The Atlantic Ocean Covers 50 Percent of Beaufort County Twice a Day (and that’s a good thing)
Author: Paul deVere
“The area in question is a splendid estuary, virtually free of pollution. This department would strenuously oppose any action that would result in the degradation of that water quality.”
—Walter Hickel, U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s letter to president of chemical giant BASF, referring to proposed petrochemical plant on Colleton River, 1970
“The more we learn about Port Royal Sound, the more we will realize that it is one of the great natural treasures of this country. Its continued value is contingent upon everybody reaching an understanding of what role they have to play to protect it.”
—Chris Marsh, board member, Port Royal Sound Foundation and executive director, Spring Island Trust & LowCountry Institute, 2015
On the southern embankment of the bridge crossing the Chechessee River that connects Lemon Island to Chechessee Bluff and the mainland sits the new Port Royal Sound Maritime Center, an extraordinary repurposing of the old Lemon Island Marina. Inside the center, visitors learn the history of oystering, crabbing and shrimping in Port Royal Sound. There is a touch tank where kids (all ages) can actually touch a brown shrimp. There’s a shark exhibit, a predator diorama hanging from the ceiling and a 3,000-gallon aquarium. This is a classroom for children and adults, and various programs are offered. Opened just a year ago this month, the center is a culmination of the efforts by the Port Royal Sound Foundation and represents a significant contribution to conservation and protection of one of the most unusual ocean estuaries on the East Coast.
What makes the Port Royal Sound area so unusual is both its size (1,600 square miles) and unique features, like the fact that all the “rivers” in the Port Royal Sound area aren’t what we normally think of as rivers, because there are no freshwater headlands. Other than groundwater runoff, all the rivers and creeks are tidal, making them simply inland, saltwater extensions of the Atlantic.
“Port Royal Sound, including its tributaries, is the only place along the southern coast that goes 20 miles inland. Everywhere else it’s just a mile or so. That’s unique to Beaufort and Jasper Counties. What everyone takes for granted, it’s actually very unusual,” said Chris Marsh, board member of the Port Royal Sound Foundation and executive director of Spring Island Trust & LowCountry Institute.
That 1,660 square miles is just about all of Beaufort County, with slivers of Jasper and Hampton counties included. Twice every 24 hours at high tide, half of that land is covered by waters of the Atlantic.
The Maritime Center is the centerpiece of the non-profit Port Royal Sound Foundation. Its mission is rather straight forward. It is dedicated to “the betterment and conservation of the waters and lands” of Port Royal Sound and “advancing the awareness of Port Royal Sound and its contributions to the environmental, cultural, and economic well-being of our area, the region, and the Atlantic Ocean.” The Foundation is a direct “descendent” of a group of concerned residents that fought to keep a giant chemical plant off the banks of the Colleton River in the late 1960s.
“People are passionate about the river they live on, whether it’s the Colleton, the Chechessee, the Pocataligo, Broad or Beaufort. We can take that passion they feel about the water and translate that to an understanding of the bigger issues surrounding this Port Royal Sound. This is a good spot from which to do that,” said Dick Stewart, a foundation board member, as he stood on the walkway leading out to one of the center’s two docks. Stewart and his wife donated the old marina and land where the center sits. He is also one of the people most passionate about the protection of the sound.
“I’m delighted about what’s happening here. The thing about this place that’s special to me is it’s in the center of the sound and the Port Royal Sound area. It gives people an opportunity to be here without getting so detached from the rest of the community,” Stewart, who is well known for historic renovation and redevelopment in the city of Beaufort, explained. Lemon Island, he said, was midway between Beaufort and Hilton Head and communities in between.
The center is a culmination of the efforts by the Port Royal Sound Foundation and represents a significant contribution to conservation and protection of one of the most unusual ocean estuaries on the East Coast.
For Stewart, who grew up in Bluffton, it’s not just the waters, it the culture and history of the place that needed to be preserved, recorded and shared. “The water right out there, the Chechessee River, has the highest level of cleanliness according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. That’s another reason this site is perfect,” Stewart said.
“These docks symbolize the tens of thousands of tons of crab, of oysters, of shrimp and fish that all have been harvested here,” he explained, in reference to the productivity of the sound over the years. As an example, Stewart recalled the story of the Blue Channel Corporation, a major crab processing operation from Maryland that came to Port Royal in the late 1930s when the Chesapeake Bay’s crab population began a dramatic decline due to pollution and too aggressive harvesting. “For years, those famous Maryland crab cakes were made with Port Royal Sound crabs,” Stewart said with a smile.
More recently, the Chesapeake Bay had another connection to Port Royal Sound. Foundation board member Ed Pappas, who has been a resident of Callawassie Island for 17 years, trekked back and forth to his original home turf in New Jersey and passed through states that were part of the Chesapeake Bay. “I used to notice signs saying you’re entering the Chesapeake Bay watershed area. I thought that was very clever. It planted a seed in my mind. It created an awareness of the waters that are impacted by people’s treatment of waterways,” Pappas said. In 2012, he applied that “clever idea” to Port Royal Sound.
In less than a year, Pappas spearheaded the foundation’s effort to get the county to post signs on highways and waterways that simply state, “Port Royal Sound Area,” with the foundation’s website below the phrase. This one time brand manager for a large telecommunications firm admits he had never been actively interested in the environment until his move to Callawassie. Now, along with his duties as a foundation member, Pappas is chairman of the Beaufort County Rural and Critical Land Preservation board.
“We’re just touching the tip of the iceberg of what we know about Port Royal Sound. The salt marsh is a major source of productivity. Because the water is so deep and there is such an abundance of sharks, a sign of high water quality and high salinity, it supports an abundance of crustaceans, shrimp, crabs—the animals that make up the base of the phytoplankton. All indicators are that it is a very productive system for a nursery area for oceanic animals. We need to do a bunch more research in the area to understand just how important that is,” Marsh explained.
What is just as important, Marsh said, is the public’s understanding of the impact they have on this unusual system of tidal rivers and islands. “The most serious impact on the sound is cumulative storm water runoff. We don’t have any big industries here or large agricultural areas up stream. But it’s what people do in their yards.Any time areas of lawns, any turf grass, where people are concerned with how good it looks, there’s the chemical component. Pre-emergence treatment kills all the weeds, but you have to be careful that those chemicals don’t get into the water,” Marsh said. He explained that because in many areas of the county the population is so transient, they do not understand the sensitivity of the waters in their own backyard and need to be educated how to manage these areas.
“Exposure to the water is our number one priority,” said Jody Hayward, the Maritime Center’s director. “We’re here to do anything we can do to help people understand Port Royal Sound and what it means. It’s not just the ecological part of what we’re doing, it’s the culture, the history, the art, the beauty, the recreation. Any of the pieces of those worlds that we can touch on that helps people appreciate what Port Royal Sound has to offer is important to us. It is more than a beautiful view from the bridge. The more appreciation they have, the more they will want to take care of it. They’ll think about what they’re doing, be better stewards,” Hayward said.
Getting children out on the water is one of the highlights of the center’s summer program. “We’re very proud of the boating program. The YMCA received a grant from a group called Spirit of America [spiritofamerica95.org/programs] to purchase a fleet of boats, kayaks, sailboats, zodiacs and paddle boards,” Hayward said. Class size is 18, and the children can all swim. The students have as weeklong-program. In the morning, they are in the classroom at the center learning all the details involved in getting a Department of Natural Resources boating license (South Carolina Boater Education Card). Then, from 11a.m. to 3 p.m., they are on the water. “They’re out there, they’re doing things on their own. The self-confidence is amazing at the end of the week. They feel empowered. They have a boating license; they know what they’re doing out on the water. They can help mom and dad out on the boat,” Hayward explained.
“You just don’t realize how many children who were born here, live here, grew up here, who have never been on the water. They have never seen a dolphin up close, never experienced anything about the water. That’s a special piece of what we are able to do. After the class, kids get excited, energized. Our very first group, they were fifth graders, they’d seen a dolphin, a shark and a bald eagle. I told them, ‘You have seen the trifecta of the sound!’ They were so excited. Several said, ‘I want to be a marine biologist.’ It was like that all summer,” Hayward said. In the fall, the center provides an “Eco Boat Tour,” kayak tour (there is a charge for both) and Story Time for preschoolers (free).
The center’s small staff is enhanced by over 80 volunteers. They are being trained to be story tellers, to explore the sound’s history and the “stories that go behind it,” Hayward said. “Visitors being exposed to those stories makes the area even more enjoyable. That’s part of what we want to do.”
Hayward, a transplant to Beaufort County, considers herself a litmus test for all the programs planned for the center. When she first started work there, she said, “I was like everyone else; you don’t know what you don’t know. I want to know what other people want to know.” Her list might include the story of the failed French settlement Charlesfort (1562-63) or the more successful Spanish Santa Elena (1566-87) on Parris Island, or the vast fields of spartina alterniflora, the salt-tolerant marsh grass that is flooded twice a day at high tide (eight feet plus). Or the fascinating Gullah culture that rose on the Sea Islands during the centuries of slavery or the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation on the grounds of what is now Beaufort Naval Hospital on January 1, 1862. Or the lives of oystermen and shrimpers and fishermen and the difference they have made to the history and culture of the sound and the Lowcountry.
“The Port Royal Sound Foundation was created to target all residents in the Port Royal Sound area, all these different neighborhoods that can contribute, support, and become involved,” Marsh said. “The center is our flagship, and it couldn’t be in a better location.”
Referring to the sometimes strained relationship, real or imagined, between the southern part of Beaufort County and the northern part, which is separated by the Broad River, Marsh said, “It’s very difficult to find a place where people from both sides of the county will get together. We like to joke that there’s only one place in the world where South of the Broad and North of the Broad will meet. That’s Lemon Island.”
On November 14, the Maritime Center is celebrating its first year with a day full of FREE fun activities and special guests. Art activities, live animals, demonstrations, and more. For more information, visit the Center’s website at portroyalsoundfoundation.org.