The Shoes Make the Scientist: The Best Footwear for Coastal Fieldwork

The Shoes Make the Scientist: The Best Footwear for Coastal Fieldwork

Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR

Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR

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.

BEACH WORK

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.

Michelle Pate peels back a predator guard over a hatched sea turtle nest. SCDNR sea turtle biologists work to count, protect, and monitor sea turtle nests on remote islands across the coast. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Michelle Pate peels back a predator guard over a hatched sea turtle nest. SCDNR sea turtle biologists work to count, protect, and monitor sea turtle nests on remote islands across the coast. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Mary Catherine Martin and Felicia Sanders (L-R) discuss the placement of a net for catching shorebirds just after dawn one cold morning in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Both are wearing hip waders to keep warm and dry while they move back and forth between the boat and the shore. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Mary Catherine Martin and Felicia Sanders (L-R) discuss the placement of a net for catching shorebirds just after dawn one cold morning in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Both are wearing hip waders to keep warm and dry while they move back and forth between the boat and the shore. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

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.

These marsh/wading boots, a kind of high-top sneaker and boot hybrid, are perfect for working in pluff mud around sharp shells. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

These marsh/wading boots, a kind of high-top sneaker and boot hybrid, are perfect for working in pluff mud around sharp shells. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

During this vegetation survey along the banks of the Cooper River, Sharleen Johnson and Norm Shea were standing in soft mud and over a foot of water -- but their marsh boots remained snug on their feet no matter how deep they sunk. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

During this vegetation survey along the banks of the Cooper River, Sharleen Johnson and Norm Shea were standing in soft mud and over a foot of water -- but their marsh boots remained snug on their feet no matter how deep they sunk. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Boards on the pluff mud help Abi DelGiorno and Austin Sturkie move around more freely as they lay out the parameters for an experimental living shoreline installation. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Boards on the pluff mud help Abi DelGiorno and Austin Sturkie move around more freely as they lay out the parameters for an experimental living shoreline installation. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

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.

Ashley Shaw wears cut-off shrimp boots in this shot of a hot, July day of shark sampling in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. The white helps deflect light, but full rubber boots still get uncomfortably hot in the summer. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Ashley Shaw wears cut-off shrimp boots in this shot of a hot, July day of shark sampling in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. The white helps deflect light, but full rubber boots still get uncomfortably hot in the summer. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Stevie Czwartacki hauls in a crab trap on the Ashley River. The ever-fashionable necessity of foul weather gear (the orange overalls) is a subject for another blog post. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Stevie Czwartacki hauls in a crab trap on the Ashley River. The ever-fashionable necessity of foul weather gear (the orange overalls) is a subject for another blog post. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

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.

Shrimp boots, fishing boots, and sneakers are all good options for tagging sea turtles (this loggerhead is in a sling so that he/she can be slowly lowered back over the side of the boat into the water). (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Shrimp boots, fishing boots, and sneakers are all good options for tagging sea turtles (this loggerhead is in a sling so that he/she can be slowly lowered back over the side of the boat into the water). (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Elizabeth Gooding and Jeff Brunson carefully untangle the net their team uses to catch and study crustaceans in major waterways along the coast. Their white shrimp boats provide good traction on wet/slimy surfaces. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Elizabeth Gooding and Jeff Brunson carefully untangle the net their team uses to catch and study crustaceans in major waterways along the coast. Their white shrimp boats provide good traction on wet/slimy surfaces. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

LAB WORK

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.

Joe Evans and Adam Lytton organize and section fish ear bone (or otolith) samples in the Marine Resources Monitoring, Assessment, and Prediction (MARMAP) lab. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

Joe Evans and Adam Lytton organize and section fish ear bone (or otolith) samples in the Marine Resources Monitoring, Assessment, and Prediction (MARMAP) lab. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

What are your favorite shoes for life along the coast?

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