It’s a warm afternoon in early October. The air is peppered with the smell of the sea and the earthy trace of live oak. We’re on the north side of Kiawah Island, at Rhett’s Bluff, just east of The River Course. We can see Briar’s Creek golf course and Mullet Hall across the river and a vibrant green stretch of marsh grass beyond. We are headed out for an afternoon cruise with Captain Elliot Hillock and an ice chest full of rosé and snacks.
He’s been a captain for nearly five years but has spent his life on the water around Kiawah Island, fishing the reef and the lagoons and rivers. I ask him about the fish, and he rattles off a dozen species: redfish, spotted sea trout, flounder, sheepshead, black drum, and tarpon, to name a few. His love for the place and the lifestyle is evident. We load into the boat, a 28-foot, dual-console cruiser, and glide away from the dock.
The Kiawah River is a natural waterway that runs east to west and separates the island from the mainland. It’s flanked on both sides by wide strips of Spartina grass, or cordgrass, that grows dense and tall, preventing erosion. The marsh is a thriving ecosystem for countless and diverse species: snails, marsh hens, egrets, ibis, and terrapins. In the afternoon light, the grass is brilliant, nearly glowing, green and verdant. We toast our tumbler of wine as the boat levels to a breezy twenty knots.
As we pick up speed, traveling east, Hillock points along the coast. To our right is the old Vanderhorst site, once a thriving rice and indigo plantation. On the left we can distinguish hummocks against neighboring Johns Island. These small islands, thick with salt cedar, pines, and live oaks, are typically state owned and unnamed. We pass Snake Island on the left, privately owned and named for its shape, not its inhabitants, Hillock explains The river opens up as we head towards the Atlantic. I am watching the console, and we suddenly drop from thirty feet to fifty feet deep. We’re in the Stono Inlet now. Hillock points north, and we can see the white peaks of the Ravenel Bridge of Charleston. The boat flattens out as we pick up speed, careening towards the Stono River.
Up ahead, in the mouth of the inlet, is the Bird Key Stono Heritage Preserve. The thirty-five-acre island is a haven for nesting seabirds, like brown pelicans, terns, gulls, and skimmers. There are only five such preserves in the state of South Carolina, and up until the mid-1990s, Bird Key was one of the largest brown pelican rookeries on the East Coast. Besides providing nesting habitat, the sanctuary lends winter loafing and feeding areas to numerous birds.
“This area is rich with Civil War lore. There’s so much history here. A couple of Union ships were sunk there in the inlet, and sometimes you’ll see guys cruising the beach with metal detectors, looking for old cannon balls.” We see the beach he is talking about. Sandy Point juts out into the river—shiny pink sand peaking into scrubby dunes grown over with yellow wildflowers. This, says Hillock, is where he often sees dolphins strand feeding.
“They pair up and work in groups and kinda corral a school of bait fish, pushing them up against the bank, so all at once they’ll rush the bank and throw themselves, as well as all the bait fish, up on the bank, and then they’ll feed. And the pelicans and herons have picked up on this feeding habit, so you’ll see all this wildlife feeding all at once, and it’s this big rush of energy. It’s wild.”
We watch the surface of the water for dolphins for a while before turning up a little inlet called Penny Creek. It’s late afternoon, and the light shimmers off the water as we cruise up the shallow creek. We are approaching the east side of The Ocean Course, skirting the high ground of Ocean Park. To our left is a conservation easement called Little Bear Island, and sure enough Hillock spots a large white-tailed buck stalking through the marsh.
He’s in full rut, Hillock tells us. It’s mating season and our buck is out chasing does. Little Bear Island is comprised of 150 acres of salt flats, marsh, scrubby dunes, and maritime forest. It is home to abundant resident and migratory wildlife species. Loggerhead turtles nest on its beaches in the spring and summer; deer tracks crisscross its salt flats. Bobcats and raccoons are not uncommon on the island, and we see red-winged blackbirds flitting in and out of the cordgrass. The maritime forest canopy is dense and lush with oak, red bay, yaupon holly, red cedar, wax myrtle, and cabbage palmetto trees.
As we turn back, the sun is sinking, coloring the horizon a brilliant shade of pink. Suddenly two dolphins burst to the surface on our left! Hillock slows the boat, and we stare at the water. The bottlenose dolphins circle the boat, breaching again and again.
“You can tell when they’re resting because they’ll swim right in the middle of the river, and they’ll stay with the whole pod and all come up simultaneously for air. Other times you’ll see them playing in the river.”
The average lifespan is close to fifty years, and these particular dolphins, the Kiawah River Pod, are full-time residents. To Hillock they are old friends. He can differentiate between pods and name the characteristics of particular dolphins. “This year we had two youngsters in the Kiawah River. They were born last spring,” he says proudly. Hillock’s dog, Tide, is not with us today, but apparently he has a special bond with the dolphins. “He’ll look for them and get so excited. And the dolphins will breach, their eyes right above the surface. So they’ll come up and see what’s going on, and they’ll swim on their sides and make direct eye contact less than three feet away from Tide.”
We float in the middle of the river for a long time, until the dolphins begin to move east, away from the setting sun. The ride back to Rhett’s Bluff is fast and windy, and we all sit quietly, taking in the pinks and purples streaking across the sky.