Tag Archives: ecotourism

Dolphin Quest Affords Memorable Way to Experience Bermuda

David and Laini with Caliban, the dolphin, at Dolphin Quest Bermuda (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

By David Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bermuda is a magical place where the beaches have pink sand and the aquamarine water is so clear, you can see amazing marine life and feed fish Cheerios. But one of the most magical experiences of all is Dolphin Quest.

The experience starts off with our own training – shaping our own behaviors in order to properly interact with the dolphin. We join three others for a 30-minute Dolphin Dip – one of several different interactive encounters that are available. Lottie, the cheery dolphin trainer, tells us so much about how the dolphins learn and how they respond to specific calls. She demonstrates some incredible tricks (behaviors) by teaching the five of us how to signal to the dolphins ourselves.

Dolphin Quest organizes small-group encounters with dolphins in their habitat within The Keep at the Naval Dockyard in Bermuda (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

When we are in the large pool, Lottie calls me out to the middle of the lagoon and tells me to bring my hands together with palms facing up on the surface of the water. She blows a whistle and Caliban swims up to me and puts her snout on my hands, seeming to smile up at me with that broad dolphin mouth. Then she tells me to show her my cheek and he kisses me on the cheek!

Now it’s Dave’s turn to come out. Lottie tells him to put his hand out to the side. Then Caliban swims up and takes his hand. They practically dance! Then Caliban swims past us, inviting us to stroke her tummy for positive reinforcement. We get to feed her a small fish after each behavior which she seems to really enjoy.

Dancing with the Dolphin: David joins hand to Caliban’s fin (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

Lottie has each of us engage different behaviors with the four dolphins we get to meet, which are all also perfect photo opps. A professional photographer is on hand shooting photos the whole time and capturing so many amazing moments.

The digital and physical copies of the photographs are available for sale through an online portal. They’re pricey, but they capture priceless moments! There is free seating poolside so if anyone in your party is not in the water with you, they have the opportunity to capture their own photos, too.

The photographer is also extremely knowledgeable about the dolphins. He tells us about the 5- star health care they have and that the average lifespan is roughly double for the dolphins in their facility compared to dolphins in the wild. They also have a larger, more natural enclosed swimming area just outside the walls of the maritime museum, though we can’t see it ourselves because it is being cleaned.

It’s $219 for the 30-minute “Dolphin Dip” — pricey, but one of the cooler experiences we’ve had. It’s an amazing gift for someone you want to indulge and celebrate! Family/friends can watch from the sidelines where they can also enjoy seeing the dolphins up-close without paying the premium of being actually in the water with them.

A portion of the proceeds goes towards continued animal research. So far, Dolphin Quest programs in Hawaii, Oahu and Bermuda have contributed more than $3 million in funding, resources and field support to vital marine studies around the globe. University research studies have generated hundreds of published scientific works that are helping researchers find solutions to the threats dolphins and whales face in the wild. These studies also help the marine mammal community better care for dolphins in human care.

But there is something more: Dolphin Quest gives people a rare experience to interact and engage with dolphins, deepening our empathy for marine mammals and raising awareness about conservation programs.

“With our dolphins, we touch the hearts and minds of our guests in a fun and inspirational way, sharing how each of us can play a vital role in protecting our precious ocean ecosystem,” Dolphin Quest says.

Dolphin Quest affords experiences that make lifelong ambassadors on behalf of protecting and conserving marine mammals (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

Our time with the dolphins is not like a performance. We are reminded that dolphins are wild animals; they clearly only engage with us as they like, and seem to genuinely enjoy the intellectual stimulation.

It is an incomparable experience to interact with another species, and especially so with an intelligent marine mammal.

In addition to contributing millions of dollars toward research and conservation programs, Dolphin Quest also contributes essential medical and training support to wild marine mammals in distress through the marine mammal stranding networks in Hawaii and Bermuda. Its team members also hand raise newly hatched endangered sea turtles, releasing them back into the wild when they are large enough through the “Turtle Ambassador Program”.

Dolphin Quest also organizes beach and stream cleanups, recycling efforts, and other environmental stewardship initiatives.

We get to feed Bailey a small fish after each behavior which she seems to really enjoy (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

Indeed, Dolphin Quest’s humane stewardship of the marine animals living in its care is recognized: Dolphin Quest is an accredited member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, with all three of its locations certified by the American Humane Conservation program.

After the Dolphin Dip (or any of the Dolphin Quest programs), you are given free admission to the Maritime Museum and the National Museum of Bermuda, where you can explore the 200-year-old fort and experience educational maritime and cultural exhibits including: the Commissioner’s House, Shipwreck Island, The Warwick Project, Bermuda’s Defense Heritage and The Hall of History 1000-square-foot mural painted by Bermudian artist Graham Foster, plus an onsite Playground and Playhouse for children.

New Programs in Expanded Ocean Habitat

Dolphin Quest Bermuda has expanded its large ocean water dolphin lagoon inside the walls of the National Museum of Bermuda to include an outer Ocean Habitat. Accessed by a tunnel passageway, this supplemental sea sanctuary provides Dolphin Quest’s dolphins and guests another enriching natural environment to explore.

Accessed by a tunnel passageway, the new expanded Ocean Habitat provides Dolphin Quest’s dolphins and guests another enriching natural environment to explore (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

The outer Ocean Habitat utilizes an environmentally friendly sea pen structure. Its natural underwater terrain and sea life mirrors the shallow bays and estuaries where the coastal ecotype of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are found in the wild.

“While our dolphins are thriving in their ocean water lagoon within the walls of the museum, it is so fun to be able to introduce them to another area for them to play, socialize and inspire people to care about and protect dolphins in the wild”, says Lauren McWilliams, Supervisor of Marine Animals at Dolphin Quest Bermuda.

Dolphin Quest has introduced guided water scooter ride with the dolphins in the new Ocean Habitat (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

Founded by two marine mammal veterinarians in 1980s, Dolphin Quest continues to be on the leading edge of advocacy, conservation and research. Back then, Dr. Jay Sweeney and Dr. Rae Stone sought to create an alternative to oceanariums and “dolphin shows.” They set out to create pristine and enriching natural dolphin habitats where visitors could enjoy inspiring and educational dolphin encounters that, in turn, funded wild dolphin conservation.

Since opening their first location at the Hilton Waikoloa Village in Hawaii in1988, Dolphin Quest has become recognized as a leader in establishing large natural habitats for the animals, creating successful dolphin breeding programs and developing innovative interactive dolphin programs that combine fun and learning for the animals and the people, and promoting environmental stewardship.

They opened their first Dolphin Quest in Bermuda in 1996 at the Southampton Princess Hotel, but it was damaged in Hurricane Gert in 1999. The staff battled high winds and rough water to move the animals to a protected area on the most southwestern side of the island, into an area known as The Keep within the Royal Naval Dockyard. This offered a large, protective ocean-water lagoon within a historic fort, with a connected outer habitat that would be safe from hurricanes and weather events. This became Dolphin Quest’s home on Bermuda. 

New innovative and inspiring interactive programs are now available in the Ocean Habitat: “Dive with Dolphins” helmet dive, the “Sea Quest” guided water scooter ride with the dolphins and the “Exclusive Sea Quest” which is a private experience.

Dolphin Quest Programs Year-Round

A variety of programs are offered year-round. The website offers excellent information and an easy-to-follow breakdown of the various programs available by season and by age-appropriateness. Programs include:

Ultimate Adventure, an hour-long program (45 minutes in the water with dolphins), the longest time available, appropriate for ages 6+, available May-October.

SeaQuest, a scooter program, April-October, for ages 8+, 45 minutes

Dolphin Encounter, available November through April, let’s you create your own dolphin experience (30 min., $175).

Underwater Exploration (20 minutes with dolphins, for ages 8+, $100 (maximum 3 people):  You explore dolphins’ natural ocean habitat with underwater scooters and snorkeling; you have the opportunity to interact with dolphins in deeper waters, guided by marine mammal specialists (water scooters and masks provided; you must be a proficient swimmer; no more than 3 people and the trainer). After the program, the  marine mammal specialists are available to discuss dolphins’ care and wellness, animal training, conservation; and you get free full day admission to the National Museum of Bermuda. Winter programs (November- May) provide free wetsuits and booties; and a winter hot tub special (December 15-April 30, limited spaces available).

Swimming with dolphins. Dolphin Quest offers programs year-round at their habitat located within The Keep at the Naval Dockyard (photo courtesy of Dolphin Quest).

Marine Conservation Tour is a two-hour behind-the-scenes program that finishes with a five-minute dolphin touch, but it focuses on training programs, learning about animal care, visiting the medical lab, and watching the dolphins interact and socialize with each other (November-April, $79)

Trainer for a Day, a five-hour program with 60 minutes with the dolphins where you are side-by-side with trainers and dolphins and participate in dolphin health exams, dolphin training sessions, dolphin play time and dolphin programs for guests (lunch included). There is time in the water with the dolphins as well as interacting from the docks. (Wet suit and booties provided, November-May).

 

National Museum of Bermuda

The fortuitous collaboration between Dolphin Quest and the National Museum of Bermuda greatly enhances the visitor experience, as well, because you are not only given this rare experience to interact with marine mammals, but also become immersed in Bermuda’s rich heritage.

The Keep of the Dockyard is a six-acre historic fort that was designed to serve the naval fleet at anchor in Grassy Bay. It was once one of the most strategic military installations in the world and was heavily protected with a moated entrance, cannons, shell guns, and other weapons.

The Naval Dockyard contains the National Museum of Bermuda as well as Dolphin Quest © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It was designed so munitions and provisions could be moved by boat between the large Keep pond and the vessels in the harbor. The grounds and many buildings of the Keep are now home to the National Museum of Bermuda’s exhibits and serve as home base for its highly-regarded maritime research, restoration, and preservation efforts.

“The fort provides probably the world’s most secure home for our dolphins, and we are enjoying exploring the many possibilities for expanding our dolphin programs within this historic context,” Dolphin Quest notes.

It is contained within a 16-acre National Museum of Bermuda with eight exhibit buildings and the most extensive historical collection in Bermuda, including the hilltop commissioner’s house. You can walk along the ramparts.

In 2016, the dolphin’s habitat was expanded to include The Ocean Habitat, a large sanctuary that extends beyond the museum walls and allows the dolphins to swim out into the ocean waters via a connecting tunnel from inside the lagoon. The entire sanctuary is one of the largest and most natural dolphin habitats in the world. Dolphin encounters in this area allow guests to interact with dolphins while riding underwater scooters and they can also explore the Bermuda reefs and bountiful marine life.

Dolphin Quest is contained within The Keep of the Naval Dockyard © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

After American independence from Britain, Bermuda was identified as a strategic location for a naval base and dockyard. Construction on the dockyard began in 1809, which involved massive land reclamations and quarrying, first by slaves and then by thousands of British convicts. In its heyday, the dockyard provided facilities for the Royal Navy’s fleet.

The Keep was the citadel of the Dockyard, built to guard the naval base against land or sea attack and as an arsenal. The massive bastions and ramparts were designed by the Royal Engineers and are reinforced at intervals by casemated gun emplacements. Casemates were built in the late 1830’s to house troops manning the Dockyard fortifications. After Dockyard closed in 1951 it became Bermuda’s maximum-security prison from 1963-1994.

It is currently undergoing extensive restoration by the Museum and volunteers.

Walking the ramparts of the Naval Dockyard © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Museum’s scope has expanded to encompass more than maritime history and today it is a vital custodian of Bermuda’s heritage. It is also a champion for the preservation of Bermuda’s underwater and land-based cultural heritage through collecting, exhibitions, restoration, conservation, research, publication, education, public outreach, and archaeology.

The National Museum of Bermuda’s scope has expanded to encompass more than maritime history and today it is a vital custodian of Bermuda’s heritage © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The National Museum of Bermuda is open daily except Christmas Day (Dolphin Quest is still open); admission fees are $15/adult, $12/seniors; under 16 free; admission fee is waived for Dolphin Quest participants.

“Dolphin Quest is committed to protecting our planet and inspiring the next generation of ocean stewards by providing inspirational interactive experiences, educational programs and contributing funding, resources and field support to vital marine studies around the globe.

“With resort partners in Bermuda, Hawaii, and Oahu, Dolphin Quest inspires tens of thousands of guests each year to care about and help protect dolphins in the wild.” 

Dolphin Quest Bermuda. National Museum of Bermuda. 15 The Keep. Sandys, Bermuda MA 01. Tel: 441.234.4464 (local); call 800-248-3316 from US. https://dolphinquest.com/dolphin-quest-bermuda/.

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Discovering Sapelo Island, Georgia and the Gullah-Geechees of Hog Hammock

The Reynolds Mansion is a key attraction on Sapelo Island, an island refuge that offers intrigue and extraordinary contrasts © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Reynolds Mansion is a key attraction on Sapelo Island, an island refuge that offers intrigue and extraordinary contrasts © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

From the moment I hear the story of Sapelo Island, I am intrigued. The 50 remaining permanent residents are all descendents of Gullah-Geechee slaves. Access to the island is limited, and once there, “outsiders” who come on their own will have difficulty getting around – you’re not even allowed to take your own bicycle onto the island.

The number of permanent residents, once as many as 800, has steadily dwindled since the end of the Civil War and Emancipation, and now the community faces a dilemma: how to instill a sustainable economy that will keep the young people from migrating away, that does not cause this idyllic island to be overrun. Already, real estate developers are chomping at the bit.

The Gullah-Geechee are descendents of slaves brought 200 years ago from Africa and the West Indies to work the plantations. Their modest community of just 300 acres – the only part of the 16,000 acre island that does not belong to the State of Georgia – is in marked contrast to the RJ Reynolds mansion that has hosted presidents from Coolidge to Carter and continues to be an inspired venue for everything from destination weddings to academic conferences. Georgia and NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) also have research facilities on the island, in fact, at the Reynolds estate.

Sapelo Island is isolated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island is isolated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Sapelo Island – the fourth largest of Georgia’s barrier islands at 11 miles long and a mile wide – is owned by the State of Georgia, which uses it for research center for the state university, and a NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) research facility.

Unlike other barrier islands off Georgia – notably St. Simons, Sea Island and Jekyll Island – which have been turned into tourist havens, Sapelo Island has been insulated and almost entirely undeveloped. In fact, the only “law” governing the island is the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) – there are no police.

There is limited ferry service and limited transportation on the island all of which adds to its mystery and intrigue, and limited transportation around the island. You’re not even allowed to bring your own bicycle on the ferry from Meridien, but theoretically, you can rent on the island. Because of the difficulties of getting around the island, most people who visit join one of the (few) organized tours that are available.

And this is apparently the way the “locals” – the 50 actual residents of the island – like it.

We come to Sapelo Island with Andy Hill, who owns Private Islands of Georgia, a 2,000-acre territory of these back barrier islands encompassing eight private islands including Eagle Island where we stay. He owns a half-acre of property on Sapelo, giving him (and his guests) privileges to come and he keeps a truck at the dock. He takes his guests over with his pontoon, or you can rent a boat and Eagle Island guests sometimes come with their own boats.

The 20-minute ride to the island is very scenic and interesting. We get to see an alligator, roused from winter hibernation; ballast islands; Doboy Island.

We set out in Andy’s truck and quickly discover one of the island’s charms – no street signs and few paved roads and lots of live oak dripping with Spanish moss.

Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are such incongruities to the island – shacks and dilapidated cars and trucks, only a couple of paved roads with the rest dirt or sand – contrasted with the splendor of the RJ Reynolds Mansion.

All of this makes the island that much more interesting: highlights of any visit include the Reynolds mansion home, the historic lighthouse (newly restored but you can’t climb it), and miles and miles of pristine beach. Nanny Goat Beach, a six-mile stretch, is among many beaches which are as private as private can get. There also are research stations operated by the state university.

And then there is Hog Hammock, which is the village established by the former slaves, where there is the beginning of a historic center.

In some ways, Sapelo Island calls to mind Cuba, the way cars and trucks are kept for an eternity and constantly repaired and the people and culture exist in isolation, and a book by Pat Conroy, “The Water is Wide,” about his experience as a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse on remote Daufuskie Island in South Carolina teaching black kids.

Reynolds Mansion

The Reynolds Mansion through the Live Oak, Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Reynolds Mansion through the Live Oak, Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Start at the Reynolds Mansion, which gives context to Sapelo Island’s history, and only open for tours during specific hours.

The original Mansion was designed and built from tabby, a mixture of lime, shells and water, by Thomas Spalding, an architect, statesman and plantation owner who purchased the south end of the island in 1802. The Mansion served as the Spalding Plantation Manor from 1810 until the Civil War.

Spalding was a fairly remarkable man: he employed scientific farming techniques including crop rotation and diversification and was responsible not only for devising the formula for building tabby – a cement like construction material made from shells – but for cultivating Sea Island cotton and introducing the manufacture of sugar to Georgia. He also was elected to Congress and was an important local leader.

Spalding owned more than 350 slaves imported from Africa and the West Indies, but reportedly had misgivings about the institution of slavery, and had a reputation as “a liberal and humane master.” He utilized the task system of labor, which allowed his workers to have free time for personal pursuits. Slaves were supervised not by the typical white overseers but by black managers, the most prominent of whom was Bu Allah (or Bilali), a Muslim and Spalding’s second-in-command on Sapelo.

According to various biographies, Spalding was pro-Union (but anti abolition), and worked to win Georgia’s support of the 1850 Compromise.

Despite setbacks, Spalding’s prowess in agriculture and as a businessman (he was a founder of the Bank of Darien, advocated railroad and canal development in the region, and was active in state political affairs), enabled him to grow his plantation from 5,000-acres to eventually owning all of Sapelo Island’s 16,000-acres.

The mansion home was vandalized before and after the Civil War. After the Civil War, the former slaves, who began to earn cash for their labor, were able to buy land (that part of the story continues later when we meet Hog Hammock’s historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey).

The entire island except for those communities held by the former slave families, was purchased in 1912 for $150,000 by Howard Coffin (founder of the Hudson Motor Company as well as the Cloister Hotel on Sea Island). Coffin restored the mansion, which then hosted visits of President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge in 1928, President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover in 1932, and Charles Lindberg in 1929, who landed his plane on its small airstrip.

Tobacco heir Richard Reynolds, Jr. purchased the property during the Great Depression, in 1934.

Reynolds was an early environmentalist and founded the Sapelo Island Research Foundation in 1949. He later funded the research of Eugene Odum, whose 1958 paper The Ecology of a Salt Marsh showed the fragility of the cycle of nature in the wetlands; the research Odum did at Sapelo helped launch the modern ecology movement.

Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Reynolds’ widow, Annemarie Reynolds, sold Sapelo to the state of Georgia for $1 million, a fraction of its worth. The sale established the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, a state-federal partnership between the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The mansion is used today for groups – like destination weddings and conferences. The Reynolds Mansion can accommodate up to 29 guests in 13 bedrooms with 11 bathrooms. There is a minimum group size of 16 guests as well as a minimum 2-night stay.

The Mansion has marvelous architecture. The library has the original nameplates in many volumes from Reynolds’ private collection. Guests can use the Game Room’s billiards and table tennis. The ornately decorated Circus Room sports the wild animal murals of famed Atlanta artist, Athos Menaboni, whose work appears throughout the house.

The expansive grounds are particularly atmospheric with sculptures bathed in the sunlight filtering through massive live oaks.

Pathways link the Mansion’s grounds to the Atlantic Ocean where guests have use of a beachfront pavilion.

Mansion guests can explore the island on foot, bicycle, van or rented ocean kayaks. The lush forest envelopes you in a sea of green almost year round, and you are likely to sight whitetail deer, raccoon, opossum, wild turkey armadillo and other animals. The rare Guatemalan Chacalaca, imported to the island as a gamebird, runs wild in the forest, as do wild hogs and cattle, descendants of livestock that escaped from the farms of Sapelo’s early settlers. Sapelo is also a birders paradise. And of course, there are miles of unspoiled beach.

(Reynolds Mansion groups and conference participants are met at the ferry landing by air-conditioned vans; the vans are also available for the group’s use during their stay. Because of the unique ecological and archeological aspects of Sapelo, visitors have to obey very stringent and specific rules. For information and reservations, visit http://gastateparks.org/SapeloIslandReynoldsMansion or call 912-485-2299.)

Sapelo Lighthouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Lighthouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Another interesting attraction is the 80-foot tall Sapelo Lighthouse which watches over Doboy Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. The five-acre lighthouse tract was sold to the federal government for $1 in 1808 by Thomas Spalding; the original lighthouse, 65 foot tall and topped by a 15-foot whale-oil lantern, was erected in 1820 for $14,500. Damaged several times by hurricanes over the years, it was eventually replaced and then deactivated in 1933. It was renovated in 1998 including a new spiral staircase, new lantern glass and light, and the spiral-striped exterior identical to the structure’s original paint scheme.

Today, its role is symbolic, since a steel tower outfitted with modern navigation aids was erected nearby as a replacement.

One of the enormous appeals of Sapelo Island for visitors are miles and miles of beaches. The main beach, Nanny Goat, has relatively easy access and bathroom facilities. We make our way with significant difficulty over some dirt roads, to one of the more secluded beaches at Cabretta Island where there are also campsites.

Hog Hammock

The highlight of our visit to Sapelo Island comes when we stop at Hog Hammock.

In its heyday, Hog Hammock would have had 800 residents; now the community of permanent residents has dwindled to just about 50, and only six children. Once there was a schoolhouse on the island; now the children go by ferry to the mainland.

All the descendents on the island trace back to 44 slave families – Bailey, Hogg, Walker, Spalding, and so forth. Many of the families were named for the owner (like Spalding); and many of the last names of enslaved populations on plantations originated from their job assignments. For example, the Bailey’s baled tobacco; Gardner’s tended the gardens; Grovner’s tended the groves; Hogg’s tended to hogs; Walker’s walked livestock.

Hog Hammock's historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hog Hammock’s historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We get to meet the village historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey, who has been accumulating artifacts in a small building which will serve as a museum but which does not seem open to the general public.

Cornelia Bailey’s ancestors first arrived on Sapelo in the 1790s, she tells us, and were here when the French came over. Beginning in 1802, a lot more came over, and after Thomas Spalding purchased the island, the number of Gullah-Geechee people grew to 800.

Just 50 of the community remain today.

“Everybody is still kin,” she says. She wants to revitalize the community so that it supports 150-200 people, but that will require jobs be created on the island.

The state of Georgia owns almost all of the island; Hog Hammock consists of just 300 of the 16,000 acres.

When the Civil War came, several slaves from Sapelo Island left and walked to Millersville, some walked to Thomasville (that’s a four-hour drive today).

The famous 54th Massachusetts, the black regiment – came through here and were responsible for burning Darien. “The blacks didn’t want to burn Darien,” Cornelia says. “the officers ordered them to give a lesson. The whites in the area still hold it against us.”

Did they know when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued? “We knew immediately because we had people here who served in Union forces.”

What happened here after slavery ended? I ask. “People in the north end were more independent. They didn’t want anyone telling them what to do. After being slaves for so many years. Rebellious people, took up arms against whites.

After the Civil War, she says, “for 35 years they didn’t work for any white man. They were jailed for refusing to be sharecroppers.”

“They planted for themselves They formed alliance and got their produce to market without a middleman, because until federal regulations, middlemen took all the profit.”

Many of the plantation owners lost their money because they supported the Confederacy. “Some buried it. Families were destitute Wives sold land. Some of my people who worked for federal government could pay 50 cents an acre.”

After 1870 and Reconstruction, she tells us, many of the former slaves ended up owning land; a lot worked for the federal government, earning cash money. They purchased land from their former owners – apparently being given handwritten slips of paper to show their ownership.

At one time, there were five different communities in five different parts of the island.

When Reynolds bought the island, he had the idea to develop it much as Jekyll Island and Sea Island had been developed, and wanted to consolidate all the Gullah-Geechee residents in one community from the five different communities.

“He said it was for wildlife preservation. But he wanted to develop north end,” she says.

“Everyone got a deed for land here but were cheated out of land in the north [of the island],” she tells us.They claimed that because the former slaves did not have the King’s grant, they could not prove their ownership.

Cornelia manifests the proud, independent streak of her ancestors, and is suspicious of outside developers who might come in and take over.

“Come and enjoy what we eat – seafood dishes. We’re cordial but don’t want outsiders to stay.”

Bailey wants to make the community economically viable but is not keen on promoting the obvious cash-cow, tourism, because that would mean opening the floodgates to outsiders.

Beaches are a major lure to Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Beaches are a major lure to Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Sapelo Island, Georgia (SIG) Community Improvement District (CID) is working to create a more walkable, bikeable and livable rural environment, and there is a Small Business Incubator which is hoping to spur the successful development of entrepreneurial companies.

I get the impression they don’t really want the outside world. Instead, her approach to economic revitalization is to revitalize agriculture.

Meanwhile, the community has been fighting back real estate development, and discourage locals from selling their property to outsiders.

Instead of opening floodgates to outsiders, Sapelo Island hosts a once-a-year festival, Sapelo Days Festival, on the third Saturday in October, when the island invites back all those who used to live here, whose families trace their roots here, and anyone else who is curious or who wants to be immersed in Gullah-Geechee culture.

Family of residents and those who have moved off the island start arriving Thursday; on Saturday, boat loads come, by 7:30-8 pm, they are gone.

“It’s a cultural day. People have their best manners, best foods,” she says, sounding like the grandmother who loves to have their grandchildren for a day and then send them back to the parents.

The festival is a fundraiser that helps support the Sapelo community.

Before we leave, we stop into Cornelia’s general store, where you can purchase a cookbook she wrote (there isn’t much else in the store). But you can see a display about Sapelo Island’s most famous resident, Cornelia’s nephew, Allen Bailey, who played for the Miami Hurricanes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Gullah-Geechee community extends from southern North Carolina down to northern Florida. The Gullahs achieved a victory in 2006 when the U.S. Congress passed the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act that provides $10 million over 10 years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites relating to Gullah culture. The Heritage Corridor project is being administered by the US National Park Service with extensive consultation with the Gullah community.

Special Programs

Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The State of Georgia offers guided bus tours of Sapelo Island on Wednesdays (8:30 – 12:30) and Saturdays (9 – 1) throughout the year, Fridays (8:30 – 12:30) June 1 through Labor Day; and an extended tour on the Last Tuesday (8:30 – 3) of each month March through October. Public tour reservations can be made by calling 912-437-3224 (adults/$15; Children (6-12)/ $10; ages 5 and under/free).

The Visitors Center is open Tuesday – Friday 7:30-5:30, Saturday 8-5:30, closed on Sunday and Monday. Group tours for 10-40 people are offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays (8:30-3) throughout the year, and Fridays (8:30-12:30) from Labor Day to the end of May. Those tours can be arranged by calling the Education Office at 912-485-2300. Tickets for public and group tours of Sapelo Island can be purchased at the Visitor Center. T-shirts, books, and videos are also available for purchase.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (www.sapelonerr.org) work closely together managing the island’s resources. Guided interpretive tours of the mansion, slide shows of the island, interpretive beach walks and other ecological or scientific presentations can be arranged through the Reynolds Mansion conference coordinator with advance notice. Special outings, cookouts, picnics and other group activities are also possible with advance notice when booking your reservations. (The Reynolds Mansion on Sapelo Island, P.O. BOX 15, Sapelo Island, Georgia 31327, 912-485-2299).

Getting to Sapelo Island

One of the principal ways of accessing Sapelo Island is aboard the Georgia Department of Natural Resources ferry which serves visitors and residents alike. The $10 per person round-trip fee for the half-hour ride is paid at the Meridian ferry dock. (You are not allowed to bring bicycles, beach chairs or a host of other things.)

The mainland ferry dock, visitor center and parking areas are located in Meridian, Georgia, 8 miles east of Darien. From I-95, take exit 58 on GA HWY 57 to HWY 99.

Sapelo Island Visitors Center, 1766 Landing Rd SE, Darien, GA 31305, 912-437-3224, sapelovc@darientel.net, www.sapelonerr.org/visitor-center.

See also:

Eagle Island, One of ‘Private Islands of Georgia’ Offers Rarest Luxury: Time Together

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