Outdoor exploration tours offer a backstage pass to Sea Island’s indigenous landscape.
By Rebecca McCormick
On the surface, Sea Island’s natural beauty adds to the aesthetics of coastal living. But the area’s varying terrain—from marshes and maritime forests to sandy beaches and pristine waters—actually provides complex ecosystems for a diverse array of plants and animals. Sea Island, with the help of a team of naturalists, fully embraces its environs with a variety of specialized tours designed to inspire and educate the whole family.
Upon arrival, it’s impossible to ignore the expanse of marshlands that have inspired poetry. The marsh ecosystem is dotted with patches of bright green spartina grass, and the area is regularly filled and drained by the tides. It serves not only as a transition zone between land and ocean, but also as living quarters for a bevy of birds. “Nearly everybody enjoys our showy shorebirds and birds of prey,” says Raleigh Nyenhuis, naturalist at Sea Island. “We can see great blue herons and egrets wading underneath ospreys and bald eagles circling overhead. Further north in the salt pan upland area where it’s drier, we frequently spot fiddler crabs and snails.”
An equally vibrant area, the maritime forest is populated with majestic stands of ancient live oaks, as well as other old-growth trees like red cedar, holly and pine. The canopy of interlocking branches provides a luxurious haven for wildlife, while it conserves groundwater by reducing evaporation. It also protects underbrush from forceful winds and damaging salt spray.
And, of course, there’s the beach—not only the background for leisurely days of fun in the sun, but also an important part of the surroundings that’s highlighted in Sea Island’s nature tours. The beach is home to a special type of tall grass, called sea oats, for its proximity to the water and golden-brown color during the summer. The plant species helps to trap wind-blown sand and promote sand dune growth, ultimately shielding beaches and nearby property from wind, storm and tide damage. “In this area we love to show off our horseshoe crabs and sea turtles, who share shore space with gulls and brown pelicans—favorite birds for many of our guests.”
To get a closer look at each of these dynamic areas, the Eco Tour is a popular activity that provides front-row seats in an arena of ecological wonders. An all-wheel-drive Jeep Wrangler pulls as many as three open-air trams, each holding up to 15 guests, as it meanders through three major ecological systems (maritime forests, marshes and the beach) on a guided excursion. “This tour is especially popular with families because the Jeep Train is an adventure in itself,” Nyenhuis says. “And two hours seem to go by really fast because there’s so much to see.”
The Marsh Habitat and Wildlife Walk is a shorter tour that takes participants of all ages to explore on foot. The one-hour guided adventure leads nature enthusiasts into the heart of two major ecosystems: the marsh and the maritime forest. Participants shouldn’t forget to bring along their binoculars to catch a glimpse of the best views of the environs and important inhabitants.
For another perspective on a biologically rich space, the Cannon’s Point Ecology Tour takes participants for a two- to three-hour guided exploration of Cannon’s Point, a 600-acre tract of maritime forest, salt marsh and tidal creeks, located on St. Simons Island. The geological preserve has been transformed into a living laboratory for nature-lovers of all ages, where plantation-era ruins stand as a reminder of the area’s history.
If aquatic exploration is appealing, tours via boat or kayak get nature enthusiasts gliding through the marshes and along the shore, bringing coastal zoology and beach biology to life. Although there is a minimum weight limit to participate in the kayak tour, guests and members will appreciate this creative combination of a medium-intensity workout with an outdoor nature learning experience. Binoculars can help participants who want to catch a glimpse of bottlenose dolphins playing in the ocean.
Finally, a hands-on interactive experience for younger adventurers, the Sea Island Junior Naturalist Program (JNP) is new for 2015. “Together with a naturalist, kids between the ages of 7 and 14 will explore the beach and marsh ecology,” explains Anne Harvey, activities manager at Sea Island. “They will also experience ocean seining, crabbing, soil sampling, plankton discoveries under the microscopes and much more.” Additional activities include up-close-and-personal encounters with native species in a recently opened 220-gallon touch tank.
“A program like the JNP is a perfect outlet for inspiring future naturalists,” Nyenhuis adds. “As a child, the term ‘naturalist’ may not be easily understood. We hope to instill a passion for the natural world in the kids who join the program—not only to help them enjoy the area while they’re here, but also to take the passion home with them and share it with their friends and family.”
Nyenhuis and Harvey believe that the more kids learn about the natural world, the better chance they have to truly appreciate it. “Our dream is that some of the young explorers in our JNP program will choose to work in the field as adults,” Nyenhuis explains. “The more future naturalists we can inspire, the better.”
At Sea Island, nature is not just a backdrop for activity. No matter how you get around—on foot, in kayaks or Jeeps, alone or with a group—you will likely learn more than botanical and zoological details. You may discover, as others have, the vibrant nurturing power of nature.