Charleston nature retreat explores barrier island

Active boomers explore South Carolina’s Bulls Island

In the past, I’ve written about Bulls Island for Wandering Rose Travels. And admittedly, I have a love affair with this amazing, unspoiled barrier island and wildlife refuge. Then, in early November, after years of grappling with my desire to take this relationship to another level (yes, my wife is aware of this yearning), I joined a small group of visitors and nature experts for an immersion into the island’s ecosystem.

Eight times a year, Coastal Expeditions offers an all-inclusive, 3-day/2-night trip for an in-depth look at the habitats on Bulls Island and Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, just north of Charleston, SC. The weekend is popular and it took me several years to secure a reservation – well worth the wait.

Before this opportunity, I had already learned a lot about the wildlife refuge, compiling knowledge from my past visits with Coastal Expeditions and its daytime ferryboat trips over to Bulls Island. I knew about the alligators, diverse bird population, Boneyard Beach and some of the challenges facing the refuge. But my island time always took place from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., so this overnight retreat was a great opportunity to explore the ecosystem at dawn and dusk.

charleston bulls island boneyard beach
During our expedition weekend, clouds and rain turned Boneyard Beach into an eerie ocean landscape.
charleston barrier island sunrise
Most of the time, this sunrise greets visitors at Boneyard Beach.

Exploring the Atlantic’s longest stretch of protected coastline

 In general, my travels no longer include any type of adventure that could be labeled “roughing it.” I don’t sleep under the stars or on a ½-inch foam mat using socks bunched together for a pillow. Yes, I do enjoy a challenging day in the wilderness, although I now prefer that it ends with chef-prepared cuisine and accommodations with box springs and mattresses.

We stayed in the island’s Dominick House, a rarely used 1920’s manor located in the heart of the refuge. It was no Ritz Carlton, but then it shouldn’t be considering that it’s nestled inside a Class I Wilderness area. I liked the Dominick’s charm and maritime décor.

Weather didn’t cooperate during our weekend expedition. It rained a lot and the sun hibernated. But we all came prepared with rain gear and a variety of clothing layers. We enjoyed the great outdoors despite the inclement weather. And our guides constantly changed our itinerary to adapt to the moment. Since I’m not an accomplished photographer in the rain, I’ve posted several photos in this article from my past visits to Bulls Island.

Experts led us through the weekend, creating an experience that was unmatched in service and knowledge: Olivia, an evolutionary biologist; and Anna, a marine geologist.  We saw the best birding spots, tracked mammals, ogled scat, studied flora, explored Boneyard Beach at sunrise and hiked alongside ponds rich in wildlife.  We learned the history of the island back to Native Americans and to the present.  The three days immersed us in local history, geology, wildlife ecology and marine science.

charleston spider crab
We learned about a variety of bird and marine life during our nature exploration.

Dominick House Expedition highlights

Known as the Dominick House Expedition, I highly recommend this trip to nature “geeks,” which I use as a term of endearment. Here’s a list of some of the wildlife we encountered: a bobcat swimming across a pond, an alligator taking down a cormorant, fox squirrels, deer, avocets, bitterns, greater yellowlegs, anhinga, bald eagles, an osprey with a fish in its claws, otters, threatened wood storks, egrets, herons, and incredible flocks of ducks including hooded mergansers, buffleheads, blue-winged teal and ruddy ducks.

We absorbed the estuary’s magic, where one acre rivals the productivity of an acre of rain forest. In addition, our group enjoyed a great morning of shelling along a beach untouched by tourists, umbrellas and joggers.

charleston bulls head island chef
Chef Papa Mo welcomed us to each meal in the Dominick House.
charleston osyters
Anna, a marine geologist with Coastal Expeditions, teaches us about osyters.

Weekend delivers more than wildlife education

Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge volunteer, Papa Mo, prepared a menu of delicacies from coastal-inspired meals that included big southern breakfasts and amazing dinners, while our group of 14 shared stories from the day’s exploring.

One breakfast included made-to-order omelets and four different types of pancakes. Our final meal on the island featured a steamed oyster roast followed by a low-country boil filled with corn-on-the-cob, potatoes, sausage and shrimp. And for icing the send-off meal, Papa Mo made bananas foster with the lights turned down as he narrated the history of the famous dessert. Personally, I had been expecting trail mix and tofu all weekend so the cuisine impressed even more.

Besides the great-tasting food, the staff made each meal more interesting by sharing history and environmental education. For instance, during the oyster roast, we learned how to shuck our food, how oysters grow and develop and how important they are to the marine ecosystem. Did you know that one tiny oyster filters about 50 gallons of water each day while feeding on its favorite food, phytoplankton? In the process, oysters also filter out pollutants.

alligator charleston south carolina
Coastal Expeditions and their staff introduce visitors to diverse wildlife in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

Coastal Expeditions caters to nature lovers

I’ve taken several different trips offered by Coastal Expedition’s, but I’m a frequent patron of its Bulls Island Ferry trip. Coastal Expeditions offers an array of outdoor adventures and learning. The company started with kayaking tours in the Charleston Harbor and expanded to a number of locations along the South Carolina coast. They tour lighthouses, other barrier islands, blackwater creeks, national forest and cypress-tupelo swamps, using passenger boats, canoes, paddleboards and kayaks. The company also established a foundation that supports veterans programs, endangered sea turtles, restoration of seabird sanctuaries and student field trips.

I consider myself a perpetual student of nature and the Great Outdoors. I possess no other impressive credentials. That’s why I love exploring Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge with Coastal Expeditions and their staff. I always learn and see something new during each visit.

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