Field Trip Of Dreams

Barrier Island Eco-Tours brings school groups to a living classroom. Photos and story by Stratton Lawrence


“Are you ready for your no-fun field trip?” asks Courtney Hutson, addressing a now-perplexed group of two dozen children on-board Caretta, Barrier Island Eco-Tours’ boat at the Isle of Palms Marina. Hutson is joking, of course. After 12 years working at Barrier Island, she’s learned a few tricks about how to control a mob of excited grade schoolers. As Caretta (the Latin name for a loggerhead sea turtle) makes its way toward Capers Island, the students’ angle for a better view of the blue crab or the alligator skull she holds up during her engaging presentation.


On this unseasonably warm October day, Hutson’s rapt audience is comprised of 4th graders from Camden, South Carolina, representing four different schools. They are part of Kershaw County’s SEAGUL program for gifted children, applying the knowledge they’ve learned in the classroom to a real-life experience.


“How many eggs does a female blue crab produce?” asks Hutson. “Two million!” answers one boy from the back of the boat. But until now, for many of these students, that sort of knowledge has been little more than a number in a textbook. Today, they’re hauling a crab trap up from the bottom of a creek, learning how the trap works, and comparing the differences between the stone crab and blue crab caught inside. They learn how to hold a blue crab to avoid being pinched and compare the markings that differentiate a male from a female.


 “In our classroom, we’ve created a 2D model of the salt marsh,” explains Baron DeKalb Elementary School teacher Valerie Willis. “Now they get to see it in real life.”

During the journey to Capers, the students observe a fast-flowing tide, reinforcing their understanding of the moon’s gravitational pull on the ocean. They spot endangered oystercatchers huddled on a muddy bank, and a bald eagle perched atop a dock piling. When a brown pelican soars a few feet from Caretta’s open side, the students collectively “ooh” and “aah.” It’s rivaled only by the reaction when dolphins breach moments later.


Hutson’s analogies keep her audience enthralled. While the boat idles over a shark hole (“It’s where we throw the bad kids in”), she compares the rich ecosystem below to a Golden Corral buffet for predators in both the water and the air. The wily blue crab is dubbed “Spiderman,” and the docile but powerful stone crab is “The Rock.”

Underscoring each lesson is a message of environmental stewardship. Hutson decries the 70 percent drop in Charleston’s shorebird population over the last four decades, citing beachfront development and careless dog owners. The children learn about Leave No Trace ethics and how to respect the animals they are examining. But most of all, they’re having fun.

Island life

As Caretta nears Capers Island, the smell of burgers roasting over charcoal drifts across the water. Captain Robert Hopkins works the grill on the beach, ready to feed the arriving horde of hungry youngsters. After a hearty lunch, the group splits into two groups. One heads to the creek on the backside of the island, armed with chicken necks and nets to practice the subsistence living technique of catching crabs by hand. Another group sets off toward Capers’ boneyard beach, stopping to examine whelk and cockle shells along the way.

Naturalist John “Captain Stingray” Merritt gathers the latter group in front of the windswept skeleton of a live oak tree and stands with his legs spread wide, demonstrating how a short, stout tree can hold up better in the harsh, windy conditions of the beach than a tall, skinny pine. Attention turns to a palmetto tree, examining its spongy interior to demonstrate how it could absorb and deflect cannonballs, as was the case in a Revolutionary War battle at (then) Fort Sullivan that led to the tree’s place on our current state flag.

“This is the best trip ever!” exclaims one student, a refrain heard several more times throughout the day. When a cast net — thrown after careful instruction from Hutson — returns a harvest of finger mullet, the students jump up and down in celebratory glee. It’s an experience these children won’t soon forget. For many of the 12,000 students that travel to Capers with Barrier Island each year, it’s their first trip to a beach and first time seeing the ocean. Their overwhelming excitement belies the fact that in just a few hours, they’re absorbing and retaining memories that align directly with the state’s core curriculum, tailored by Barrier Island’s naturalists to their grade level.

“The most important part of my job is taking these kids out,” says Capt. Hopkins, who has worked with owner/founder Shane Ziegler for 14 years. “Shane’s thing has always been that if you make education your main priority, everything else just falls into place.”

 That’s certainly the case on this trip. Despite the distractions of a day on the water, the students are held captive by the naturalist instructors’ expert guidance. When they’re given free time to simply observe the marsh and waterways, they take turns using binoculars to spot birds, identifying them in a guide book that’s passed around among the students.

Barrier Island’s core business is fishing and day charters during the summer, but even on a private family trip, education about the surrounding ecosystem is an integral part of the experience. Student trips are offered at half price during the school year, underscoring the company’s motivations. The approach generates enough revenue to employ staff year-round and keep boats maintained for the more lucrative private summer season.

 Whether you explore the marsh or travel to Capers Island with a school group or on a private charter, Barrier Island Eco-Tours’ approach ensures that guests have an immersive experience. “We’re a hands-on trip,” says Hopkins. “You’re not just going to see the salt marsh — you’re going to feel it, hear it and smell it, and all of the things that live in it.”