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.