CAPE ROMAIN — The moment was almost surreal, the ears of the creature out flat as it paddled across the Intracoastal Waterway.

“That’s a cat!” wildlife photographer Ben Sumrell yelled to Capt. Wil Christenson in the pontoon boat.

A big cat. The two men out for a nature tour had the rare luck to spot a bobcat swimming in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

Nobody knows how many bobcats live in the Lowcountry, but they appear to thrive in the maritime forests.

“They’re statewide. They’re probably not plentiful anywhere. The forested areas of the Lowcountry tend to have the highest numbers of them,” said Jay Butfiloski, S.C. Department of Natural Resources furbearer project supervisor.

A tracked population of a few dozen of the cats lives in the dunes and forest on Kiawah Island, literally alongside resort homes.

But as widespread as they are, the wildcats aren’t often seen. They are nocturnal, secretive and camouflaged too well to pick out easily.

Sarah Dawsey, the refuge manager, is also its wildlife biologist. She spends hours on the barrier islands. She’s seen a bobcat twice in the last two years. Only once in a quarter-century there has she seen one in the water.

The men had never seen anything like it.

“It was unbelievable. It was so freaking cool,” said Christenson, who pilots the tour boat for Coastal Expeditions. “Probably the most unusual thing I’ve seen in eight years out here.”

Like other felines, bobcats apparently hate to get wet, but swim well. And getting back and forth on the barrier islands means swimming.

This one didn’t pay the boat any mind. It dog-paddled its way to the mud flat on the mainland and began loping off.

Sumrell’s camera shutter clicked away like a baseball card in bike spokes, Christenson said. He heard Sumrell say to the cat, “Look at me, look at me.” So Christenson whistled.

“The bobcat stopped dead in its tracks and looked back at us,” he said. Then it bounded through the marsh, gave one last look and disappeared into undergrowth by a house under construction.

“That was an experience,” Sumrell said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.