Champions of the sea
Story By B.C. Rausch
Living at sea level affords many advantages and allows us to revel in our coastal location. The waters’ changing colors signal seasonal changes and even the time of day. Trickling creeks become rushing rivers that flow through estuaries, deltas and harbors that feed the Atlantic Ocean.
Just above the water’s surface, the Lowcountry is unique with its spartina grass, stinky pluff mud, edible sea beans, salt marshes and compendium of water-loving creatures.
The worlds above and below the waves maintain a symbiotic balance of mutual preservation. Helping to assure this cooperation are numerous regional organizations actively engaged in safe-guarding the health and well-being of these aquatic resources. Each group offers consumer education and special programs that entertain and educate about the unique environment that is the Lowcountry.
Mermaid of Hilton Head
Mermaid of Hilton Head, which started as a passion project and became an enterprise, takes a delightfully creative approach to informing and inspiring children and adults about protecting and preserving Hilton Head Island’s diverse aquatic life. And, yes, there are mermaids.
The search for Mermaid Nina is a 75-minute, education-based boat excursion through local waters with Pinky Plankton and Sailor Scruffy at the helm. Participants hear countless sea-saving tips for protecting the marine ecosystem while learning about plants and creatures, including everyone’s favorite — dolphins.
The Mermaid (known on land as Nina Leipold) has written a series of books that bring a bit of marine magic to readers of all ages: Titles include Sammy the Sand Dollar, The Mermaid of Hilton Head, The Mermaid’s Friends and A Christmas Coral.
The Mermaid of Hilton Head takes special interest in the acidification of the ocean resulting from excessive, human-generated carbon. High acidity impacts oyster growth and viability by eroding their shells and harming their natural habitats. The company also is advocating for safer sunscreens free of harmful chemicals that can impact the sea and its inhabitants.
According to Mermaid of Hilton Head, the Lowcountry’s population of starfish and sand dollars is way down. Removing these creatures from their natural habitats is deadly while also compromising the local ecosystem. It is illegal and punishable by up to a $1,000 fine.
Mermaid of Hilton Head recently opened a retail location at Tanger Outlets Two, where children can participate in monthly educational classes and make crafts. “We introduced eco-talks and animal-of-the-month programs to teach children the importance of caring for the creature and its habitat,” explains Amanda Upchurch, Mermaid of Hilton Head’s educational outreach coordinator. “When kids learn that sand dollars, starfish and otters live in the wild and need a safe home and food, they begin to care about these creatures.”
Mermaid of Hilton Head also has donated to Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island and sponsors beach cleanups.
“We’ve conducted beach cleanups for the past couple of years and plan a monthly beach event to enlist community support,” Upchurch added.
Port Royal Sound Foundation
The Port Royal Sound surrounds South Carolina’s chain of sea islands, extending from Hilton Head to Beaufort. The Port Royal Sound Foundation is dedicated to preserving these waters for the environmental, cultural and economic well-being of the area. The Foundation’s Maritime Center explains the critical role the Sound has in the region’s wildlife, rich history and Gullah Geechee culture.
In 2022 the Foundation held the first “State of the Sound Symposium,” which featured ecological experts from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and University of South Carolina Beaufort. They reported on the current status of local crustaceans, fish, geology, land use and underwater soundscapes, which are the noises and sounds that occur underwater, including the communication between fishes.
“Studying these sounds helps give us an idea of the health of our underwater environment, particularly as we factor in human interferences,” said Sarah Walbert of the Port Royal Sound Foundation. The conference also articulated the types of research needed to better understand, protect and preserve the Sound.
The Foundation’s Citizen Science Program, a collaborative partnership with the University of South Carolina Beaufort and Clemson Extension Adopt-A-Stream, engages local community members and organizations in the collection and compilation of water-quality data. The long-term, widespread monitoring of data helps protect critical resources.
The Maritime Center offers a host of educational programs, such as kayak excursions through the salt marsh and hikes over mud flats. Kids are encouraged to become junior naturalists for a day, exploring a maritime forest and salt marsh, where they’ll encounter snakes, turtles, alligators and much smaller creatures visible only through microscopes. The Pluff Mudder Camp is a four-day program for adults who want to take a deep dive into the land, water and animals of the Sound.
The Center’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) Festival (August 26, 2023) showcases more than 20 local businesses and organizations that provide hands-on experiences with simulators, 3D pens, building with gummies, and community art projects. The Annual Recycled Art Contest invites participants to put their creativity to work while benefiting the local environment by picking up litter and creating pieces of art for cash prizes.
March 7: Right Whales – Our Coastal Visitors
March 21: Land Protection for Water Quality’s Sake
South Carolina Aquarium
By 2050 the South Carolina Aquarium estimates there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish. The aquarium, located on Charleston Harbor, believes that the solution to plastic pollution is in the public’s hands and counts among its missions the educating of Lowcountry residents about this very real peril. Single-use plastic — designed for one use before discarding or recycling — is the main culprit of plastic pollution. Knowing and choosing alternatives can make a big impact, from skipping or substituting a plastic straw to bringing your own water bottle, using reusable grocery bags and choosing multi-use steel or fabric containers instead of plastic.
Become a Citizen Scientist
Make a difference by contributing to the study of local environmental issues like plastic pollution, sea level rise or invasive species. The South Carolina Aquarium Citizen Science app features a collection of environmental research projects led by professional scientists at the South Carolina Aquarium that need your help collecting data. Contribute to projects of your choice quickly and easily from your mobile device. scaquarium.org
The Outside Foundation
The Outside Foundation’s mission is to get kids outside and to protect and preserve our local environment. The Hilton Head-based foundation strives toward its mission through programs and advocacy. To facilitate access to the outdoors for all kids, the foundation organizes and provides scholarships for the Kids in Kayaks program, which aims to get every 7th grader in Beaufort County out kayaking. In addition the foundation coordinates custom outdoor and give-back programming with local schools and clubs. In 2018 the foundation established the Oyster Recycling and Reef Building Initiative, which has created an oyster recycling drop-off location and collected over 52 tons of oyster shell. An oyster shell recycling route, volunteer oyster bagging and reef-building are also supported and organized by the foundation. Additional foundation activities include beach clean-ups, waterway clean-ups and the annual Keep the Broad Creek Clean Festival, an educational fair for families.
Save the dates
March 1: Oyster shell bagging, Coastal Discovery Museum
March 26: Broad Creek Cleanup, Shelter Cove Harbour & Marina