Boaters traveling the Intracoastal Waterway through southeastern South Carolina have always known about the scenic sea islands with their natural look and a maritime forest ecosystem. Three rivers feed into St. Helena Sound between Beaufort and Edisto Island, forming a framework for a larger area that became known 25 years ago as the ACE Basin. The watershed for the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Rivers are now constantly monitored in the National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) network.
The ACE Basin NERR encompasses more than 93,000 acres of uplands, wetlands and everything else found in this river system basin. Perception of the ecological significance of the ACE Basin was magnified in 1989 when the area was recognized as critical habitat for migratory birds. In 1991, the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge was formed after government purchase and protection of the Grove Plantation. In 1992, The ACE Basin NERR was formed, becoming just the 20th such site under the watch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A partnership between private landowners and other parties began to blossom in the ACE Basin with an intense focus on conservation. The Nature Conservancy listed the ACE Basin as one of the World’s Last Great Places in 1994, bought South Williman Island (2765 acres) and placed it under conservation easement. Several more barrier islands were purchased and protected from development and placed into the ACE Basin NERR including Otter Island (1889 acres) and Ashe Island (1722 acres).
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources manages some of these islands in their Heritage Preserve system now, which allows public access by boat for daytime visits. Some islands have pristine beaches where birds like the piping plover can stop over and where loggerhead turtles continue to nest. Others offer historic sites concerning Native Americans and rare plants that evolved over time in this temperate and salty section of the South.
The ACE Basin NERR operates a field station along Mosquito Creek at Bennetts Point, a long time maritime community for shrimp boats and oystermen. This facility hosts researchers as they conduct long-term projects to monitor water quality and other environmental stress indicators. The field station also exists to promote stewardship with the public by hosting seminars in either their conference room or outdoor classroom facilities. They also offer on-the-water experience aboard the research vessel Discovery for groups and students to better reveal how features like spartina marsh relate to the ecosystem.
Boaters wishing to visit the ACE Basin NERR field station should navigate up the Ashepoo River about 1.5-miles from the Intracoastal Waterway. Turn East into Mosquito Creek and the field station is on the left just past the Bennetts Point public boat ramp and B & B Seafood. One must pay attention to the depth finder due to the six-foot tides and winding creeks found in the area, while the ambiance and majesty of one of the largest undeveloped areas found on the East Coast offers a dazzling distraction.
Jeff Dennis is an outdoor writer and photographer who grew up on a creek in Charleston loving the saltwater, and he contributes regularly to All At Sea Southeast. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com