Exploring Tybee Island’s Beaches
When you’re visiting the Savannah area, be sure to plan some time to visit the beach on Tybee Island. With its wide sandy oceanfront, there is plenty of space for beach combing, and as I often tell folks, “you never know what you might see on Tybee’s beach!” As a marine science professor and father of a national champion surfer, we visit lots of beaches up and down the east coast; but I don’t know of any other beach that supports the variety of marine animals as does Tybee Island.
Part of the reason for Tybee’s vast variety of shoreline animals is its location. It is situated in the center of a marine biogeographic province that stretches from Cape Hatteras NC, to Cape Canaveral FL, so we get most of the species that occur anywhere within this range. However, we see lots of seasonal variation in marine flora and fauna also. During the winter, Tybee supports cold-water species from northern areas (eg. Cape Cod and Canada). And during the summer, we get an influx of tropical and subtropical animals typical of south FL and the Caribbean. So you never know, from one day to the next, what you might see or find on Tybee.
Other factors contributing to the diversity of animals you might encounter on Tybee are the variety of marine habitats all around this area. On the backside of the island are extensive salt marshes, coastal rivers and tidal creeks. These areas serve as the nursery grounds for an extensive array of marine fish and invertebrates. The north end of the island is adjacent to the extensive Savannah River estuary, where freshwater and seawater mix. And offshore in deeper water, there are patches of hard bottom reefs scattered among the sandy sea floor. These hard bottom areas are often referred to as “live bottoms” because they are hard structures that provide attachment for reef-type seaweeds and animals like sponges, corals, soft corals, starfish and sea squirts. When these animals get torn loose from the hard bottoms, they often wash ashore on Tybee. Often, these deep water animals collect along the high-tide line along the beach.
But Tybee’s wide sandy beach is not only good for collecting things that have washed ashore from deeper waters, but it also provides plenty of space for our shore-dwelling, sandy-bottom animals as well. We have one of the biggest tidal ranges (vertical distance between low tide and high tide) on the east coast here in Georgia. As a result, Tybee has a very wide intertidal zone – the part of the beach between high tide and low tide. And there are plenty of animals that live down in the sand in that intertidal zone. Some dig holes and live down in those holes. Others bury themselves just below the sand. And some others burrow around just under the sand surface.
So when you are beachcombing on Tybee, there is plenty to look for. Along the high tide line, be on the lookout for larger shells and Horseshoe Crab skeletons that get pushed up higher, because our waves tend to be a little stronger and larger at high tide. But also look for sponges, Sea Whips, and other things that might have washed in from offshore. Further down toward the water line, in the wet sand, look for holes, bumps, trails, and lumps in the sand. If you see something suspicious, dig carefully and you might find live snails, small Coquina clams, buried crabs, Sand Dollars, or even larger Whelks/conchs. And check along the water line for small Sea Pansies, Sea Cucumbers, or chunks of Sea Pork. If you’re not finding much, keep walking because it’s amazing how one part of the beach might be different from another part, and it’s never the same from one day to the next.
As you can imagine, Tybee Island is very protective of its live marine life. It’s actually against the law on Tybee to keep, remove or kill any of the live animals. So as you find them, be sure to examine them, get some pictures, handle them carefully, but don’t harm them. If you don’t know what it is, please feel free to take a picture and email it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org), or post it on my Tybee Beach Ecology Trips facebook page, and ask “what is this?” I love getting pictures and questions.
And finally, just a few other tips for a great day exploring Tybee’s beach. Tybee doesn’t allow any glass on the beach. And although Tybee is one of the cleanest beaches you will find, if you see any litter, please collect it. Some types of litter can be harmful to some of our marine animals (not just our sea turtles, but even some of our little critters). And if you dig some holes and do some excavating, please fill them back in when you’re finished. We don’t want to make it difficult for our mama or baby sea turtles. If you explore around the rock jetties, be careful. It is against the law to climb on the rocks. They are covered with sharp barnacles and very sharp oyster shells, so watch your feet and hands.
Dr. Joe Richardson is a retired marine science professor who has studied, researched and taught marine biology/science along Georgia’s coast and Bahamas for more than 35 years. He continues to conduct marine research and consulting; and he conducts Tybee Beach Ecology Trips (www.TybeeBeachEcology.com) year-round at Tybee Island for families, schools, scouts, and other groups. He regularly reports on his findings on his Tybee Beach Ecology Trips facebook page.