By Erin Laytham Lentz, Contributor
The coastal, saltwater marshes are characteristic of the Lowcountry landscape but few people see more than the tall grass that emerges from their salt waters. These low-lying areas are just inland from the ocean, South Carolina boasts about a half million acres of salt marsh, which is more than any state bordering the Atlantic.
The wonder of the marshes lies hidden and most onlookers know little about the function and productivity of these stunning and tranquil wetlands. Underneath the Condgrass, also known as Spartina Grass, (a strong grass that covers the region) lies a habitat that is attractive to the creatures that move through it. Throughout fall, the marsh undergoes its’ harvest season and the grass’ protective nature is ideal for the area’s climate. The Spartina Grass secretes salt through its glands and thick stalks and the seeds drop into the mud creating the crop for next season. For many species, the seeds are an essential source of food. For visitors, it is an ideal time to discover the aquatic life tucked away in these wetlands. As the water temps drop, some of the fish such as Redfish, move off-shore and feed which produces ideal conditions for the fishing season.
Countless species of small birds migrate to the marshlands to harvest the seeds. Small rodents gather near the marshes’ edge to find seeds. The hawks complete the food chain by circling the marsh to hunt small animals. Nature lovers can enjoy the marshes and the wildlife by kayak and peacefully navigate the natural habitats. Among the most commonly viewed marshlife are: fiddler crabs, marsh snails, oysters, mussels, blue crabs and shrimp. The herons, ospreys, egrets and sandpipers can be observed hunting for their food but the marsh wren and clapper rails are the only bird species that nest in the marsh. Frequently, the bottlenose dolphins leave the deep water and hunt for prey in the wetlands and can be spotted playfully moving through these shorelines.
Only in the Lowcountry can you observe and be entertained by a dolphin behavior called Strand Feeding. It is passed from generation to generation of dolphins, in which the pod will isolate a school of fish between their bodies and the shoreline. With exuberant bursts of energy, the dolphins force the fish and their own bodies onto the shore. In all of their splendor, the amazing creatures will feed with water splashing, tails flailing and flocks of birds circling above hoping to share in the feast. The friendly dolphin then retreat back into the creek. This is truly a sight you don’t want to miss!
The salt marsh is a large contributor to the South Carolina economy, and the majority of its animals are harvested as seafood. The marsh is critical to the state’s commercial seafood industry and eco-tourism. The recreational use of the marsh is evident in the area’s boating and kayaking tours, a memorable adventure that is highly recommended for visitors to Hilton Head. These tours offer a unique vantage point to view the ecology of the region in all its natural beauty. Explore the Calibogue Sound and surrounding marshes on Advanced Sail Calibogue Cruise, or Vagabond Cruise.