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Gunkhole getaways: Morgan Island, S.C.

By David Liscio

The excitement of cruising the backwaters of South Carolina’s Sea Islands comes from not knowing what’s around the next bend. These snaking coastal rivers and lush barrier isles teem with wildlife, and it’s not unusual to see deer, rabbits, cranes and bottle-nosed dolphins, as well as clusters of alligators dozing on the mudflats. The rhesus monkeys living on Morgan Island,


however, are a different story.
For nature-lovers cruising isolated stretches of the Intracoastal Waterway south of Charleston, vast expanses of salt marsh and stands of palmetto conjure a feeling of timelessness. In places halfway between Charleston and Hilton Head, it’s possible to cruise an entire day without encountering another boat. Dropping the hook for a night, if only to take a break from marinas, requires only minor planning. Gunkholes are everywhere.

En route to Beaufort, my wife and our two kids found Morgan Island — locals call it Monkey Island — purely by chance after a severe thunderstorm forced us to drop sail on the Coosaw River and seek shelter along a more protected waterway. The chart showed that Parrot Creek leading to the Morgan River was shoaled to 3 feet at mean low water. However, a marina dockhand on nearby Dataw Island who heard my radio request for information assured me that there was 10 feet of water in the creek, explaining that an erroneous report to NOAA several years earlier had resulted in the misinformation on the chart. It was low tide, so I put my faith in the dockhand and went for it, hoping our chartered Beneteau 411 wouldn’t run aground.

Minutes later we were anchored securely in the mud bottom just off Morgan Island, site of a no-trespassing research lab where monkeys — used for medical experiments — occasionally escape and continue to create controversy. We didn’t know this when one of the little primates skittered through the brush toward our boat, anchored with barely enough swing room to clear the shore. It was a startling sight considering we were in South Carolina, and it marked the start of an overnight enlivened by a jungle-like serenade of birds, croaking frogs and splashing fish.

The next morning we dinghied to nearby Dataw Island, once owned by the Alcoa Aluminum Co. and now a gated plantation community. The caretaker loaned us four bicycles, and we rode wooded paths that flanked greenish canals where alligators stared blankly under the harsh sun, motionless until my son tossed a rock in their direction.

Later that morning, a scuba diver in a wetsuit caked with mud told us Dataw Island has some of the best fossil hunting in the region. As he put it, the diving is awful, but the fossils, located by feeling the bottom silt, often are superb. He handed my son a megalodon tooth — dark purplish-brown and 5 inches long — which millions of years ago was firmly planted in the jaw of a 50-foot shark. My wife and I looked at each other as if to say, “Where are we, Jurassic Park?”

It was both spooky and thrilling to imagine these whale-chomping giant sharks prowling the same waters. My son clutched that fossil for the rest of the cruise, a prized possession and I understood why.

Every time I grab that dark tooth from its perch atop the bookcase in our living room, I’m reminded of that magical coast — known as Lowcountry — and of how we had such a rich experience because of our decision to gunkhole a little off the beaten track for the night.


Check out the other parts to our Gunkholing series:

Explore our picks for 10 great gunkhole getaways:

Learn The Art of Gunkholing

Or introduce yourself to "Mr. Gunkhole."