Discover Hilton Head’s wild side

Credit: Tracey Teo

Credit: Tracey Teo

Tour operators make it easy to view alligators, exotic birds and dolphins.

Cruising along a canal in an electric boat in Hilton Head Island’s sprawling Sea Pines Resort, the South Carolina sun beat down relentlessly on the water’s shimmering surface. It was a perfect day for alligator hunting, and I was armed and ready to shoot.

The previous night had been chilly, so these cold-blooded reptiles, the largest in North America, were likely to come ashore to sun themselves. As we navigated a narrow channel, I scanned the starboard side for signs of the carnivorous, dinosaur-like creatures that can be as long as 15 feet long and weigh up to 1,000 pounds. I saw nothing, but I felt eyes on me. I spun quickly to the other side, and there she was – Miss Nubs.

I was practically eye-to-eye with the 9-foot alligator, her serpentine tail draped over a high embankment where she had made a cozy nest of palm fronds and other vegetation. I felt a thrill of excitement as I shot again and again. Once I’d captured my Insta-worthy photo, the boat moved on so Miss Nubs could enjoy her sunbathing in peace.

Joseph Taylor, a guide with H20 Sports Alligator & Wildlife Tour, explained the alligator is called Miss Nubs because she lost her hind right foot in a territorial fight with another alligator about 10 years ago.

Credit: Tracey Teo

Credit: Tracey Teo

In the alligator world, “Love thy neighbor” is not a thing.

This keystone species at the top of the food chain affects almost every aspect of the island ecosystem.

Despite its reputation for luxury resorts and manicured golf courses, Hilton Head Island and its Lowcountry environs have an eerie quality. Beyond the curtains of low-hanging silvery Spanish moss lies a mysterious natural world of maritime forests, one of the rarest habitats in the country, teeming with wildlife.

As we sailed into another waterway, Taylor spotted a pair of wary eyes peeking out near the bank. It was Big Bertha, a 9-foot mama gator with yellow-and-black striped hatchlings. When the submerged reptile opened her powerful jaws and hissed at the boat, Taylor took the hint and backed off.

“We purposely give the alligators their privacy and respect their space,” Taylor said. “We don’t push the boundaries to satisfy the tourists.”

Big Bertha may be protecting her young, but those maternal instincts do not extend to hatchlings that are not her own. To the horror of guests on a recent tour, Big Bertha cannibalized a 5-year-old alligator.

Credit: Tracey Teo

Credit: Tracey Teo

Despite such hair-raising stories, Taylor insists that alligators are misunderstood and pose little threat to humans.

“They are actually pretty docile as long we don’t mess with them, we don’t get too close, and we aren’t another alligator,” Taylor says. “They are only aggressive toward food, predators or threats.”

I, for one, will do everything possible to appear non-threatening.

In addition to alligator tours, H20 Sports offers parasailing, sailboat tours, jet ski rentals, kayak tours and more.


For a less intimidating exploration of the Lowcountry’s natural habitat, nearby Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge is a bird-lover’s paradise. The 4,053-acre refuge encompasses five islands, but Pinckney is the only one open to the public.

Located between Hilton Head Island and the mainland, Pinckney Island was once the site of a former cotton plantation. Today it boasts 14 miles of hiking and biking trails

The 1.2-mile Ibis Pond Trail is home to large colonies of white ibises. Wading through the marsh on their long legs, they sweep their long, curved bills along the water’s edge in search of tasty crustaceans and small fish.

During the spring and summer breeding season, dozens of the snow-white birds are easily spotted in the rookery located on the island of trees in Ibis Pond.

Naturalist Dave Howitt, who leads public birdwatching tours for the Coastal Discovery Museum, describes it as a “castle with a moat.”

Credit: Tracey Teo

Credit: Tracey Teo

“We have some hungry predators, like racoons and snakes, that like to climb trees,” he said. “The ‘moat’ provides protection because you have alligators living in the water that keep other animals from swimming across to get to the island.”

The ibis isn’t the only avian species here. The rookeries attract a variety of wading birds, including wood storks, snowy egrets and tri-colored herons. And birds aren’t the only winged creatures worth observing. The butterfly garden is a tranquil oasis blooming with flowers in vibrant hues. Visitors come to photograph or sketch the various butterfly species that call the garden home.

Coastal Discovery Museum offers a variety of tours throughout the Lowcountry. In addition to birdwatching tours in Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, visitors can take guided walks of salt marshes, dolphin boat tours, kayak tours of Jarvis Creek and history tours of Daufuskie Island.

Dolphin tour

Capt. Mickey Price deftly guides a boat through Broad Creek, a pristine tidal salt marsh that runs through the interior of the island, pointing out the abundance of spartina grass and explaining its importance to the overall health of the island’s complex ecosystem.

He quickly loses his audience when an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin springs from the water in a graceful arc. It’s followed by another. And another. The pod seems to be performing a well-choreographed ballet for our entertainment, but, of course, these are wild dolphins exhibiting natural behaviors.

Credit: Outside Hilton Head

Credit: Outside Hilton Head

The playful marine mammals are drawn to the calm waterway partly because of the abundance of crustaceans and small fish that are essential to their diet.

“Because of the amount of food produced by the salt marsh, we are lucky enough to have a year-round resident population of dolphins,” said Price, who leads viewing tours for Outside Hilton Head. “If you are out here for more than an hour, you have about a 95% chance of seeing dolphins.”

If they’re lucky, visitors may witness a rare phenomenon called strand feeding, when the dolphins work together to corral small fish onto mudflats or sandbars, temporarily beaching themselves while they feast. Hilton Head Island is one of the few places in the world where dolphins exhibit this feeding technique.

Dolphins seem to wear a permanent smile, and that brought out a smile from everyone in the group, including Price who sees them regularly.

In additional to dolphin tours, Outside Hilton Head offers private and group activities including boating, fishing and skiing outings, beach combing expeditions, history tours and sunset cruises.


Hilton Head Island, South Carolina is 208 miles southeast of Atlanta via I-75 to I-16 to I-95.


H2O Sports Alligator &Wildlife Tour. Alligator tours, $20-$29. Tours start at Sea Pines Forest Preserve in Hilton Head, South Carolina. 843-671-4386,

Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. Free. Entrance located on U.S. 278 between the two bridges that connect Hilton Head Island to the mainland. 843-784-2468,

Coastal Discovery Museum. Birding tours of Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, $12. 70 Honey Horn Drive, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. 843-689-6767,

Outside Hilton Head. Dolphin tours, $35-$45. 50 Shelter Cove Lane, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. 843-686-6996,

Where to Eat

Quarter Deck. Waterfront seafood restaurant at Sea Pines Resort. Entrees $20-$65. 160 Lighthouse Road, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. 843-842-1999,

Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks. Waterfront restaurant known for fresh, local oysters. Entrees $20-$36. 1 Hudson Road, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. 843-681-2772,

Where to Stay

The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa. Beachfront hotel specializing in wellness. $199-$229. Two Grasslawn Ave., Hilton Head, South Carolina. 843-681-4000,

The Sea Pines Resort. 5,000-acre oceanfront property with three golf courses and nature tours. $236-$709. 32 Greenwood Drive, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. 843-785-3333,

Tourist info

Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau. 1 Chamber of Commerce Drive, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. 800-523-3373,