From inside of Voysey’s, the private restaurant that overlooks Kiawah Island’s Cassique course, a diner might be tricked into believing that this country club island is just like any other luxury destination. The windows that frame the course betray swaying grasses, moody greens and nearly imperceptible stick-figure golfers enjoying the splendor of one of the country’s most celebrated golf courses.
But the barrier island of Kiawah, some 25 miles south of Charleston, S.C., is more than a golf destination with premier beachfront homes. Kiawah Island has solidified itself as one of the most eco-friendly residential areas and tourist destinations in the United States, with conservation efforts dating back nearly half a century. Visitors are the beneficiaries of these extensive efforts, and the island is a rare example of how tourism and ecological concern can coexist.
A history of conservationism
In 1973, Kiawah Island established the Kiawah Turtle Patrol, an organization that tracks and protects the island’s native population of nesting loggerhead turtles. Soon after, Kiawah Investment, a Kuwaiti-owned company, purchased the island from heirs to a lumber company operator and, in 1975, conducted an environmental inventory of the island over the course of 16 months, studying natural habitats, wildlife and archaeological history, said Donna Windham, executive director of the Kiawah Conservancy.
The widespread inventory led to a master plan, which has since been enacted by the town of Kiawah, that combines environmental activism with tourism and leisure. “It was a whole new environment for them,” Windham said of the Kuwaiti effort. “They took it very seriously that this island was special.” Today, Windham said, the Kiawah Conservancy operates as a nonprofit land trust for the island, encouraging the protection of the environment by working in conjunction with landowners.
The conservancy, established in 1997, can hold land and issue easements. It has, to date, preserved “2,273 acres of Kiawah’s 10,000 acres,” according to the island’s website. In January 2000, Windham said, 152 acres of land known as Little Bear Island — a nesting destination for coastal birds such as the piping plover, peregrine falcon and osprey — were preserved by the Wetlands America Trust, part of the Ducks Unlimited nonprofit conservation group. The easement was updated in 2007 to include protection from the trust and the Kiawah Island Natural Habitat Conservancy.
As a traveler, you may see no concrete indication of the infrastructure that governs the island’s conservation. Yet the influence is everywhere, evident in the clamoring hermit crabs at the shoreline, the robust oyster beds that climb upward on the riverbanks, and the petite raccoons that scale trees at dusk in search of their next meal.
Interacting with a diverse ecology
Close to the island’s Ocean Course, where a strip of cerulean is just visible beyond the marsh, a passerby might be privy to any number of natural encounters: alligators with snouts just visible in the pond water; hook-necked blue herons staring out into the palmettos; white-tailed deer bedding down beneath the drapery of Spanish moss. These moments, despite their frequency, arrive as a surprise in a place where golf clubs and impeccable architecture are the local currency.
But you’re more likely than not to encounter a wild animal during your visit, and that’s because Kiawah Island includes 3,000 acres of tidal salt marsh and 10 miles of shoreline, providing shelter for a variety of wildlife. According to town of Kiawah Wildlife Biologist Jim Jordan — his position was created in 2000 and, eight years later, Assistant Wildlife Biologist Aaron Given arrived — there are 315 species of birds, more than 30 species of mammals, more than 40 species of reptiles, more than 20 species of amphibians, and thousands of invertebrates that call the island home.
“It’s pretty unique,” Jordan said. It is, he said, “a functioning, intact ecosystem that’s working the way it would have worked if there were no houses there.”
One of the island’s most fascinating predators is the bobcat; the current bobcat population, Jordan said, is between 15 and 20. Four to six bobcats are collared by the biology team each year, so their movements can be tracked via GPS. “Visitors and residents can look at the tracking maps online and see where they’ve been,” he said.
Take a boat out onto the serene Kiawah River — you can book tours through the island’s sole resort, the Kiawah Island Golf Resort — and you’re bound to see a dolphin or two, gray fin slipping in and out of the water. These are the island’s bottlenose species, and they’re friendly, tracking vessels and providing the occasional show, flippers aflight. They also engage in a unique behavior known as “strand-feeding.”
“In a coordinated effort, they will basically force a school of fish or a school of shrimp up toward the bank,” Jordan said. “They beach themselves.” The western end of the island makes for good viewing of this behavior, although he warned that disrupting dolphins during their strand-feeds can be harmful. “It’s a learned behavior,” passed down from generation to generation, Jordan said. Should a strand-feed get interrupted, dolphins could abandon the behavior entirely, thus keeping future generations from learning how to eat in this location-specific manner.
Aiming for symbiosis
The serenity experienced on this island oasis is thanks to more than just the work of the conservancy. At the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, for instance, an AAA five-diamond resort that was built in 2004, live, mature oak trees were transplanted to help promote the maintenance of the natural environment. “This really wasn’t required. It was just something that we did voluntarily, because we thought it was the right thing to do,” said Bryan Hunter, director of public relations for the Kiawah Island Golf Resort.
The resort, he said, places a premium on conservation efforts, encouraging guests to immerse themselves in the local environment through organized boat trips to other barrier islands, alligator safaris and dolphin-viewing excursions. Visitors can also tag along with the Turtle Patrol in the morning in search of hatching and migration patterns (although that program has been greatly restricted because of the coronavirus pandemic). Some may even get to assist hatchling turtles, Hunter said. Those who join the Turtle Patrol outings look for nests, take notes and record observations about the year’s hatch.
One conservation effort enforced by island residents — including hoteliers — is the Lights Out for Sea Turtles initiative, which requires that beach-illuminating lights be turned off in the evenings during loggerhead nesting season. As Jordan pointed out, artificial light confuses hatchling turtles, often accidentally guiding them away from the ocean.
Low light pollution, Hunter said, is “vital.” “The resort, along with the rest of the island, through town ordinance, makes sure that we really carefully monitor light pollution along the beach, so that it doesn’t disorient nesting sea turtles or hatching sea turtles,” he said.
As the sun descends at dusk, there is a vibration in the air. Is it the cicadas, on their 17-year cycle? Or maybe just a faraway flock of birds? Whatever the origin of the ambient noise, it calls to mind a soothing bedtime melody, the kind you might slip into as you wind down into sleep.
And conservation-minded tourists will sleep just fine.
Selinger is a writer based in East Hampton, N.Y. Her website is hannahselinger.net. Find her on Twitter: @hannahselinger.
If you go
Where to stay
The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort
1 Sanctuary Beach Dr.
This AAA five-diamond property has 255 guest rooms and suites, as well as multiple dining venues and direct beach access. Rooms from about $240.
What to do
1 Sanctuary Beach Dr.
Run by the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, this 1.5-hour boat excursion takes guests through creeks and marshes in search of the island’s native bottlenose dolphin population. $450 for up to six passengers.
Kiawah Beachwalker Park
8 Beachwalker Dr.
Situated on the west end of the island, this ocean beach offers the only public access on Kiawah. Amenities include lifeguards, chair and umbrella rentals, restrooms, outdoor showers, a snack bar and a picnic area with grills. Parking $5 to $15 per vehicle.
Heron Park Nature Center
4000 Sea Forest Dr.
Guests can ask resident wildlife biologists about the local ecology and visit with some of the native and nonnative species, such as diamondback terrapins and a 10-foot-long Burmese python. The center’s gift shop sells handcrafted items made by local artists. Free.
Marsh Island Park
Marsh Hawk Lane
Walk or bike this one-mile scenic trail that extends over the marsh to a lookout tower. Part of the larger Kiawah Island bike trails system, which covers about 30 miles, this trail is suitable for all ages.
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