The Shoes Make the Scientist: The Best Footwear for Coastal Fieldwork
Shoe choice makes a huge difference in anyone’s daily comfort and quality of life.
But when you work outdoors for a living, choosing the appropriate footwear becomes even more critical. Too-short boots on a cold day can lead to soaked socks and frigid toes; flimsy sandals in the salt marsh can result in oyster shell and sharp grass cuts.
We asked dozens of SCDNR colleagues at our marine headquarters in Charleston what they prefer to wear in the varied and tough environments where they study the wildlife and water of coastal South Carolina. The takeaways should be useful to anyone who wants to enjoy the outdoors in comfort... if not in style.
Worn by: Sea turtle and shorebird biologists. During the summer months, when sea turtles and shorebirds alike are busy nesting and raising young along the beaches of South Carolina, the SCDNR staff who study them can cover miles a day on the hot sand.
Special considerations: These biologists frequently work on remote barrier islands accessible only by boat. Because they have to transition from boat to shore, the shoes they wear must be either waterproof or water-friendly and compatible with sand.
What they prefer: Water sandals (for summer) and hip waders (for winter). Keens and Chacos allow feet to breathe on summer days when temperatures reach north of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. They also result in highly attractive tan lines.
When you might wear them: Exploring SCDNR-managed properties such as Otter Island or Caper’s Island.
SALT MARSH WORK
Worn by: Shellfish and environmental biologists. Working in the salt marsh to rebuild oyster reefs or conduct vegetation surveys, as our shellfish and environmental biologists do, is incredibly hard-wearing on shoes.
Special considerations: These researchers need footwear that won’t get sucked off when they sink knee-deep in pluff mud and can stand up to the razor-sharp edges of oyster shells.
What they prefer: Chest waders or lace-up canvas wading/marsh boots. These rubber-soled boots can be a challenge to find but are ideal for weathering the abuse sustained in these tough conditions.
When you might wear them: Harvesting oysters from South Carolina shellfish grounds.
SMALLER VESSEL WORK
Worn by: Crustacean and fish biologists. These staff are out on the water every week of the year, through rain, freezing winds, and scorching temperatures, to collect data. By catching the fish, crabs, and shrimp that swim in South Carolina waters on a monthly basis, they provide data for tracking the long-term health and fluctuations of these important species.
Special considerations: These biologists work in smaller (<20 feet long) boats packed with nets, buoys, coolers, data sheets, lunch, and other crew members. They haul crab pots and nets full of fish aboard, mucking up the deck – so they need shoes that work in tight and slick quarters.
What they prefer: Water sandals or shrimp boots. The iconic white PVC boots originally designed for shrimpers are a common choice among SCDNR marine staff, who work in similar conditions and like their versatility (can be worn with sides up, rolled down, or even cut off). The light color stays cooler in the summer and the rubber soles provide decent traction on slippery boat decks.
When you might wear them: Boating or fishing along the South Carolina coast.
LARGE VESSEL WORK
Worn by: Sea turtle, crustacean, and fish biologists. During spring, summer, and fall, SCDNR staff who study marine organisms in the Atlantic Ocean (ranging from nearshore waters to far offshore), need versatile shoes that can stand up to waves, hot weather, and fish scales.
Special considerations: These biologists work in all sorts of sea states, from flat calm to 6-ft swells. They work with heavy equipment and large animals or baskets of fish and need a closed-toe shoe that also is waterproof or quick drying and great for all day comfort.
What they prefer: Water aerobics shoes, shrimp boots, boat shoes, or even old tennis shoes. The shoe of the hour often changes based on weather, whether they’re working out on deck or in the ship’s lab, how hot it is on deck, and whether they want knee-high or ankle-high tan lines.
When you might wear them: Offshore fishing for sea basses, snappers, grouper, or tilefish – all fish sampled by our reef fish biologists.
Worn by: Almost all of our staff. When our biologists are not out collecting animals and data in the field, they often work long hours on their feet in the lab processing samples.
Special considerations: The best lab shoes are comfortable, non-skid, and impervious to spills ranging from the merely gross (fish slime) to the potentially dangerous (preservative fluids).
What they prefer: Any close-toed, rubber-soled shoes that cover the whole foot.
When you might wear them: If you come visit our marine lab in Charleston! We offer monthly lab tours advertised through social media, so check in periodically on our Facebook page if you’re interested in signing up for one.