Life's Better Outdoors: Exploring Otter Island
“The enemy has landed at Otter Island,” wrote Confederate Brigadier General R.S. Ripley less than a year into the American Civil War.
Sitting halfway between Savannah and Charleston at the mouth of St. Helena Sound, 5000-acre Otter Island was a natural target for both Confederate and Union forces. The Federal Army took the island in November 1861, and for six months, several thousand soldiers garrisoned there, taking advantage of the sea breeze and easy spoils on neighboring sea islands.
“The climate of Otter Island was delightful in the winter time and a fresh breeze from the oceans purified the air,” wrote Eugene Beauge of his time in the 45th Pennsylvania Infantry. “Mosquitoes and gnats tormented us in cloudy weather, but our worst enemy was that little black rascal, the flea… We never got used to them.”
The Civil War wasn’t the only time Otter played a role in American military history. British soldiers occupied the island during the Revolutionary War, and the Tuskegee Airmen used it for gunnery and bombing practice in World War II. Little remains on the island of these chapters in Otter’s history – although SCDNR veterinarian Al Segars did discover a dud bomb from the Tuskegee era on the beach several years ago.
Today, the uninhabited island is managed by SCDNR as a haven for wildlife. It's just one property in the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve, where SCDNR staff conduct research, water-quality monitoring, education, and coastal stewardship to protect the natural and cultural resources of the area.
For the same reason Otter Island was a strategic location for military forces, it’s also an important place for migrating birds, sea turtles, and other animals.
During full and new moons in the spring, horseshoe crabs coming ashore to spawn on Otter’s three-mile beach. Loggerhead sea turtles lay around 100 nests on the island each summer, which are checked weekly by SCDNR sea turtle staff. The island is home to nesting Wilson’s plovers and willets in the summer, as well as painted buntings, and protected shorebirds such as red knots and piping plovers in the winter.
Otter also has a healthy population of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, one of the heaviest venomous snakes in the world – but don’t worry, this elusive, rodent-eating species shies away from humans. It’s illegal to harm or kill the rattlesnakes (or any animal) on SCDNR properties.
Visiting Otter Island
The island is open to day visitors year-round. Visitors can surf fish, wildlife watch, or hike the three-mile beach. If you want to make the trek out to Otter Island, here are some guidelines on what to expect and what’s allowed.
- Otter Island is a wild, natural place. There are no facilities on the island, and the mainland is about a 20-minute boat ride away. Please plan accordingly for your visit to this remote location. And spoiler alert – one thing that hasn’t changed in 150 years is the profusion of mosquitoes and gnats!
- Dogs are not allowed on Otter Island. We love our pets, but Otter Island is one place you shouldn’t bring Fido. With increasingly few undeveloped beaches for shorebirds to rest, feed, and nest on, Otter provides a safe shoreline and critical stopover for birds on the eastern seaboard. Check out our other public properties to find a natural place near you where dogs are welcome.
- Camping is allowed by permit only. From November 1 to March 31, a small number primitive campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Folks can obtain a camping permit by calling the McKenzie Center at (843) 844-8822. Camping without a permit or anywhere other than a designated camp site is illegal.
- Archery hunts for deer are also allowed by permit starting each September. For more information or to obtain a permit, call the McKenzie Center at (843) 844-8822.
- Leave the island as you found it. Help us protect this natural place for future generations – please leave what you find on the island and remove your trash for disposal on the mainland. Remember that it’s illegal to remove/harvest anything from the Otter Island, including shells, cultural artifacts, or animals (except by permit).