Saltmarsh Ecosystem Q & A

Throughout the year, my fellow guides and I are asked a multitude of questions about the local saltmarsh ecosystem.

No wonder. Unique, dynamic and ever-changing, the saltmarsh is home to distinctive flora and fauna seeking food and protection. Each excursion into the tidal creeks offers up a new experience. One should always be prepared for the unexpected!

Here’s a sampling of the questions I’m asked on a regular basis, in no particular order, along with answers.

Will I see alligators in the saltmarsh?

Possibly. The American Alligator is the northernmost member of the crocodilian family. A freshwater reptile, alligators enjoy sunning on the banks of freshwater lagoons across Hilton Head Island. However, they will venture into the saltwater for food or to another freshwater lagoon. Saltwater creeks also rid the alligator hide of parasites. Remember to observe alligators from afar, and never, ever feed them.

Do manatees come this far north?

Absolutely. In fact, manatee sightings seem to be increasing every year. A distant cousin of the elephant, the manatee traditionally prefers the warmer habitats south of us in Georgia and Florida. Nonetheless, they are making their way into our local waters and can most often be observed around marinas where there is easy access to freshwater run-off. Lucky observers will see them during the warmest of the summer months.

What about sharks?

This is a question I answer tentatively because the fear of sharks often overwhelms our fascination with these remarkable fish. Yes, there are sharks in the water. In the Broad Creek, look for small sharks along the edges, especially at lower tides when mudflats are visible, in search of small prey. Common shark varieties in area waters include the blacktip and the bonnethead.

Are there any snakes in the water?

No. The marsh environment is simply too harsh for snakes to survive in and around the saltwater. On occasion, one might become stranded on a wrack of flotsam, but will make its way out of the salty water with great haste.

Is the Broad Creek freshwater or saltwater?

Definitely saltwater. The Broad Creek is most accurately described as a finger off the Atlantic Ocean that absorbs the tide. At high tide, the creek is flooded with saltwater, and that water is drawn back into the ocean on the outgoing tide. There is no fresh water of any significance that comes into the creek.

Get outside and experience the breathtaking beauty and rich diversity of the Lowcountry for yourself!

By Capt. Patte Ranney, SC Master Naturalist, Outside Hilton Head, which, for more than 30 years, has provided personalized adventures for all ages, from kayak, fishing, nature and dolphin tours to kids’ camps, history excursions, family outings and stand-up paddle boarding. Don’t miss the guided full moon kayak tour, which explores the saltmarsh. For more information, call (843) 686-6996 or go to