosystem is one of tidal estuaries where freshwater from creeks and rivers mixes with saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean. It is the essence of the Lowcountry culture and lifestyle. It gives us our famous barrier island beaches as well as estuaries, salt marshes, tidal flats, creeks, channels, swamps and rivers to explore. The area also blesses us with a variety of wildlife, much of which is unique to this ecosystem.
The Lowcountry has one of largest systems of estuaries, salt marshes and tidal flats in the country. Tidal salt marshes develop in estuaries where the rate of sedimentation equals or exceeds the rate of the rising sea level. Tidal creeks link the salt marshes to the estuaries.
Twice a day, the nutrient enriched estuarine water flows into the marshes with the Atlantic Ocean’s tide and nourishes Spartina grass and a variety of other organisms. The marsh, in turn, produces huge amounts of food that flow back into the estuaries with the tide. These areas contain brackish water, which is saltier than fresh water, but is less salty than seawater.
Many organisms spend most of their early lives in the gentle, brackish waters of estuaries and salt marshes where the young can develop a salt tolerance. Crabs, fish and shrimp born in ocean spawning grounds are swept by tides into the creeks and marshes where they grow to young adults. Then, in late summer they reenter the estuaries where the tide takes them back to the ocean to complete their life cycle.
Hilton Head’s rich wetland environment is teeming with hidden wonders. In fact, Broad Creek alone is home to 73 different species of wildlife, including six endangered species.
Spartina grass, an essential link in the food chain, makes our waters an extremely healthy place for wildlife. It’s the reason we have our shrimp, oysters, clams, and fish, plus the thousands of birds and mammals that feed on them.
While here, you may be surprised to see the local population of otter and manatee, or catch a glimps of the large population of mink living in the marshes. Several pairs of bald eagles live in the area. While the endangered wood stork is rare worldwide, your chances of seeing them here are great. Not so surprising is the presence of numerous Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. With luck you may see the phenomena known as strand feeding, where the dolphins drive fish onto muddy banks for an easy lunch.
On land, you will also likely encounter alligators in our numerous lagoons (particularly around the golf courses), and white tail deer just about anywhere. Hilton Head is also a nesting place for the loggerhead turtle.
The Lowcountry also has a number of wildlife refuges and nature preserves that maintain our natural environment. The Pinckney Island Wildlife Refuge and the Savannah Wildlife Refuge are wildlife havens. The ACE Basin, north of Beaufort, is one of the largest undeveloped estuaries on the East Coast. Hunting Island State Park teems with wildlife and has an historic lighthouse you can climb. The Sea Pines Preserve and the Audubon Newhall Preserve are quite respites amidst the hustle and bustle of Hilton Head.
The impact of the Lowcountry’s estuarial ecosystem and mild climate is not limited to the waterways. The soil of the land is a beneficiary as well. Economically, from the 1600s through the 1800s, the ecosystem allowed Sea Island cotton, rice, and indigo to become cash crops that made Lowcountry plantations international economic powerhouses. The Lowcountry was also a source of timber for shipbuilding, profiting from the abundance of the iconic live oak trees. Oyster shells, sand and water gave us buildings made of tabby. During the 19th and 20th centuries, truck farming and the harvesting of indigenous pine forests continued to sustain the area’s economy.
As an area that prides itself in preserving our natural area, the Lowcountry works hard to promote ecotourism and learning about our natural wonders, be it in our waters, on our land or in our sky. This takes many forms, from guided boat and kayak tours, to beachcombing and wildlife refuges, from hiking and biking trails to lessons on how to throw a cast net.
The following companies offer dolphin watching and nature tours.
Backwater Cat Adventure (843-300-8556)
Commander Zodiac (843-671-3344)
Dolphin and Nature Cruises (843-681-2522)
Dolphin Seafari (843-785-2345)
Enjoy Daufuskie (843-342-8687)
Flying Circus Sailing Catamaran (843-686-2582)
The Gypsy (843-363-2900)
The Holiday (Adventure Cruises) (843-785-4558)
Island Explorer (843- 785-2100)
Kayak Hilton Head (843-684-1910)
Live Oac Adventures (843-384-1414)
Lowcountry Wildlife Photo Safaris (843-524-3037)
Outside Hilton Head (800-686-6996)
Palmetto Bay Marina (843-785-7131)
Palmetto Bay Water Sports (843-785-2345)
Pau Hana (843-686-2582)
Sky Pirate Watersports (843-686-5323)
Spirit of Harbour Town (843-363-9026)
Stars & Stripes (843-363-9026)
Sumo Charters (843-671-4386)
Vagabond Cruises (843-363-9023)