Sure, there’s plenty of golf around here, and everyone knows to stop at the Harbour Town lighthouse when in town. But if you venture off the marked trails every now and again, you’ll find that Hilton Head Island and the surrounding Lowcountry are filled with vast stores of hidden wonder, places and phenonema that don’t necessarily appear on all the tourist maps.
1. Turtle Power
Loggerhead Sea Turtles nest on Hilton Head Island beaches between May and August when the massive female turtles come ashore at night to find prime pieces of oceanfront real estate. The females will dig a nest, deposit their eggs (an average of 120), shield them from hungry predators with sand and quickly (well, relatively quickly) make their way back to the sea. Two months later, tiny two-inch turtle babies sneak out of the nest and point themselves instinctively toward the brightest light they see: their ocean home where they’ll spend the next 25 or 30 years growing to massive adulthood.
Such a delicate process, as you might guess, is susceptible to dangers both natural and manmade, and local groups like the Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project managed by the Coastal Discovery Museum keep a close eye on the reptiles’ nests from May through October. During that time, residents know to keep their beachfront lights off after 10 p.m., pick up their trash and, most of all, leave nest sites alone.
2. Dolphin Strand Feeding
Dolphins: cute, playful, friendly and when hungry—organized.
The animals are certainly plentiful in local waters, particularly the Calibogue Sound which is kind of like a dolphin social club. Much rarer is a coordinated hunting behavior called strand feeding, which is unique in the world.
Here’s how it works: At low tide, small groups of bottlenose dolphins herd hundreds of fish toward a beach. Then, all at once, the dolphins will leap onto the bank to create a huge wall of water and energy, feast on the fish buffet and, when done, shimmy back into the water.
This isn’t something you’ll see on your average twilight beach stroll; guides and locals can point you to the largely wild backwaters where it’s visible. Also, we should note that the phrase “leap” here indicates some sort of graceful natural phenomenon, but when this happens, it can be pretty startling.
3. Braddock Point Cemetery
Tucked away in Sea Pines Plantation is a small piece of history that tells a larger story about Hilton Head. Braddock Point Cemetery is a resting place for native African-Americans, some of whom are thought to be descended from slaves. The small graveyard is really off the beaten path nestled between condo high-rises on Spinnaker Court off Lighthouse Lane. The graveyard gets its name from Captain David Cutler Braddock who commanded a ship named the “Beaufort” in the mid-1700s.
Braddock sailed the Carolina coast keeping his eyes on Spanish activities and hiding out in a small cove which is now Sea Pines. There are about 40 gravestones in the Braddock cemetery; the headstone, which appears to be hand-chiseled, belongs to Susan Williams who was born in 1861 and died in 1921. The cemetery is still in use; Robert E. Williams was buried there in 2008.
4. Singing Sands
If you listen carefully while walking on the dunes of Hilton Head, you may discover that the sand sometimes “sings,” or produces audible sound vibrations that can be compared to the strains of a chorus, or the playing of violins. The idea is not a new one. Thoreau encountered singing sands while walking on an Atlantic Ocean beach; he noted that it sounded like rubbing a finger over wet glass. Charles Darwin was the first scientist to discuss the phenomenon. In his “A Naturalist’s Voyage Around the World,” he wrote: “Leaving Socego, we retraced our steps. Each time the horse put its foot on the sand, a chirping noise resulted.”
The “singing” may be the consequence of billions of minute crystals rolled against each other by the wind. Or, since the sounds are sometimes more pronounced after sundown, it could be that the cooling of the sand at night creates shifts and settling in the dunes.
In any event, the next time you go for a walk, keep your ears tuned for a secret island song.
Hilton Head Island is packed with history that most tourists and even locals know little about. Mitchelville is a beautiful historical landmark. Formerly known as Drayton Plantation, Mitchelville came about with the aid of Union General Ormsby Mitchel after he helped a group of escaped slaves create their own town.
Mitchelville was self-governing, with neatly arranged streets, one-quarter-acre lots, elected officials (some appointed by the Union military), a church, various laws addressing such issues as community behavior and sanitation, taxes were collected, and a compulsory education law for children between the ages of six and fifteen was enforced—most likely the first such law in the South. The residents named the town “Mitchelville” in honor of General Mitchel. Today local descendants of Mitchelville work to preserve and educate others about the historic landmark. Be sure to visit the Mitchelville Freedom Park located on Beach City Road. For more information on the Mitchelville Preservation Project visit online at www.mitchelvillepreservationproject.com.
6. ‘The Blank Spot on the Map’
When Charles Fraser first laid the foundation for what became Sea Pines, he did so with the philosophy that the natural state of the island would always come first. The homes and facilities of the resort, he believed, shouldn’t encroach on the marshes and forests that blanketed the island; they should co-exist with them.
As if to drive the point home inside the resort lies the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, 605 acres of space where Fraser’s philosophy reaches its zenith and nature remains as unspoiled as it was when he developed the surrounding land. “It’s the blank spot of the map; you can see it in satellite photos. It stands out from thousands of feet above,” said David Henderson, wildlife biologist for Community Services Associates. But there’s plenty to explore in that blank spot. The Preserve offers bike rides through history along antebellum rice dikes that harken back to Sea Pines’ days as a rice plantation. There’s fishing in Lake Mary, a 30-acre marvel and the largest freshwater lake on the island. There’s also bird watching and picnicking.
Note: there is a $6 pass fee to enter Sea Pines Plantation.
7. Sea Pines Shell Ring
Not only is the Sea Pines Forest Preserve a wonder itself, it holds our seventh, and final, wonder of Hilton Head, the Sea Pines Shell Ring. As you amble through the Sea Pines Forest Preserve and across the boardwalks you’ll stumble upon the shell rings, sometimes called “Indian Shell Ring.”
These rings come from nomadic Indian tribes and are an impressive 4,000 years old. The shallow basin is encompassed by a small wall, southern magnolia trees and timbering live oaks. In the nearly perfect circle numerous amounts of oysters, clams, turtle, fish and other shell bones rest. These elements were simply collected by the inhabitants from salt marshes or hunted with spears.
An archeologist from the University of South Carolina unearthed the area about 40 years ago and was able to reveal that the ring was built by Ancient Indians over 300 year period about 4,000 years ago. There were no signs that anyone lived in the ring, it was most likely used as a ceremonial ring or community grounds. The reason why the Shell Ring People vacated this place remains a mystery.
Note: there is a $6 pass fee to enter Sea Pines Plantation.