Fifteen volunteers stood unsteadily in a wavering line Monday afternoon, their backs to Bluffton's Waddell Mariculture Center.
In front of them stretched the Colleton River, receding into the Port Royal Sound at low tide, as ominous storm clouds loomed overhead.
Beneath them squelched pungent pluff mud, which had already swallowed one volunteer's shoe and was threatening to cause even greater inconvenience.
"Jim, you got to lay off all that pizza," one man called out. "You're going to sink in this stuff!"
Never miss a local story.
Fortunately for the volunteers, the mud and the weather cooperated just long enough for them to complete the first of two days of combating shoreline erosion, which had come to pose a serious threat to the center.
Rick Kurz, helping supervise the volunteers' efforts from the Sawmill Creek boat landing, pointed out a few trees that had recently fallen from the center's property into the river as the ground eroded around them.
"They've lost a fair amount of cliff already, but I would say it's really gotten aggressive over the course of the last three years," Kurz said. "When you have a big storm, you just never know what's going to happen."
The volunteers were participating in the S.C. Department of Natural Resources program called S.C. Oyster Restoration and Enhancement, which uses oyster shells to help stabilize shorelines statewide.
Monday's effort, timed with the advent of seasonal oyster spawning, involved about 450 mesh bags filled with oyster shells, most of which had been recycled from Bluffton restaurants in the past several months.
"These bags here will attract all the baby oysters, so they will turn into a living reef," Kurz explained. "Then spartina grass will grow on those reefs, which is one of the best ways to combat erosion."
Transferring the bags from the bed of a trailer at the boat landing to the banks of the Colleton proved no easy task.
First, the volunteers, each wearing thick gloves provided by DNR, passed the bags to each other in a chain from the trailer to a nearby motorboat.
It took three trips for the boat to transport the day's haul of oyster bags to the center, where they were dropped off near the shore.
Next came the muddy part, when the bags were repositioned at low tide in tidy groupings and pinned down with iron stakes to create the reef.
"As long as the lightning stays away, it's fun," said Sea Pines resident Joe Kernan, who came out with his wife, Rita, to aid the effort. Both retirees would be coated in mud by the time the final oyster bag was in place.
Their efforts were appreciated by Waddell Center manager Al Stokes, who said the 19-foot bluff his center sits atop is among the highest points in southern Beaufort County.
That eroding bluff had been inching slowly and threateningly toward a mansion built in 1929 on the center's property, now used for housing visiting college interns.
Stokes said the volunteers' efforts were just the most recent aimed at combating the erosion. In March, shrubs and vines were planted near the edge of the bluff to stabilize the soil and capture water runoff.
"These are all small steps that will hopefully really help over time," Stokes said. "But it's great to see the community come together for a project like this."