Story by Lisa Allen + Photography by Lloyd Wainscott
It’s easy to see why people are flocking to the Lowcountry. Simply put, it’s gorgeous here.
Miles of waterways are lined with acres of marshland that denote the seasons by their colors. Vibrant green spartina grass signifies the height of summer. Shimmering gold hues glow during winter sunsets.
Dramatic eight-foot tidal swings change the landscape from watery at high tide to “oyster-like” at low tide, exposing the miles of oyster beds. It’s a cycle that is reassuring and ever fascinating.
If you want to know what’s beneath the waters and the marsh grasses, visit the Port Royal Sound Foundation Maritime Center, located smack in the middle of the estuary on the Chechessee River.
The center opened in 2014 to further the foundation’s mission that is “dedicated to the betterment and conservation of the waters and lands of our unique salt marsh ecosystem that is the Port Royal Sound estuary system.” The massive estuary extends from beyond Beaufort to Hilton Head Island and includes dozens of rivers and creeks, including the Colleton, May, Broad, Coosawhatchie and Pocotaligo rivers.
The Sound is unique because its water comes only from the ocean and ground water. No freshwater rivers flow into the enormous water basin. That means its water stays clean, free of chemicals from fertilizers flowing downstream from miles away. The combination of clean water and a twice a day tidal cleanse keeps the waters the right salinity and the right temperature to form a perfect nursery for thousands of ocean species, from sharks to shrimp. The marsh grasses provide excellent predator protection.
The importance of this area to the Atlantic Ocean is a big story, which is displayed in many forms at the Maritime Center. There are more than 20 exhibits on the ecological, historical, cultural, artistic and recreational aspects of the Port Royal Sound. The main exhibit hall showcases animals that call the Sound home, including sharks, dolphins, marine turtles and countless types of fish. A 3,000-gallon aquarium displays some of the fish that can be found in the river right outside. Visitors also can get a closer look at live animals in the Sound in a room with a viewing tank.
Another room features exhibits that highlight the important role oysters play in keeping our area waters clean by filtering up to 40 gallons of water a day through their gills.
Adding cultural context, a rotating art exhibit room showcases a variety of local artists.
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“Our main focus is to educate people about the Port Royal Sound and help them appreciate all that it has to offer,” said Jody Hayward, executive director of the foundation. “The Sound covers over 50 percent of our area – and it is ours to cherish, protect and enjoy.”
The Maritime Center, just a short drive from Hilton Head, is housed in the former Lemon Island Marina at 310 Okatie Highway in Okatie. Visitors can arrive by car or boat. The center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free.