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Marine Education Program Visits Edisto Island

Jeff Dennis is a  Lowcountry native.  Read his blog at  LowcountryOutdoors.com

Jeff Dennis is a
Lowcountry native.
Read his blog at

The Carolina Coastal Discovery marine education program is normally tasked with tutoring the youth of the Lowcountry. But occasionally the general public is invited to board the 45-foot pontoon boat named Discovery in order to explore and monitor the saltwater ecosystem. Edisto Island was the focus of this state-funded program for two days with four research boat trips into St. Helena Sound.
Departing from Edisto Beach State Park, the Discovery boat took about 25 guests on two-hour boat tours into the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) operates the Discovery research vessel using funds from sales of the S.C. Saltwater Recreational Fishing Licenses. Which means that recreational saltwater anglers help to educate others about the importance of the coastal Lowcountry.
Captain Tom Salisbury welcomes the guests aboard on Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. and told them to put on a personal floatation device. The winds were calm and the humidity was low, which made for excellent boating conditions. Education Coordinator Julie Binz used a headset microphone to tell passengers to keep seated while the boat is underway, and that the curriculum aboard the Discovery includes pulling a trawling net to gather and identify marine life, before returning it to the estuary.
After about a 30-minute cruise out of Big Bay Creek, the Discovery entered St. Helena Sound and Capt. Salisbury drove across the channel towards an undeveloped island. Education Specialist Jessica Tipton was next to use the microphone to explain that SCDNR holds special permits that allows them to trawl a net inside this protected area. She held up a green net and explained how the duration of the trawl would last 15 minutes, and some of the marine life that might turn up.
What’s unique about this program is that participants assist in data collection during the cruise, since the SCDNR staffers record every creature encountered plus the water salinity levels. They also place an emphasis on connecting local conservation issues with larger concerns such as global warming. If you are keen for hands-on learning as it concerns salt marsh ecology then the Carolina Coastal Discovery program is the perfect field studies laboratory.
The NERR is comprised of 93,000 acres of uplands, wetlands and the myriad creeks and rivers that course through this section of the Lowcountry between Beaufort and Edisto. The Discovery stays docked at the McKenzie Field Station at Bennett’s Point in Colleton County, which is their usual point of departure. The program includes visiting maritime forests and identification of birds and other wildlife encounters.

Hands-on experience is part of the Discovery experience. Photo by Jeff Dennis.

Hands-on experience is part of the Discovery experience. Photo by Jeff Dennis.

With the net deployed, the boat speed was reduced, allowing a clearer view of the coastline with scores of shorebirds all along the exposed shell banks. As the boat slowed, the SCDNR crew filled an aquarium with saltwater and then hauled in the net and transferred the contents into the tank. Recreational shrimpers will be glad to know that lots of large white shrimp were in the net, and a robust variety of finfish species were also present.
Since guests couldn’t come to the tank, the SCDNR staff put each species of marine life into a plastic container that could be passed around for a personal touch tank experience. The first offering was an immature cannonball jellyfish, the kind that can be handled without fear of a sting. Next up was the small fish that looked like a flounder, but the educators explained that it is really a species named hog choker. Finally, the familiar croaker came around, making an audible noise for all to hear.
During the 30-minute return voyage we identified wading birds like the great blue heron, great white egret and yellow-crowned night heron. Squadrons of pelicans flew overhead and ibis cruised by in their trademark V-formation. The tide was high upon returning to the Environmental Learning Facility at the State Park, and several tailing redfish could be seen feeding in the spartina marsh grass.
Secretive songbirds like the summer tanager and painted bunting could be heard calling as we walked the path back to the interpretive facility, which is open from Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 4. Visitor parking allows access to park trails that visit the Bache monument and the Indian shell midden, raising environmental awareness about the diversity found in the sea island ecosystem.

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com

Jeff Dennis, Contributor (389 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com