Lives on the Sea

This is part of an occasional series looking at how the coast and the ocean are changing and what it means for a region where people have made a life and a living for generations in tune with the sea.

EDISTO ISLAND - The worry was as real as the two miles of untrammeled shell beach that lay before its new state wildlife managers: Botany Bay could end up a mess.

If you go

Open - Daylight hours, 1/2 hour before sunrise to 1/2 hour after sunset.

Closed - Tuesdays and for scheduled special hunts. See Calendar of Events and Closures for specific dates or call ahead for visits.

All visitors are required to obtain a day use pass at the kiosk located at the main gate off Botany Bay Road. No shelter, water or restroom on site.

Fig Island is closed to all public access.

Jason's Lake is open for adult-youth catch and release fishing Friday-Sunday.

For more information call 1-843-869-2713.

The former oceanfront plantation had been deeded to the state as a wildlife management area, to be enjoyed by people while left, literally, to nature. When it opened in 2009, its tiny, remote barrier island beach was trouble waiting to happen. This was the Lowcountry, where thousands on thousands of people jam the sand each summer weekend, causing more than a few headaches for beach town police.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources wasn't funded to fully staff the management area's entrance gate, much less intensely patrol 5,000 acres of forest, fields, ponds, riverfront and, yes, brand new public beach.

And, boy, they came. More than 50,000 people per year now visit the Edisto Island beauty. In summer, most head straight for the small dirt pull off lot and causeway to that beach.

Problems have come too - people trying to tote along coolers of beer and fire up grills, sneak in dogs for a run on a beach where threatened species nest, trying to cart off whelks and tulip shells by the carriage load.

But something remarkable turned up first.

"The community came to us," said Phil Maier, DNR coastal reserves and outreach director. They are "a strong body of conservation and natural resource minded folks on Edisto Island who want Botany Bay to remain beautiful and a haven for wildlife."

That contingent of volunteers now includes more than 100 people who put in nearly 10,000 hours per year. They handle the day-to-day visitor management, watching to see that rules like the alcohol ban are enforced. They do the mowing, clear limbs from the live oak allees. They spend Tuesdays when the place is closed each week rebuilding porches and patching up roofs, helping restore the old ice house and other historic structures.

DNR has other large volunteer groups - the various beach turtle watch groups among the largest. But for a single, off-to-one-side site, the contingent put together by the Edisto Island Preservation Alliance likely is unrivaled, Maier said.

"We have probably saved the state hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Bess Kellett, herself an Edisto Islander, hired by DNR to coordinate the program. "And they love it. We've just had so many people become so involved."

The volunteers run education programs for kids. They take the time to talk to people about nearby rookery islands as the long trains of dozens of pelicans pass overhead, point out the ribboned-off loggerhead turtle nests, pause conversations for the vivid painted bunting "singing its heart out" in the causeway arbor.

And they smile while reminding over and over again - no bathrooms, no water, please put the shells back on the beach, careful for the snakes crossing the road and watch for darting fox squirrels. Fox squirrels, they'll tell you, are a little thickheaded when it comes to cars.

That's pivotal to preserving the heritage of this place, a centuries-old farm in an enclave of hardwood and pine stands, crop fields, salt marshes, hummock islands and a maritime forest beach with its own "boneyard," a ghost forest of dead trees in the surf.

The farmhouse and caretaker's house remain intact but off-limits. The remains of two earlier plantation homes are preserved as a historic sites.

But the tract is managed primarily for wildlife and the enjoyment of wildlife - the 100 or more species of birds, bobcat slipping through the grasses, the deer that stepped out of the maritime forest in front of bathers on the beach or the 12-foot long alligator lying there when turtle watch volunteers came out for the morning round.

Botany Bay is not your usual tourist stop. The causeway to the beach alone is a half-mile walk. As the volunteers point out, there are no public restrooms, not even a public indoor area. This is a place where even the surf is wild, and visitors need to tread lightly.

"It's threatening out there. The surf is very treacherous," said Bud Skidmore, of the alliance, an early Botany Bay volunteer. "There's just way too many people out there using it as a recreational beach instead of a wildlife area."

The beach is so rich with shells that DNR at first allowed one quart to be collected per child. But sellers brought children along to cull. One woman showed up with two infants in a large baby carriage and was stopped on the way out carrying both children while nudging along the weighted-down carriage.

Ice coolers, grills, music, tents, RVs expecting to camp - the list just goes on.

Most get the polite reminder, "wildlife," from people like Sarajune Owen, who showed up in 2008 with the first wave of volunteers and was stationed at the entrance kiosk in the scorching heat of a recent afternoon. A few who don't comply get turned over to the wildlife officer on site.

The volunteers have become the good-natured face of the place, people like Charlie Boozer, who took time off from his landscaping business one Wednesday to step in for someone who could no longer staff the tiki hut on the beach.

"It was a strong wind and cold. I was the only one here. But I went out and sat, because as soon as I got here I looked at the ocean and thought, 'I'm supposed to be here,'" he said.