EDISTO ISLAND, S.C. — Gary Dirr spends his afternoons beneath windblown oaks that overlook a shell-strewn beach.
“Some days we’re full of people,” he said. “And some days it’s almost deserted.”
Dirr is a volunteer docent at Botany Bay Plantation, one of South Carolina’s most scenic coastal treasures.
The 4,687-acre wilderness area, first opened to the public in 2008, is just off state Highway 174, which leads visitors to the seasonal bustle of nearby Edisto Beach.
Botany Bay, however, has no hotels, no golf courses, no camping – not even a restroom.
“It’s not a park, but a wildlife management area,” said state Department of Natural Resources biologist Dean Harrigal. “Parks are for people, and WMAs are for wildlife, and of course compatible recreation.”
At the gate, free maps are available for a driving tour that offers visitors a chance to observe wildlife – including alligators and bald eagles – and to visit the crumbling ruins of cotton plantations and other structures that date back to Colonial times.
There are also places to launch canoes and kayaks and one of the few remaining unspoiled “hammock island” beaches along the Atlantic coast.
Interest in Botany Bay has grown steadily, making it a venue for bird watchers, photographers and ecotourists, along with sunbathers and surf fishermen.
“Right now we estimate we have about 50,000 people a year who come through here,” Harrigal said. “It gets to be a little more each year.”
Once occupied by plantation owners and Indian tribes, the Botany Bay property was most recently owned by John E. Meyer, who agreed to donate the property to the state as long as he and his wife could live out their lives fishing, farming and hunting on the land they loved.
Meyer died in 1977 and his wife, Margaret Pepper, enjoyed Botany Bay until her death in 2007. Now the land they helped preserve is open to everyone.
Dirr, who watches over Botany Bay’s two-mile stretch of beach, is among nearly 50 volunteers who help the state manage and maintain the area, which is open every day except Tuesday for free.
Artifact collecting and the removal of some types of shells is prohibited, but visitors are welcome to swim, fish and enjoy nature.
The beach is also a popular spot for loggerhead sea turtles that crawl from the surf in the dead of night to lay their eggs in the sand. So far this year, more than two dozen nests have been created – each recorded and protected with a small wire fence to keep predators away.
“People will ask if there are restrooms,” Dirr said with a laugh. “There aren’t.”