There is one surefire way to infuriate Hilton Head locals — mess with the wildlife.
The island takes its wildlife extremely seriously.
It was founded on Charles Fraser’s concept to build developments around nature instead of plowing through it. Islanders take a great deal of pride in the fact that we don’t look like every other beach town (cough, cough Myrtle Beach). You won’t find tacky beach super stores or a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not tourist traps anywhere on this barrier island, and there's a good reason for that.
When you come to Hilton Head, you are treated to the magic of wildlife — something that has kept generations of families addicted to the island, year after year.
There are few tourist traps that can manufacture the feeling you get when you see a dolphin’s fin pop out of the ocean or an alligator lurking in a lagoon.
At most vacation destinations, you don’t get the chance to see wildlife in all its glory in the way you do here. And, the longer you live here, the more you respect nature.
So you can imagine my disappointment and disgust when I stumbled on a sand dollar massacre the other day on Hilton Head’s North Forest Beach. I was excited to spend a summer Sunday in my happy place.
But after taking just a few steps in the sand, my happy place turned very unhappy.
More than 30 light brown sand dollars were laid out in rows near the dunes — way too far from the shore for them to have gotten there naturally.
The gorgeous echinoderms still had texture to them.
Their tiny, delicate hairs, used to move them slowly across the sand, were freshly crusted over and their color had just began to fade.
Sand dollars can’t survive more than a few minutes outside of the water, according to Sanibel Sea School.
It was too late by the time I saw them (and returned them to the ocean where they belong).
Someone illegally collected these creatures for a personal project and left them to die — hopefully without knowing they were killing a living, complex creature.
Since I found them, I have thought way too much about those sand dollars and whoever killed them.
Was it a little kid who didn’t know any better?
Was it a tourist on a treasure hunt?
Surely, it wasn't a local who was either heartless or clueless?
None of those scenarios were comforting.
It was also a crowded day at the beach. I’m sure plenty of people saw this sand dollar killer in action and did nothing to stop him or her or warn them that such things are against the law and come with a $500 fine.
For me, those 30 sand dollars were evidence that we’re not doing enough to educate those who visit us here about how awesome our nature is and how we can’t afford to harm it.
Because the same kind of person who kills 30 sand dollars in their leisure time is likely the same kind of person who feeds dolphins, waters manatees, and teases alligators (All incidents that happen more than you think).
Sand dollars might look like oversized sea shells to the average Joe, but they are living creatures and essential to our ecosystem.
Sure, the sand dollar slaying didn’t wipe out the entire Hilton Head population. But if a good portion of the 2 million tourists who invade every summer remove just one sand dollar each, the species would be in trouble.
Nature is inter-related and inter-dependent.
Hurting the sand dollars would hurt the fish, which in turn, would hurt the dolphins and sharks. And so on. We shouldn't test their role in the nature scheme of things.
We'd all do well to follow a few simple rules when it comes to wildlife.
Admire from afar.
That way, the island will have the same magic for many years to come.