When Doug Heatherington made the last beach visit of his vacation Friday afternoon, he was shocked to find only sand.
Gone were Garfield, the garden gnome and the Greek god of the north wind.
Also missing were his sand sculptures of a train engine, lighthouse and a dozen other works Heatherington, 68, had crafted over his annual, three-week stay at the Marriott's Monarch at Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island.
Shore Beach Services says it knocked them down, as it does nearly every year, because the sculptures and holes in the sand are potential safety hazards.
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Although it has made an exception to allow Heatherington's sculptures to stand while he's on the island, the service typically asks sculptors to fill in their holes before they leave to avoid any risk to people and sea turtles, beach patrol director Ralph Wagner said.
Wagner says those holes could trip up people strolling or cycling on the beach after dark, as well as sea turtles making their way to the dunes to lay eggs.
Heatherington, who's been visiting his Monarch timeshare and sculpting sand there for about 28 years, says he understands his works won't last forever. But he says he's still not used to seeing them destroyed ahead of Memorial Day weekend, when the space is filled instead with umbrella rentals and an influx of tourists.
"I was just absolutely blown away when I walked out there Friday afternoon," Heatherington, of Yukon, Okla., said. "I felt like, 'Am I standing in the same place? Did I leave the planet?"
Knocking down the sculptures peeved some tourists, such as Henri Weems of Virginia, who said watching Heatherington work is a main draw for his vacation.
"So many people had commented how beautiful the works were on the beach," Weems said. "So many had posed by them and asked questions of how to do the carvings."
Heatherington even turned one of his sculptures into a lesson for kids. After overhearing several parents call his shark a porpoise, he decided to sculpt one of the mammals as a comparison.
For the past two years, he says, the service left the sculptures alone and communicated with him about the placement of its rental umbrellas, so both could coexist.
This year, however, Wagner says the service thought Heatherington had already packed up and left when it leveled his sculptures Friday.
The decision had nothing to do with wanting to use the space for umbrella rentals, Wagner said, despite Heatherington's suspicions.
"They're an obstacle out there, they're taking up a lot of space, and there are holes in the ground that we usually would ask people to fill in overnight," he said.
Heatherington says he's not upset with the service, and plans to continue sculpting in front of the Monarch, using his array of cake decorating tools and non-toxic dye. He's even done a few commissioned works, including a large cake for a beach wedding, though he prefers to sculpt for his own enjoyment.
Still, he says he fondly remembers one year when a row of his sculptures were allowed to stand past his departure. Other tourists who recognize Heatherington told him the tide dissolved the Egpytian-themed sculptures piece by piece, briefly giving them the look of real ruins.
"I expect it to go back to Mother Nature," Heatherington said. "I just don't like an early demise caused by man."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.
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