HILTON HEAD, S.C. — There are many things that bring relaxation-seeking travelers to Palmetto Dunes, a 2,000-acre luxury oceanfront resort at the heart of Hilton Head Island. Serious golfers come to test their skill on the George Fazio course, the most challenging of three award-winning golf courses, tennis players want to perfect their serve at the Tennis Center, which boasts 23 clay courts, and surfers come to catch that perfect wave.
But it's the abundance of wildlife inhabiting the pristine Atlantic shoreline, saltwater marshes and fresh water lagoons that brought me here. I organized my own Lowcountry photo safari, determined to capture images of the island's diversity of magnificent creatures.
My island adventure kicked off with a self-guided kayaking tour of Palmetto Dunes' 11-mile inland lagoon that winds past verdant, perfectly manicured fairways and a number of elegant beach houses. This calm waterway was ideal for me, a relatively inexperienced kayaker.
I was admiring the reflection of the trees in the water when I spotted a great blue heron perched on the low hanging branches of a pine tree — a prime fishing spot. I scrambled for my camera. Zoom, focus, got it! The lagoon is also home to great egrets, red tailed hawks, and osprey — a bird watcher's paradise.
The wonderful thing about kayaking is that feeling of actually sitting on the water, letting me get practically eye-to-eye with any creature that swam by, like river otters and turtles.
However, I wasn't too keen on getting up close and personal with a snake that, to my horror, appeared to be slithering its way toward me. Just as I was contemplating conking the vile thing on the head with my oar, it propelled itself out of the water and flew away. It wasn't a snake at all, but a cormorant, also called a snake bird because it swims with its body entirely submerged, exposing only its long, crooked neck.
Another way to explore the area's natural beauty is to rent a bike and set off on one of the resort's paved bike paths.
Many guests head out to the beach at sunset on a beach cruiser, a bike specially designed for traversing the hard-packed sand.
Dolphin Eco Tour
Every time I visit a beach destination, I end up on a dolphin watch cruise. I just can't get enough of those playful marine mammals that seem to be forever smiling. Hilton Head's salt marsh ecosystem is home to pods of gregarious Atlantic bottlenose dolphins that always welcome company.
No sooner had Captain Grant guided the power boat into Broad Creek than a mother dolphin and her calf greeted us, arcing to the surface in unison, and quickly submerging. Female dolphins have long lasting bonds with their young, remaining with them for three to six years.
Dolphins in these waters exhibit a rarely seen but fascinating behavior known as strand feeding. A testament to their intelligence, they work as a team to create a huge wave that washes fish ashore. The dolphins temporarily beach themselves while they feed, then slide down the slick, muddy banks into the marsh.
We headed into Calibogue Sound where Harbor Town Lighthouse stood like a cheerful, candy-striped monolith against the darkening sky, and then we made our way to Daufuskie Island, the inspiration for Pat Conroy's novel, “The Water is Wide.”
At a small inlet, Captain Grant silenced the motor to point out a thick bank of waist-high spartina grass, crucial to this delicate ecosystem. Not only is it a habitat for a number of bird species, it's also a vital link in the food chain.
Sea Pines Forest
My wildlife viewing quest wouldn't be complete without a visit to Sea Pines Forest Preserve, a 605-acre dedicated wildlife habitat best known for its mysterious Indian Shell Ring, remnants of a civilization that inhabited the island approximately 4,000 years ago. Some experts theorize the shell ring was a site for ceremonial rituals.
I chose to explore the preserve on horseback, so at Lawton Stables I hopped on a quarter horse named Ragin' Cajun, (he was a docile animal, despite the name) and set off on a guided trail ride through the lush maritime forest.
Spanish moss clings like cobwebs to the branches of centuries-old live oaks, bestowing the forest with an ethereal aura. With a little imagination, that could be a unicorn instead of a deer behind that thicket of pines.
But this is no enchanted forest, and our guide reined in my flights of fancy by giving us the facts about the animals that thrive in these wetlands. At least 160 species of birds make Sea Pines Forest their winter home, but plenty can be found year round.
After the ride, I set off on foot for Lake Mary, one of four man-made freshwater lakes on the preserve. That's where I had my most breathtaking wildlife encounter of all.
As I was snapping photos of birds, I came practically face-to-face with an 8-foot-long alligator sunning himself on the lakeshore. I could count every ridge on the reptile's back and every scale on his rough, murky — colored skin. I was way too close for comfort.
If the lion is king of the jungle, the gator is king of the maritime forest, demanding respect from every species that inhabits the island, including humans. He was as still as one of the palmetto trees and I had no desire to test how fast he could move if provoked.
When I was a safe distance away, I put my zoom to good use and clicked until I had my most treasured photo of all — an image of this Lowcountry icon enjoying life on the island as much as I had.