2017-08-10 / Opinions

ACROSS THE SAVANNAH

The real coast – it’s for the birds
By TOM POLAND
a southern writer

Living 100 miles closer to the beach than the folks back home, I’m always running into friends headed for Myrtle Beach. “Can’t wait to see the beach,” they tell me. And off they go. The real beach, I know, is something they’ll never see.

My love affair with the coast goes way back to early trips to Savannah, Daytona Beach, and Ormond Beach. Like most kids who grew up landlocked, a trip to the beach promised a chance to ride waves. Get knocked down by waves and find seashells and sand dollars.

For several summers running in the 1960s, I spent two weeks at my Aunt Vivian’s home in Summerville. I remember the trips to Folly Beach the most. All that openness, sun, sea, and stretches of beach created a horizon like no other. I could see for miles.

When I went back home, a longing for salt, sand, and spray consumed me. Nothing’s worse than growing up landlocked once you’ve had a taste of the sea.

We grow up and change and today the coast holds a different allure for me. In 1978, on a lark, I applied for a job as a scriptwriter and cinematographer for natural history films. Three finalists had to write a 15-minute script on the eastern brown pelican. My script, The Magnificent Pelican, cryptic wordplay involving my initials TMP, landed me the job, and for a brief time, I worked on the wild off-limit islands of Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge.

It made for some long days. Even a sorry photographer knows the best light is at dawn. Up at 2 a.m., I would race the sun to the coast to the jumping off place, a landing near McClellanville. My first crossing was one to remember. In predawn darkness, the film director and I put out in a Boston Whaler manned by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service boatman, Herbert Manigault. About 300 yards from the marshy side of Bull Island, Herbert killed the engine. The sound of 10,000 Dewalt drills piercing steel crossed the water—mosquitoes by the millions.

I didn’t care. I felt as if I were about to step onto the shores of Africa. And I felt this way for three summers in Cape Romain, a refuge that wraps barrier islands and salt marsh habitats around 22 miles of Atlantic coast. Nature rules here. It is an ideal place to film wildlife for a simple reason: man has yet to ruin it.

Wildlife and topography ennoble the refuge … orange-billed oystercatchers, white egrets against green spartina ... chocolate pluff mud hinting of sulfur ... blue creeks that loop, double back, and nourish the green-gold spartina. The sea-ravaged maritime forest, however, leaves you breathless.

Every time I approached Bull Island, D-Day came to mind. Massive rootballs of live oaks, loblolly pine, and cabbage palmetto litter the beach like the Czech hedgehog obstacles Germans planted on Omaha Beach. It looks like a battle scene, and the truth is it’s a battle the trees lost.

Unrepentant tides undercut the trees’ roots. Toppled trees, their sun-bleached limbs white as marble, lie strewn about, monuments to the moon and its tides. Stripped of foliage and bark and smoothed by sand and sea, the trees are about the end of things. Even death is beautiful in the islands.

We’d put ashore onto a wide low-slung panorama of sand, birds, noise, and heat. My mind made strange connections. America’s “A Horse With No Name” played in my head. On the first part of the journey I was looking at all the life. There were plants and birds ... There was sand ... And the sky with no clouds. The heat was hot and the ground was dry. But the air was full of sound.

It’s noisy all right. Clamoring shorebirds swirl overhead, dropping bombs that mandate long sleeves and caps. (If you ever go to a rookery, never look straight up.)

The islands, pristine, sun splashed, and desolate, truly are for the birds because desolation is where the business of raising fledglings best takes place. Though scores of feathered species live here, my trips to Cape Romain involved pelicans, sand dunes, and sea turtles. They were the stars of our films.

Imagine clouds of birds flying over a beach mosaic of straw-stick nests filled with eggs and purple dollops. That’s what a pelican colony looks like. A fledgling pelican is a featherless, purple blob that constantly rocks back and forth in the nest (a cooling mechanism). A rookery of jiggling fledglings is a dizzying thing and a bit unnerving. Many die and the sun-ripened smell overpowers you. But I liked the little rascals.

Least terns deserve at least a mention because they shared nesting space with the pelicans. A scrape in the sand just above the waterline: that’s where least terns nest. Their eggs, tan with brown specks, look just like sand by design. They’re near invisible. Not once did I step on an egg.

Today, least terns colonize the graveled rooftops of buildings, a commentary on how we’ve destroyed nesting habitat and another reason I love Cape Romain. Its feathery alchemy transforms sand scrapes into the seashore’s grand aviary.

By night we filmed nesting sea turtles, a task that demanded we arrive late and stay late ... sometimes to 3 in the morning. We’d patrol the beach in a battered jeep, airlifted there by a helicopter, looking for the scrape marks that betray a female loggerhead turtle’s crawl to the dune line.

One night we patrolled until 2:30 in the morning. No turtles. Herbert returned us to the landing in predawn darkness. We moved through the night unseen, like nighthawks. Faint light filled the sky, an accretion from Charleston and its suburbs. It seemed otherworldly.

The nesting season was soon to end. Our last chance came a week later. We hoped to find a turtle in the process of nesting. A turtle deep into nesting is, in a sense, paralyzed. She will not move once her eggs begin to drop, as poachers know all too well.

We set out around 9 p.m. beneath a full moon. The marsh grasses and water shone silvery white. It was a beautiful evening for luminaries such as nesting turtles.

We made two patrols. Nothing. Restless, we walked up and down the beach. Herbert, well aware this was our last chance, cautioned us. “She’ll pause at the surf line and look around. She’ll go back to sea if she spots you.”

We kept patrolling. Around 2 a.m. we spotted a scrape running up to the dune line. Herbert circled behind the dune line to see how far along the nesting process might be. Soon he ran back with good news. She was on the nest.

We walked up to a massive dune where a turtle was dropping slimy ping-pong ball-like eggs into a hole. This was no ordinary dune. It was the dune. A turtle comes back to lay eggs where she hatched. No one knows how they accomplish this miraculous navigation.

Covered with barnacles and shells, this turtle weighed about 300 pounds. We shot several scenes, then watched her finish. She covered the eggs with her flippers, dug another hole, and covered it to confuse raccoons. Then she crawled into the surf and disappeared. Her babies would incubate in sun-warmed sand, nature’s hatchery. The few hatchlings that survived would return someday and begin the cycle anew.

Cape Romain and its wild islands never failed to give me the feeling I was in the tropics. A sense of mystery and awe gripped me there and it never let go. It was an adventure. It was unpredictable and dangerous. That slab of mud that just fell off the bank wasn’t mud: a bull gator’s headed my way.

I last was at Cape Romain in August 1983. Stepping into Herbert’s Whaler for the last time, I was about to change careers. No more island hopping for me.

No matter how hard we fight it, the passing of times makes us wiser. Looking back, I realize what a privilege it was to see unspoiled barrier islands, islands protected from becoming Hilton Heads.

In 2007 I came tantalizingly close to Cape Romain. A friend and I drove down for an oyster roast at a farm overlooking an Awendaw estuary. It was a brisk Saturday early in March. Belted Galloway cattle dotted the pastures. The cows’ saddle oxford hides of black and white had everyone’s attention, everyone’s except mine. I stared at the estuary. Somewhere out there were my islands, and March meant the pelicans would soon be nesting.

I stood there remembering my island days and nights. There in that sun-blasted islandscape, I captured images on film. Even better, I captured memories as I tried to tell a story about a place that’s truly for the birds, the real coast.

So when friends tell me they’re going to Myrtle Beach, I feel a tad sorry for them. The real beach, I know, is something they’ll never see. They won’t know, as I do, what the coast looked like in the beginning. What would you rather see? A shorebird rookery or a dinosaur themed put-putt golf course? Their memories will fade; mine will not.

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