Natural beaches are very hard to come by on the East Coast of the United States, and what beaches remain are quickly being taken over by cheesy resort hotels or private islands filled with golf courses. One such natural beach can still be found though in South Carolina, at the Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve/Wildlife Management Area located on Edisto Island. That’s a very long name which only a government could create, and in this case, the land is managed and protected by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Before I get to the photography portion of this blog, the history of this area deserves mention, and there is a lot of history in this rural and isolated area of South Carolina.
The land was home to Bleak Hall Plantation which was built in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This sea island cotton plantation featured the main house and many outbuildings including a smokehouse, ice house, well, and sheds. Some remnants of these buildings still stand today and can be viewed via a driving tour of the preserve. Check-in is required when entering the area, and you will be provided with a map which provides a short description of each marked historic site. A second plantation was also built in the area known as Sea Cloud Plantation. Part of the Sea Cloud Plantation house also remains on the property.
As this area was used for plantations in the 1700-1800s, it was unfortunately also the home of many African slaves. In 1861 the US Civil War began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, only a few dozen miles away from Botany Bay. At the outbreak of the war approximately 5000 slaves lived in Edisto Island, outnumbering white people by a ratio of over 15:1. Not long after the war began, Edisto Island was evacuated. Bleak Hall Plantation was used as a lookout by both Confederate and Union Soldiers, and eventually, the main house of Bleak Hall was burnt to the ground. Bleak Hall was rebuilt but was no longer the same plantation as it was before the war. With the end of the war came the end of slavery and the plantation system. Without their endless supply of free labor, many of the former white residents did not return. The newly freed slaves did return though in significant numbers. Many of these people became part of the African American Gullah culture which still survives today. If you are a history buff and have never heard of the Gullah, you should take a moment to read many of the online articles or watch some of the documentaries regarding their culture. For many years they were isolated in the part of the country long before real estate developers moved in and started bulldozing everything. It’s a part of American history, particularly African American history; a lot of people never even knew existed.
Finally, long before European Settlers and African slaves occupied the area ancient people hunted and fished on the island. Fig Island is also part of the reserve. The Island contains three shell rings, which are ancient disposal sites for of mollusk shells and other harvesting waste. These rings are National Historic Landmarks and range in age from 3600 to 4400 years old. To put that timeline into perspective, the shell rings pre-date the written history of ancient Egypt. There is no easy access to the shell rings as they are surrounded by marsh. You should not attempt to visit them regardless due to their fragile environment, but being a slight history buff myself, I thought it was amazing to visiting an area which contained such ancient geological sites.
The Bone Yard
Regardless of all the historical sites contained on the preserve, my main goal was the visit the beach, nicknamed The Bone Yard and occasionally also called Driftwood Beach. Since this area has been rural for so long and is now protected from development the beach ends where a small strip of the forest begins. After a short hike across some marshland on a nicely maintained trail, you will come across a thin strip of forest which separates the salt marsh from the beach. You will walk through the forest and emerge on some of the most natural beaches that many may ever see. The forest itself has been battered by storms and hurricanes. As a result, erosion has claimed some of the trees. The trees die when directly exposed to salt water and turn a bone like color. These dead trees were the reason for my trip and my photographic subject for the day.
Most of the trees in Botany Bay have been uprooted. Not many years ago there were as many as six trees which were still standing in the ocean. That changed with the arrival of Hurricane Matthew in 2017. Though the relatively “small” hurricane made direct landfall much further north near Bulls Bay, it came close enough to Botany Bay to cause major erosion. If you visited Botany Bay before 2017, it looks nothing like it did before. Matthew wiped out approximately 30 feet or beach and devastated the trees which were once standing in the water. I was only able to find one standing survivor, which may even be a tree which wasn’t in the water’s grasp before the hurricane. All the other partially submerged trees have been uprooted.
This amount of erosion is worrisome. High Tide now comes almost completely up to the remaining tree line, so close that during high tide, you aren’t going to get any photographs without getting wet. The preserve discourages people from being on the beach during high tide due to the natural dangers hidden by the water. I would also recommend you stay out of the water below the low tide line during any time of the day. The ocean is filled with stumps, submerged trees, and sharp oyster beds. If the water is rough, you could find yourself in trouble quick. This is not a beach you want to visit if your goal is to take a swim.
With the amount of erosion which occurred during Matthew, which was a Category 1 storm, I am worried what would happen to this natural beach if it were to take a hit from a larger Hurricane. South Carolina has taken 32 direct hits from Hurricanes between 1851-2017. Most of the modern storms have been relatively small, but like Matthew can still cause severe damage. I worry that a larger storm like Hugo, which occurred in 1989, would completely wipe out the existing beach and coastal forest at Botany Bay, making it nothing more than a flat salt marsh. There’s also the problem of how unpredictable hurricanes can be. At the time of this blog post, the 2019 hurricane season is about two months away. The hurricane which brings an end to this wonderful area could occur within a few months, or it could happen in 50 years. There’s simply no way to predict when/if it’s going to happen. With that slightly depressing point made, I would plan a visit sooner rather than later if you wish the visit the coastal forest.
Botany Bay is also a wonderful place for people who enjoy seashells. I’m not talking about of few wholly intact shells randomly found half buried in the sand which you occasionally find at more popular beaches. There are hundreds of thousands of them, if not millions. Where the high tide line meets the forest, there is a large mound of them extending the entire length of the beach. Being that this is a wildlife management area though, you can’t take them home with you. If you could I doubt there would be any shells left as this would be a goldmine for shell pickers and tourist stores found at neighboring developed beaches. You will have to take some photos instead like my daughter did who also accompanied me on this trip.
The Boneyard is the perfect place for oceanscapes, particularly long exposures. The trees provide you with unique subjects that are rare to find in any other location. For these shots, I used a combination of 28mm, 20mm, and 85mm prime lenses. A tripod is a must and make sure you have one strong enough to remain sturdy in coastal winds. A strong ND filter will be required for daylight shooting such as the shots above. I used a combination of Lee’s Little and Big Stopper filters, which are 6 and 10 stop ND filters respectively. Keep your gear in your bad and protected from blowing sand, as a strong wind can easily blow light sand your way. On particularly windy days a rain cover may be best to avoid getting sand and saltwater spray. This would be a great spot for sunrise photos, but that gates are not open until 8:00 AM, which prevents access during that time. You may get some great colors in the evening on shorter days before the gates close 12 hours later, at 8:00 PM.
Prints of Botany Bay and many of my other prints are located in my store at https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/2-brian-young.html