There was an element to the morning after sunrise that was special – the fog obscuring Bull Island in the distance, a slight coolness, and the anticipation of a walk covering the entire beach from south to north end. After the group of twenty embarked on Caretta for a Walk on the Edge, a special event contributing to Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge’s loggerhead program, we observed a large bald eagle roosting on a tree right along the ICW. As we passed it took off and paralleled our course south for a little while. Turning into Price’s Creek, and making our way east toward our drop-off point at Price’s Inlet, the low and diffused light illuminated the expanses of marsh to the southwest, enhancing the greens and touches of yellow, and mesmerizing all on board. Will Christenson, our captain for both legs of the ferry service, was on the deck forward of the wheel, snapping photos of the scene. A gifted photographer, Will captured an image that gave a hint at the awe-inspiring phenomenon. Chris Crolley, head of Coastal Expeditions, and I shared knowing looks and words looking ahead to the day’s promise.
On our walk to the north, we made a planned rendezvous with Jim Hawkins, coming south on an ATV on his patrol of the beach for the loggerhead program. I introduced Jim to the group, giving him the title of “Uber-volunteer”, since earlier in the year he had received a recognition from the USFWS for 5000 volunteer hours (he is working on his next 5000). We learned from him that several nests hatched out overnight, and there would be one ahead where we could see the tracks of several hatchlings heading to the ocean. We talked about the loggerhead program, and as I was about to tell the group about the average number of nests hatching each night on Cape Island (the past week 25), the group’s attention shifted rapidly to Jim as he pulled out of a bucket a loggerhead hatchling.
[This photo and those below in this post courtesy of Patricia Midgett, Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge staff member, and co-guide for this walk.]
It was a straggler from the previous night that he had rescued, and the cameras blazed with this little reptile in the spotlight. JIm with the group in tow walked to the ocean and released the hatchling to begin its great swim.
Jim marked in the sand the hatched nest ahead on our walk, and we took a look at the tiny tracks. I also saw movement in the nest, initially thinking it was a ghost crab but finding it to be a hatchling. Consulting Jim, he covered it over, suggesting that it would be best for this hatchling and others in the nest to dig themselves out overnight. Further down the beach, Jim waited until we arrived, and showed us the process of nest inventory, a task that would be done for all 1900+ nests in the refuge.
Walking north we followed the retreat of the dunes until we entered the place where the maritime forest and the ocean meet – the Boneyard. We made a relaxed stop for lunch, lingering in this place of uprooted bleached trees showcasing the dynamic forces of nature. I modeled two items for the group: in the ocean a cooling off swim, and in the sand representations of Bull and Cape Island. We had earlier noticed a johnboat pulled through the surf, and two couples surf fishing. The conditions were excellent – we saw three fish caught in a fifteen minute span.
Moving on from lunch, we continued the walk around this point and along the island’s eastern face. We were treated to an array of birds. A usual perch for eagles was occupied, and though flying off the eagle reappeared down the beach. A group of pelican soared by, and when one of our walkers said “white”, I did a double take and realized these were white pelicans – a sextet. I had only seen this species here in winter, but as I later learned from Cap’t Will they had been around all year. Groups of birds occupied several places on the beach, offering us a variety of shorebirds and seabirds including a sizable group of black terns.
We completed our walk to the Northeast Point, and awaited our return ferry. By consensus, we opened the message in a bottle, and experienced some collective disappointment with the modern provenance (dated July 2013). One walker had hoped he would be seeing German or Japanese as the handwritten language. The anticipation and opening of bottle and note trumped the message. Yet we agreed that the note’s request should be accepted – to add a message and return the bottle. We planned later to give it a lift, having it dropped off at the Gulf Stream to increase the distance and time.
The return cruise was wonderful, with shade and movement forward providing the breeze. Fine observations of the natural world continued with dolphin impact feeding, interpreted by Cap’t Will, and an osprey planted on a post in Bull Creek. I had found a quote on a random handout from a relapse prevention group on my desk the previous day, and I had read it to the group to frontload our experience: “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks” (John Muir). These words resounded through our walk this last day of August. It seemed an appropriate message to pass on in a bottle.
Disembarking from Caretta and saying goodbye to our group, I prepared to leave the landing when I ran into Billy Shaw, one of the seasonal (and seasoned) employees of the loggerhead program. He had been out on Lighthouse Island since early morning with a volunteer, and we discussed our respective days. Billy shared that he had a premonition earlier that he would see something special. Running the beach on an ATV on Lighthouse, he noticed that the surf was filled with schools of mullet and menhaden. Through these schools came feeding lemon sharks. Then arrived black-tipped sharks, exploding through the schools in their feeding frenzy. Billy has spent much time on the waters as fisheries observer, and this display was spectacular for him.
The next morning, an hour before sunrise, I arrived at the pier in my community on the edge of the ICW and the refuge. Murmurs of Bull Island surf wafted across the dark marsh expanse. Overhead hung the Pleiades, Orion underneath, and Jupiter with a waxing moon shining on the water. A dolphin exhaled, at intervals repeating and moving on its swim to the south. All was as it should be.