Untamed Lowcountry

On the Maritime Center's birthday, 5 cool facts about the Port Royal Sound

The Port Royal Sound Foundation Maritime Center is celebrating its first birthday Saturday. The facility in the renovated Lemon Island Marina on the Chechessee River opened last October after years of planning and fundraising.

The $2-million project includes exhibits on the sharks, tides and oysters, with a touch tank and a 3,000-gallon aquarium. And the reason for it all is the large body of water outside.

Port Royal Sound -- the harbor flanked by Hilton Head Island, Saint Helena Island and Parris Island -- is home to an extensive history and cool animals.

Here are five facts that should encourage respect for the body of water:

The sound is a likely breeding ground for great white sharks

And home to 16 other species of sharks. A high salinity in the sound welcomes a variety of bait fish that attract predators and a deep harbor is ideal for breeding, said Chris Kehrer, naturalist and education coordinator with the Port Royal Sound Foundation.

The sharks range from the bizarre -- like the abundant spiny dogfish, with white spots on its back and a gestation period of up to two years -- to the terrifying. The 16-foot, 3,400-pound great white shark Mary Lee has been known to visit area waters since being tagged in Cape Cod by researchers with OCEARCH, a nonprofit that studies sharks.

"We know how prolifically vibrant the Port Royal Sound is, and it appears to be a hugely important hot spot for sharks in the Atlantic," OCEARCH founder Chris Fischer told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette last year. "If you're a big shark, all of the estuary, inshore coastal area is just fabulous to drop off your baby shark so it can gorge on (all the sea life)."

There is no consistent freshwater source

There is a small amount of fresh water that flows into the sound from the New River and Chechessee River in Jasper County. "It's not nearly enough to balance the amount of saltwater pushed in by the tides," said Bob Bender, director of Lowcountry Estuarium. The other source of freshwater comes from stormwater runoff, Kehrer said.

High salinity stretches all the way into Allendale, he added.

The water's salinity varies with a big rain event, but remains high much of the time and is a draw for a variety of fish and other animals.

Kehrer said cobia, a popular gamefish, are among those species drawn inshore by the high salinity.

Stormwater runoff is a growing concern. Beaufort County and the municipalities have been working to better divert the water not absorbed during a storm, Kehrer said.

"With development, of course, you're taking up trees, you're taking up soil, you're taking up these buffers that would normally absorb all that water runoff," he said. "Now that water is on concrete, not being absorbed going into sewer systems and being output into the river."

Snowball was here

Though the albino dolphin "Snowball" was technically a resident of St. Helena Sound, her memory lives on in the replica at the Port Royal Sound Foundation Maritime Center.

The dolphin swam area waters in the 1950s before her capture in 1962. She was taken to the Miami Seaquarium. There she appeared in national magazines and on an episode of "Flipper" but would die in 1965 while in captivity.

The ordeal led South Carolina to pass a state law barring the capture of marine mammals and putting them on public display.

Kevin Vanacore, a Florida man who acquired a replica of Snowball from the Seaquarium, loaned the model to the Maritime Center for display.

"It was really their mission statement -- to protect the environment and the waters," Vanacore said last year. "Snowball was such an integral part of that environment back in the '50s and '60s."

Tides are king

The Port Royal Sound Area has tidal range of 8 to 10 feet, Kehrer said.

"That's one of the largest tidal ranges on the East Coast, if not the largest," he said.

The significant swing affects all kinds of marine life, from oysters, wading birds and dolphins.

The area is one of the only in the world where dolphins "strand feed." The mammals work together to push fish up onto exposed banks, throwing themselves out of the water on feeding on their right sides.

"And it's because of the tides," Kehrer said.

There is a deep water and history here

The significant depth of the Port Royal Sound made it a popular spot for exploration, a refuge from hurricanes and pirates.

Sixteenth-century explorers recognized the utility of the area. Their large, unwieldy galleons were able to navigate the water because of its natural characteristics.

French explorer Jean Ribault, who settled Charlesfort on what is now Parris Island, gave the harbor its name. Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez later established Santa Elena on the site.

That history is still being uncovered through archaelogical efforts. The Santa Elena Foundation recently opened a history center in Beaufort

PORT ROYAL SOUND FOUNDATION MARITIME CENTER FIRST ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION

What: First anniversary of the Port Royal Sound Foundation Maritime Center

Where: 310 Okatie Hwy., Okatie; At the Lemon Island Bridge, exit right coming from both directions

When: 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Saturday

Details: Free events for all ages include live animals (in addition to animals already housed at the center), fly fishing demonstrations, sweetgrass basket-making, boats and classic cars. Food will be available from Bricks on Boundary, Downtown Catering and Kona Ice, among other vendors. Cake and cupcakes will also be served. Representatives from various local conservation and environmental organizations will attend.

Follow reporter Stephen Fastenau at twitter.com/IPBG_Stephen.

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