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.
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