Oysters are wicked cool. If looked at in a superficial manner, one might think, “What’s the big deal?” They are immobile, lackluster in color and seem to only inspire emotion when debating as to whether they are an epicurean delicacy or a disgustingly slimy mouthful. You have to dig a little deeper to discover the true miracle of these brilliant bivalves.
First and foremost, it’s pretty amazing that oysters survive the process of becoming oysters. It’s a tough life, the life of an oyster egg. Oysters begin as a microscopic bit of zooplankton. The word plankton originates from the Greek planktos, which means “wandering.”
So here’s this helpless little fertilized egg, floating along, leaching calcium and carbon from the water in preparation for building its shell. The egg eventually develops into a larva that grows a foot and an eye before it sinks to the bottom. These anatomical additions help it crawl about and scout out the ideal homestead.
Generally, it will settle on a site where other oysters have already established residency, as the calcium-rich environment will help with future shell development. There is no Oyster Zillow, so this tiny creature may be swept many miles from its birthplace before it stumbles across the perfect place to plant its little foot for good. Once it finds its place in the oyster reef of choice, the burgeoning oyster, at this stage called spat, can finally begin to grow its shell at the staggering pace of about one inch per year. This harrowing tale helps one understand how, out of the 15 million to 115 million eggs a female oyster releases into the water each year, only a minuscule percentage will develop into mature oysters.
The rest of those millions of eggs? Simply put… food.
Now that we understand the difficult journey an oyster faces, let’s take a peek at their importance in our Lowcountry environment. Approximately 4,000 years ago, Native Americans who settled in this area primarily viewed these mollusks as an excellent food source. However, as we move forward through history, the true value of the oyster is revealed.
We now understand that the way an oyster eats is the reason for our environmentally pristine waters. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources reports that one oyster can filter up to four gallons of water in an hour. Oysters spend about half the day submerged and feeding, which means a single oyster can filter more than 45 gallons of water per day! And we are fortunate to have billions of these little “Britas” in our waterways.
Protecting our live oyster reefs is of the utmost importance. The Outside Foundation has introduced The Oyster Recycling and Reef Build Initiative (ORRBI), a community-based oyster shell recycling and bed restoration project. This initiative encourages restaurants and citizens to recycle their oyster shells by taking them to the Coastal Discovery Museum, where they will be cleaned, bagged and placed in local waterways to create more hard surface area for oyster spat to successfully anchor and grow.
For more information about saving the planet, one oyster at a time, visit outsidefoundation.org.
For more than 30 years, Outside Hilton Head has provided personalized adventures for all ages, from kayak, fishing, nature and dolphin tours to kids’ camps, history excursions, family outings and standup paddleboarding. To book an outing with Outside Hilton Head, call (843) 686-6996 or outsidehiltonhead.com.