My family, and by family I mean extended family—parents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles and cousins to the nth degree—have been vacationing at Edisto Beach for more than 30 years. I started going when I was in middle school, and barring a few summers spent on other islands or on different shores, have been nearly once a year ever since. Though these visits are short—usually a week at a time—the cumulative effect makes me feel like I know the place pretty well.
It’s a strange sort of place to describe to someone who has never been there. For a long time it seemed that the most accurate description was one of nothingness—the beauty of the place was that there’s nothing there. But that’s never really been true, and Edisto has been growing in recent years.
Perhaps the best glimpse I can offer you, dear reader, is to break down our most recent visit by the numbers.
Number of shark teeth found: 113
I found 112 and Audrey found 1. That number is pretty typical for me over the course of a week. With a couple of days dedicated to hunting for the fossils, I can sometimes rack up three times that number. While I didn’t find any particularly stunning teeth this week, I grabbed a few new specimens to add to the collection. A nice hunk of bone and several other interesting bits also washed up. These finds are one of the main reasons we continue to come back to Edisto, where quirks of geology have made the shoreline a treasure trove for tooth hunters.
Number of sharks caught: 2
I’ve been trying to hook a decent-sized shark for years without any success. The little dogfish sharks will snatch my bait all day. I can’t keep them off the line. I sometimes reel them in two at a time. But an actual shark that can put up a fight…that’s what I’ve been casting for. Sunday morning, before anyone else was walking the beaches, I finally caught one. The rod bent at a right angle and I knew I had hooked something worth catching. It put up a noble struggle, but I got it in, got a couple of pictures, unhooked it, and sent it on it’s way. The next morning I caught another. Although we kept line in the water throughout the week, I had already done what I set out to do.
Number of rods lost: 1
Whatever hit my dad’s line was powerful and fast. On the last full day on Edisto, we had the rods working, each held by a length of pipe in the sand. The incoming tide had saturated the sand and the rod holder must have loosened it. Our usual practice is to bait the rigs, hurl them into the surf, drop the rods into the pipes, and wait, keeping a reasonably close eye on the rods.
Watching a fishing rod tip for signs of action gets dull pretty quickly, so we typically hunt for shark teeth while the little fish and crabs neatly clean the bait from our hooks. As we both kept our eyes to the sand, we heard the pvc pipe thunk on the beach and looked up to it rolling into the surf, the rod it had been holding fifteen seconds before nowhere to be seen. The bait, the line, the rod, and the reel were all gone. Completely gone. No sign of it. And some poor ocean dweller is back at his watery home bragging about what he caught that day.
Turtle nests seen: 2
Loggerhead turtles nest on Edisto Beach, lugging their massive bodies up the sand near high tide at night, laying a clutch of eggs, then returning to the ocean. For years we’ve seen the marked nests, located by volunteers, researchers, and state park employees, but these are the relocated eggs, moved beyond the high tide line and protected from predators. In all our years of visiting the island during the egg-laying season, we had never gotten a look at an actual nest, mainly because we weren’t getting up at dawn and walking the beach looking for the tell-tale tracks.
Molly was determined this year, so on Monday morning, she headed down to the beach as the sun was coming up, hoping to make a discovery. Instead she found some nice folks with the Beach Patrol who told her that a couple of tracks had been found on the state park side of the island. Off she went, with Finnian and me in tow.
A Little Coffee with Our Eggs
We drove farther up the beach, hopped out of the car, grabbed a quick cup of coffee at a new shop, Edislo Java, and walked at a brisk pace to the spot that the researchers were just wrapping up. The last of the eggs had just been pulled from the nest. We spoke with a college student spending the summer researching the fascinating creatures, and found out a little about the work that Edisto Beach State Park does to protect the sea turtles. Finnian even got to mark the turtle tracks with a giant X so that the flyover spotters would know that the nest had already been found.
Since we had just missed seeing the actual nest, Molly was back at it Tuesday morning. She found some of the local volunteers, who call themselves The Turtle Patrol, who had spotted the tracks and were in the process of excavating the nest to relocate the eggs. Molly bolted back to the house, roused us all and hustled us a couple of blocks down the beach. The kids were still in their pajamas and were barely awake. We got to watch as the ladies carefully and methodically pulled egg after egg from the hole and place it delicately in a bucket. We learned quite a bit more about loggerhead turtles that morning.
Turtles seen in the ocean: 2 (possibly 3)
We saw even more than tracks, nests, and eggs. At least two large leatherback sea turtles surfaced off the beach directly in front of our house. While fishing, I just happened to look up in time to see what looked like a small black ball pop out of the water, linger for a second or two, then disappear. Because of all that we had learned about sea turtles of late, I knew what I was seeing.
I stared at the same area and, sure enough, the head returned. A few seconds later and it surfaced enough that I could clearly see most of the enormous shell breaching the surface of the water. I dashed back inside to call Molly out. She came running with a camera and managed to snap a few rather blurry pictures. The whole in-and-out-of-the-water takes place suddenly and without warning. Even with a long-distance lens ready to fire, timing is tricky at best. Now that we know what we’re seeing, we’re sure to view more the next time we’re on the coast.
Hermit crabs seen at the point: thousands
At the southwest end of Edisto Island, the beach gently curves back north into the South Edisto River. The far side of this stretch of beach is known as “The Point.” Because the beach doesn’t directly face the wide-open ocean, the sand is wider and the waves are gentler. That calmer water means more abundant marine life, at least more easily accessible life. Thousands upon thousands of hermit crabs creep and crawl along the sands at the water’s edge. When you see a nice looking and intact shell and reach down to pick it up, it invariably houses one of these garbage men of the sea. We saw crabs in shells of all shapes and sizes, from tiny white lettered olive shells about the size of puffed rice to monsters that dragged heavy knobbed whelk shells around all day.
New bird species added to our bird list: 14 (at least)
We’ve always enjoyed looking at birds, but over the last year or so have started taking it a little more seriously. While we’re not hardcore bird watchers (yet), we like to spy a new species when we can. Edisto Beach State Park offered a ranger-guided bird walk on Thursday, free with admission to the park ($5/adult, $3/kid).
A Walk in the Park
Ranger Ashby Gale led the four of us and another couple through the dense palmetto forest, across the salt marsh, to a hammock island. Along the way he gave lots of helpful tips for listening to calls, calling in the smaller birds with a quirky sound that Finn can emulate quite well, and watching the spots that certain species like to frequent. That last bit of advice proved useful the next day as we hiked through Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Area to the beach. Because I knew where to look, I was able to spot a painted bunting, a magnificently colored little bird. Between the State Park hike and Botany Bay, we also spotted a tricolored heron, blue gray gnatcatcher, wood pewee, summer tanager, and wood stork, among others. I’m certain we heard and saw quite a bit more than we can identify at this point.
Years Finn’s lettered olive shell lay underground: 100,000
Walking along the crushed shell path on our bird walk, Finnian found a large, intact lettered olive shell. Ranger Ashe told us that the deposits from which the path material had been quarried are probably 100,000 years old. Bonus: he let Finnian keep the shell.
Sea urchins found: 2
In all my years of visiting Edisto as a kid, I never saw anything like seastars or urchins. Shark teeth by the bowlful, but never any interesting critters. I take it as a good sign that conservation efforts are paying off with a thriving ecosystem. Biodiversity is a good thing.
Minutes on guided tours: roughly 145
In addition to the birding tour over land at Edisto Beach State Park, we also hit the waters. We loaded up onto a boat with Botany Bay Ecotours, hoping to see some dolphins in the waters around Edisto. For over an hour, Captain Don Anderson cruised us through the marshes and into the waters off The Point. Along the way he told us about the spartina grass and the marsh ecosystem, the horseshoe crab mating phenomenon that we had just missed by a week or two, the plentiful cannonball jellyfish that are a primary food source for sea turtles, and, of course, dolphins.
The experts at Botany Bay Ecotours know when and why the dolphins show up where they do, so we were almost certain to see at least a few. What we experienced far surpassed our expectations. The dolphins were particularly playful that day, engaging in raucous socializing behavior. By the dozens they surfaced and splashed, and we were right in the middle of it.
National Park stamps acquired: 6
If you don’t already have your National Park Passport Book, get one. Each site in the National Park System has at least one stamp that records your visit. On this trip we added to our Southeast region stamps with entries from the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site and the Ninety Six National Historic Site. Both places offered multiple stamps.
A Charleston Jaunt
We began our day trip into Charleston by visiting the Pinckney site. The house tour shows a wonderfully informative video about this fascinating but oft forgotten figure in United States history. Walks around the grounds took us past Spanish moss laden trees, a small-scale replica of a rice dam, and the marshes that would have been used for rice and indigo planting.
A Returning Side-trip
Our trip back home took us past the Ninety Six site. A few miles out of the way and we were looking at the earthen mounds that had been the foundations of star-shaped fort during the Revolutionary War. The area’s story of divided loyalties reminded me a lot of the struggles faced by East Tennesseeans a couple of generations later. Look for a post about that topic later.
The kids both completed Junior Ranger requirements at these sites, earning badges to add to our collection. Like the Passport Book, the Junior Ranger Program provides a way to get a little bit more out of the site visit. I highly recommend taking the time to work through the material.
Pins and patches collected: 11
As a way of assuaging the natural tendency of the kids to want something from the gift shop everywhere we go, Molly and I instituted a pins and patches policy. We will buy a pin and a patch from any place we visit. Anything else must be purchased with the kids’ own money (which they never remember to bring with them). We’ve found that it’s a great way to commemorate our visits in a consistent and easily kept format. At the end of a trip we’ll spread them all out and discuss the different locations. This go-around we grabbed pins and patches from Charleston, Ninety Six, and South Carolina in general.
Museums visited: 4
Edisto Beach State Park Interpretive Center
Counting the museum spaces at the National Historic Sites, we toured four museums. On Edisto we made good use of our day-long pass to the state park and visited the Edisto Beach State Park Interpretive Center after our bird watching hike. Well off the beaten path, this truly is a hidden gem on an island that is itself not particularly prominent. You’ve got to be looking for it to find it, but once you do, the experience will justify a trip off the main highway. The museum houses a fascinating collection of items found on the island, from fossils to shells to Native American artifacts. Most of the space, though, is used to tell the story of the ACE Basin and the conservation efforts to preserve this beautiful and environmentally crucial area.
While in Charleston we made a quick tour of the Charleston Museum, which gathers the objects that have made Charleston what it is since before its founding. Outside the entrance, visitors are greeted with a replica of the Civil War submarine, The Hunley. Inside the doors, an adult whale skeleton hangs huge over the stairs that lead to primary exhibit spaces. This museum is of the grab-bag variety. It is simply chock full of objects from across every possible spectrum of interest. Our family’s favorites were the extensive collection of weapons, the vintage advertising displays, and the hundreds of bird specimens (that dovetailed nicely with our other birding experiences for the week). Allow plenty of time to see each exhibit, as the space is deceptively large.
Hours of P. G. Wodehouse books listened to: 10:08
One of our favorite travel pastimes is listening to audiobooks, particularly by P. G. Wodehouse. We crank one up as soon as we hit the open road and listen all the way to our destination. With his wacky characters and convoluted storylines, Wodehouse always delivers with British wit. There’s never anything too racy or out-of-bounds for the kids. Selections this time included two novels, Service with a Smile and A Pelican at Blandings, both of which focus on the shenanigans at Blandings castle with Lord Emsworth, his prize pig The Empress of Blandings, his over-bearing sister Constance and a host of other castle visitors, each more colorful than the last.
Average daytime high temperatures: 80.6° F
We could not have asked for more pleasant weather throughout the week, and indeed, have never experienced so many days of positively perfect conditions. Never too cool nor too hot. The only complaint might be a slight lack of a breeze for a few hours one day. In short, the week’s weather has likely spoiled us for all future beach trips. How could we possibly repeat?
Restaurants visited on Edisto Island: 4
Morning coffee at Edislo Java is worth it if only for the sunrise view from the pier. Combined with the turtle walks and it’s a great way to start a day on Edisto.
Whaley’s serves up a tasty Sarah Jane BLT, with avocado and grilled fresh shrimp from Edisto’s last operating shrimp boat, the Sarah Jane. Stop in here before your boat tour.
McConkey’s Jungle Shack is everything a good beach dive should be. It’s fun and funky, with plenty to keep you occupied while you’re waiting for huge fish tacos or fish and chips.
Molly and I went to Pressley’s at the Marina for dessert, slowly enjoying our key lime pie and cheesecake while we looked out over the marshes.
Years of marriage celebrated: 20
The best part of the week was spending our 20th anniversary at the beach. We’ve been to many places in that amount of time and hope to visit even more in the next twenty.
So there it is. A week’s stay on Edisto Island reduced to a handful of figures. Doesn’t do it justice, though. You’ll have to visit for yourself. And when you find a shark’s tooth, let me know.