How protecting a pod of dolphins can save Johns Island from overdevelopment 

Mutual Interests

Colin Cuskley takes a non-confrontational approach to preserving the Natural Beauty of Johns Island

Jonathan Boncek

Colin Cuskley takes a non-confrontational approach to preserving the Natural Beauty of Johns Island

The road from the gatehouse to the clubhouse at the Golf Club at Briar's Creek covers more than a mile, weaving through deeply shaded forests and crossing wetlands obscured by summer-morning mists. Then the trees give way to lawns, revealing a multimillion-dollar panorama of sun-splashed fairways and unspoiled salt marsh.

With enormous waterfowl cruising leisurely overhead and uniformed greens-keepers tooling out to begin their morning rounds of trimming and tending, nature here seems more triumphant than imperiled.

Yet Briar's Creek was where the fledgling Johns Island Conservancy got its start this year, and on a morning in late June, it's also where a small group of conservancy volunteers gathered for a boat tour led by biologist and outdoorsman Capt. Chad Hayes. After welcoming them aboard his 24-foot Sea Pro bay boat, Hayes pointed the bow gently toward the spartina-lined channel of the club's namesake creek and goosed the throttle. Ahead lay the broad expanse of the Kiawah River and the resident pod of 22 native bottlenose dolphins who make their home in the inland waters shared by Johns, Seabrook, and Kiawah islands.

Hayes has studied this pod for a decade and can recognize most of its members at a glance. Over that time, he has come to see the dolphins as sentinels to the surrounding environment. Just as water flows downhill, the choices we make on land produce consequences in our rivers and marshes.

click to enlarge Capt. Chad Hayes worries about the fate of the dolphins that call the Kiawah River home - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Capt. Chad Hayes worries about the fate of the dolphins that call the Kiawah River home

"Dolphins are a great indicator because, like us, they sit at the top of the food chain," Hayes says. "The scientific community is just beginning to discover just how important they can be to understanding the ecology that we live in here in the Lowcountry."

In other words, through the story of the Kiawah River dolphins, we might well find the story of the surrounding islands.

A troubled oasis

Queens native Colin Cuskley spent 40 years in New York in the information-technology business before retiring to Briar's Creek with his wife Sally in 2008. The scenery, wildlife, and lifestyle attracted them, and Cuskley figured his golf game would improve. But the problem with entrepreneurs in retirement is that after a while, a guy can only play so much golf.

A former history major educated by Jesuits, Cuskley is a large physical presence with a booming voice and a challenging intellect, the kind of person who considers research a form of recreation. When he turned his attention to better understanding his newly adopted home, he found an enormous island with a long history, an unusual cultural identity, a wide array of natural resources, and a highly uncertain future.

Located west of James Island and just inshore of Kiawah and Seabrook, Johns Island's 84 square miles rank it as the largest island in South Carolina and the fourth largest on the East Coast. Yet the most significant body of water dividing Johns Island from the mainland is the tidal Stono River, a relatively narrow impediment that for centuries managed to simultaneously keep the island connected to and separated from the outside world.

In the early years of European settlement, waterways served as highways. Yet while Johns Island's eastern marsh lies just six miles from the old Ashley River rice docks, the complexities of tide and current meant an 18th-century boat trip to Charleston from the island's western tip could take a full day. Even the advent of motorized transportation did little to alleviate the isolation until the 1920s, when bridges began replacing the haphazard system of Stono ferries.

Those new connections weren't enough to immediately reverse the island's declining population, either. The appearance of boll weevils in 1914 killed the island's cotton industry, and residents abandoned the island in search of work elsewhere, a trend that continued off-and-on through World War II.

Like the rest of the region, Johns Island grew in the post-war decades, though the pace of development was anemic compared to the suburban boom on the mainland. By the end of the 1960s, the islands of St. John's Parish (Johns, Wadmalaw, Kiawah, Seabrook, and Edisto) had recouped their population losses from the early decades of the 20th century, yet the influx of newcomers was nothing compared to what lay just ahead. The outside world, though still generally uninterested in Johns Island, was on the verge of discovering the two pristine barrier islands on its southern flank.

The development of Kiawah and Seabrook in the 1970s completed the modern encirclement of Johns Island. By the 1980s the island found itself uncomfortably pinched between urban Charleston and the gated resort enclaves across the Kiawah River causeway. Resort island residents generally wanted better roads to the mainland. Developers with an eye toward Johns Island's vast tracts wanted easier access to its interior and faster downtown commute times.

But natives were ambivalent at best about such visions of progress, and as politicians formulated plans for expressways and suburbs, ambivalence turned to hostility. With backing from conservationists and environmental advocates, Johns Islanders in the 1990s began to fight back against outsiders' plans for their land, winning a surprise victory in 1996 when state commissioners shot down plans for the $140 million Sea Island Expressway.

click to enlarge Buffet time: members of the Kiawah River pod beach themselves when strand feeding - COURTESY OF CHAD HAYES

The names and price tags of the road projects have changed over the years, but the fundamentals remain the same. In one corner, locals who want to preserve the unique character of this rural oasis. In the other, the gated townships of Kiawah and Seabrook, bolstered by developers, the City of Charleston, and a roster of boards and commissions. Recent controversies have centered on proposals to extend Interstate 526 across the Stono and repackage the old expressway as a greenway. Both ideas remain in limbo, but when it comes to Johns Island road projects, death seems little more than a temporary setback.

As Cuskley studied the island, it became clear to him that it had an under-appreciated history and an immensely valuable natural habitat. He had both the time and inclination to devote himself to those topics, but it was equally clear that the island's development-focused politics were too complex, tense, and cluttered for a newcomer to navigate them effectively. So in late 2011, the Cuskleys and some of their friends at Briar's Creek began pondering a new question: Could a group of recent arrivals avoid the minefields of regional politics and make a difference in local life if it picked a series of small, non-political projects and concentrated on improving discrete problems on a case-by-case basis?

So began the Johns Island Conservancy. Launched in January and incorporated in February, the group received its tax-exempt 501(c)3 status in June, a six-month period during which Colin Cuskley saw his average number of weekly rounds of golf plunge from three down to two.

"There is a need, I think, for Johns Island to have its own conservation effort, and just from my own interest, not just nature conservation but historical conservation, too," says Cuskley, executive director of the Conservancy. "It's also a matter of targets of opportunity, and that's also about limited resources. We want to go where we're most effective."

The small group's initial goals are modest: Get help for Chad Hayes' dolphins, restore and reopen the Johns Island Schoolhouse Museum, develop a series of presentations on conservation topics, and launch a conservation action program aimed at educating individual homeowners on best practices.

The conservancy's relentlessly pragmatic message acknowledges that development is likely to continue, but encourages residents to look for ways to mitigate the negative effects of growth. Perhaps equally interesting is its implicit suggestion that new arrivals and natives can work together on common-ground issues. Wealthy homeowners on Kiawah may favor the expressway projects opposed by Johns Island natives, Cuskley says, but many of those same people might also be willing to support efforts to protect the environment. And while natives offer grassroots connections and local knowledge, affluent retirees often have money and free time to devote to common causes.

Since its start earlier this year, the Conservancy has reached out in both directions, speaking to civic and social groups that span cultural, class, and geographic divisions. It's raised more than $25,000, most of it from recent arrivals who live in gated developments like Briar's Creek.

The reality, Cuskley says, is that there are more housing units approved for Johns Island than exist on Johns Island. "A lot of people say Johns Island is rural. Well, the fact is ... it's mixed-use," he notes. "The Maybank corridor is suburban, some small business, still some significant agriculture. So part of this is to understand Johns Island first, and to preserve a mixed-use (identity)."

He adds, "From a new-resident's perspective, we moved here because we liked all these things, and we're not looking to shut it all down and keep people from moving here. We're not just anti-development. But the reasons that attracted people, why would you want to kill the things that attracted people here in the first place? The natural habitat, the wildlife itself, the agricultural resources, the sense of history — those are things that are worth preserving."

The perfect habitat

The Kiawah River is one of those odd east-west local waterways with two mouths and no real source. In practical terms it's less a traditional "river" than the semi-navigable saltwater channel that splits the salt marsh shared by Johns Island and Kiawah Island. On its eastern end, the Kiawah River widens as it nears its broad confluence with the Stono. Its western course, however, narrows as it approaches Seabrook Island and connects to the Atlantic via Captain Sam's Inlet.

When the tide is rising, the Atlantic flows into the Kiawah River from both the east and the west. The spot where those rising tides converge is called a saddle, and the Kiawah River saddle is located closer to its western end, in the oyster flats between Kiawah and Seabrook islands. It's this western end of the river, the roughly six-mile stretch between Briar's Creek and Captain Sam's Inlet, that serves as the habitat for the river's 22 bottlenose dolphins.

Conservancy volunteer Jane Settle, a teacher at Porter-Gaud School and a marine biologist, spotted the first members of the pod after less than a minute on the Kiawah River, and Hayes gave the three-member group a wide, slow berth. "This is about as far east as they come, except during winter when they're cruising around," Hayes says.

click to enlarge Strand feeding - COURTESY OF CHAD HAYES

Though there are other known pods in the area — a Stono pod, a North Edisto pod, and various groups that cruise nearby ocean waters — the Kiawah keep to themselves. Young males will sometimes change their pod allegiances, but the females who form the core of the group never leave, adapting to the idiosyncrasies of their habitat over generations. Here that means a kind of feeding etiquette based on trading off time in the best locations. "The inlet is obviously the best restaurant in town, but it's not really big enough for the entire group to be able to feed down there on a regular basis," Hayes said. "So they actually take turns."

Hayes is a bearded, college-educated biologist and occasional television personality who held numerous posts at the state Department of Natural Resources and served as Briar's Creek's staff naturalist for several years. Now self-employed through his Kiawah Charter Company, Hayes concluded a part-time staff contract with the conservancy earlier this month.

After passing carefully through the meager channel where the river reaches its shallowest point amongst the oyster flats, Hayes piloted the boat beneath the bridge between Kiawah and Seabrook islands and accelerated. By reducing through-traffic, he says, the flats help make the river's western end "a perfect feeding ground. A perfect habitat."

The tour was about to see why.

Big show, big threat

Captain Sam's Spit is a teardrop of sand that extends west from Charleston County's Beachwalker Park to the tip of the island. The Kiawah River carves into it as it makes a sweeping westerly turn toward the inlet, exposing a series of short, gradually sloping beaches.

It was here that Hayes caught up with six members of the Kiawah River pod, hunting together on the rising tide. One was hard to distinguish, but five he recognized easily: the battle-scarred matriarch Bianca, Kiawah Lady and her five-month-old calf, and Hook and Scratch, a pair-bonded "bachelor pod." After Hayes cut the throttle to drift with the current more than 50 meters behind the group, the outliers swam closer to inspect their familiar visitor, blowholes puffing and sighing a few feet away from the volunteers.

Curiosity satisfied, the group returned to the task of herding a school of mullet along the southern bank of the river. Within moments anxious fish began leaping out of the water between the hunters and the beach, and the two dolphins at the front of the group changed direction.

Though it was unusual for this tidal condition, the volunteers were about to witness a rare behavior believed to be unique to a few inland pods that live along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina: strand feeding.

"If you're trying to catch a fish that's faster than you are and able to out maneuver you, and you don't have hands, how are you going to catch that fish more efficiently?" Hayes says. "You're going to throw it out of the water so it can't swim away from you. These dolphins will work collectively very much like a pack of wolves to herd a school of fish up against an exposed bank like we've got ahead."

The five adults swam closer together as they condensed the school into a tight ball and drove it toward the shore. Bianca raised her head above the water to give the beach they'd selected a final safety check, and in a choreographed maneuver the Blue Angels might appreciate, the dolphins shifted into a side-by-side formation facing the bank.

"This is probably one of the coolest things you'll ever be able to witness from a natural perspective here," Hayes says.

What happened next was almost as spectacular as it was sudden. With the dense ball of mullet just a few feet from the sloping beach, the dolphin group launched itself into a top-speed burst toward the bank, the simultaneous motion generating an inescapable wave. Panicked mullet snapped vainly in the air as the wave forced them up onto the beach, followed by six hungry dolphins. In the frenzied seconds that followed, the Kiawah bottlenoses turned their temporary advantage into an all-you-can-snatch mullet buffet.

Over the next 90 minutes, the group would repeat the synchronized maneuver no fewer than five times. Each feeding followed the same pattern: the slow round-up, the gradual tightening, the deliberate visual check, the underwater signal, and the sudden, powerful drive toward the sloping shore, followed by frenzied mullet carnage.

Science knows surprisingly little about wild dolphin behavior in general, and even less about strand feeding. It wasn't documented until the 1970s, and basic scholarship into the mechanics of the adaptation is still underway. Hayes hopes to publish his research on the Kiawah pod someday, but what he's learned is already helping him spot emerging threats to the group.

According to Hayes, the most significant threat to the pod may not be from pollution, but from a seawall proposed for Captain Sam's Spit. After a developer purchased land on the spit to subdivide into residential lots, he filed a permit request to stabilize the bank of the Kiawah River with a sea wall.

Though the sea wall remains in permit limbo, Hayes says the unintended effect of its construction would be the destruction of the little sandy beaches where the pod has learned to strand its prey.

"The slope of the shore turns out to be really important," he says. "If that area is developed, that feeding ground is going to go away. It's essential to their survival that they have this area to feed in."

Though Colin Cuskley personally hopes the seawall permit won't be granted, active involvement in fights over specific permits is the kind of agenda the Johns Island Conservancy is trying to avoid. Instead, it has focused its sights on a more immediate and addressable danger: well-meaning dolphin fans.

"People are coming out here in much greater numbers than they have in the past, and they don't understand that they're interfering with the very behavior they've come to watch," Hayes says. "I've seen groups of people literally follow them down the beach. Remember when the dolphin stuck its head up to check the shore? If there are people there, they'll move down to another stretch. And people who don't understand that will run along the shore with their cameras, so that every time [the dolphins] would find a place, there would be some person standing there. I've seen kids scooping up the fish into buckets."

For now, Hayes says, the pod seems to be very healthy. "But in 10 years, if pedestrian traffic and boat traffic rises as it has over the last few years, I can't speak to that. I won't be able to say the same thing. They may not even stay in the river."

Targets of opportunity

Regardless of the seawall permit outcome, helping visitors understand how to avoid negative interactions with the Kiawah River pod is a classic example of the Johns Island Conservancy's research-and-education mission.

In addition to raising money to put instructional signs on the beach and distribute pamphlets about interacting with the local dolphins, the conservancy has reached out to a conservation group on Kiawah Island and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs a program that certifies "Dolphin Smart" tour operators. Improving the relationship between humans and dolphins on Kiawah is a discrete project, Cuskley says, and he hopes to have signs up by fall and the whole program in place by next summer, building coalitions along the way.

"I talk about 'targets of opportunity' instead of 'picking our fights,' because you don't pick fights with anybody," Cuskley says. "There's a lot of stuff to be done. So you go find where people want to work and cooperate with you, and it's a cooperative effort. We'll get stuff done."

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