I can taste salt and exultation in the air as we leave civilization behind, skimming across the inscrutable water, blue-black laced with shimmering olive highlights.
I’ve asked John “Crawfish” Crawford
to show me his favorite places. We’re in a Carolina skiff that belongs to Crawfish’s employer, the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service
, aka MAREX. Crawfish’s daughter, Lauren, 11, his wife, Jeana, and my son, Santo, 12, are along for the Sunday ride.
“We have one of the largest stretches of undeveloped coastline in the US—60 miles from Tybee to Sea Island—and the highest tidal range from Cape Cod to South America,” Crawfish calls out above the roar of the motor. “This right here is the nursery of the ocean. Dead grass feeds bacteria, which feed plankton, which feed everything.”
Underneath a Captain Ahab beard, his voice sparkles with boyish enthusiasm. I feel suddenly privileged to be here, in this diverse ecosystem based on constant change, with a bona fide disciple of Poseidon.
A Savannah native, marine science education specialist and U.S. Coast Guard master captain, my host came by the name “Crawfish” honestly. He grew up exploring the woods and marshes of Savannah’s east side, catching specimens in jars, leading his fellow Boy Scouts on natural history expeditions and riding his bike to the now-defunct Savannah Science Museum, where he found mentors and a lifelong passion. After a stint in the Navy, he went on to have a hand in every local ecological organization I can think of, from Wilderness Southeast to the Caretta Research Project. Today, he leads groups “from ages 10 to 110” on learning expeditions into the coastal wilderness. Back in laboratories at MAREX’s saltwater aquarium on Skidaway Island, he and his colleagues teach by example. They involve their students in field research, inspecting plankton, dissecting fish and observing horseshoe crab behavior in salt tanks.
When I thank Crawfish for spending his day off at work, he laughs and quotes Georgia folk hero Br’er Rabbit: “Please, please, please don’t throw me in the briar patch!”
This is one local man who doesn’t just live on the water—he lives for it.
Adrift With Living Fossils
Wilmington Island’s crowded shore gives way to oyster-lined tidal creeks where ’gators larger than our children slide noiselessly into the water. Crawfish shows us where the ageless reptiles have changed the marsh over time, creating new waterways by wallowing through the grass. He explains how they keep other species alive by digging holes that stay wet through seasons of drought—reverse “arks” where these unlikely “Noahs” unwittingly preserve their prey.
It’s one thing to take an ordinary Savannah boat ride—koozie in hand, marveling at the raw, wordless expanse and gossiping with the usual suspects. It’s another thing entirely to take a ride with Crawfish, a lifelong champion of coastal ecology. I pester him with questions and find that he can answer them all. How do starfish eat? (Through a mouth that’s disturbingly close to the anus.) How do you tell a great egret from a snowy egret? (Yellow beak vs. yellow feet.)
After 10 years in Savannah, I feel like I’ve finally arrived.
We pass a sand bar where glossy clusters of watermelon-sized horseshoe crabs float in the shallows. Nothing like the occasional stragglers that surface on Tybee’s South Beach to die, these living fossils are active and plentiful.
“These fellas mate only on the spring tides—the full and new moon—so we’re in luck,” Crawfish says, tossing an anchor overboard so we can get a closer view.
Everywhere we look, the prehistoric creatures have strung themselves together, the males’ hooked legs, or pedipalps, locking onto the shells of the females. They haven’t changed much in the past 300 million years.
Lauren disembarks to help a stranded male. Crawfish shows me the crab’s underbelly, a fierce, flailing knot of spidery legs.
“You can see that they’re related to scorpions,” he says, and the “stinger” is clearly the sword-like tail, which aggressively slices the air on its abdominal hinge. “But, even though it looks threatening, it’s only trying to propel itself.”
My host also knows his plant life—he’s particularly fond of “what other people call weeds”—and he offers us a crab-watching snack. As we sample salty sea blight and succulent glasswort near the water’s edge, birds hover close by, no doubt hoping to feed on horseshoe crab eggs. The birds’ diversity is astounding but Crawfish can name each species, pointing out their unique markings and peculiar habits as we motor onward.
I’ve been making magazines for so long that I only have eyes for the supermodels: the leggy, graceful great blue heron, standing on ceremony at the skirt of the tide. But Crawfish has a place in his heart for each unique creature.
“See that smaller bird there?” We spot a flash of deep emerald with a reddish throat. “That’s the green-backed heron, and it uses bait to catch fish. You’ll see it ‘casting’ the same twig again and again, then snapping up the fish that comes for it.”
Where the Wild Things Are
As I contemplate a world where birds use tools, the Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge stretches out before us in all directions —10,053 acres of wilderness accessible only by boat. Separated from the mainland by vast marshes and tidal waterways, the refuge encompasses Wassaw and Little Wassaw islands, along with several smaller hammocks.
On Wassaw Island, we follow a sandy path through thick woods of pine and palmetto, which gradually give way to an older maritime forest sheltered by vast oaks. Along the way, we sniff fragrant, willowy dog fennel, so named because it keeps fleas away; wax myrtle, a natural insect repellent; and the crisp, glossy leaves of the vanishing red bay tree.
“The red bay is native, and it’s under attack by the Asian ambrosia beetle, which carries a symbiotic fungus that feeds on the tree,” Crawfish explains. “It arrived in the U.S. by way of the Port of Savannah, presumably in the infested wood of packing crates aboard a cargo ship. Now the tree is threatened.”
I consider that precarious view of life on the water.
“Only naturalists were concerned, until the beetle reached Florida and tackled the red bay’s cousin, the avocado.”
He hands me a red bay seed, which looks and tastes like a marble-sized version of its celebrated relative. I wonder how many more people will hold one of these in the palm of their hand before the trees are extinguished forever.
Kingdom of the Ghost Shrimp
To my surprise, the forest takes a sharp turn upward, and we’re scaling a 45-foot hill in the shade of towering oaks. After years in the lowlands, this promontory presents a challenging climb, its view breathtaking.
“A hurricane in 1893 made these dunes overnight,” Crawfish tells me. “See, there are still sea oats up here among the trees.”
The sea oats proliferate, the dune slopes downward and we emerge onto the brilliant, sugary beach: seven straight miles of uninterrupted purity.
Our kids, shy until now, become instant friends, gathering sun-bleached sand dollars and the swirling shells of lightning whelks. We marvel at the way the ocean forges friendships and brings children to life.
“I had a group of sixth-graders out here,” Crawfish remembers. “Most were pretty excited but there was one little girl—when I mentioned there were no bathrooms you could see the horror in her eyes. And one of the kids said ‘Oh, look at this spider,’ so the kids all gathered around, and this little girl didn’t even think. She picked up her foot to stomp it. I caught her in time but that was her impulse. You could tell that in her family that there was just no environmental awareness.”
That’s where Crawfish, a self-described “environmental missionary” sees his life’s work.
“By the end of the day she was gathering up all kinds of cool stuff on the beach—stuff other kids didn’t even want to touch,” he delights. “So I praised her for that.”
Crawfish shows me the claw of a ghost shrimp, stark white and finger-length.
“That’s what lives here, all along the water’s edge.” He points to the familiar tiny holes, sprinkled with brown confetti, that I recognize from the shores at Tybee Island.
The claw indicates a creature too large to move in and out of those tiny holes, but Crawfish explains that the holes connect to a clay-lined burrow system the shrimp make underground. “The opening down below is much, much bigger.”
For a moment, I see the beach as a long network of underground chambers.
“Ghost shrimp are a sign of a healthy and high-energy coastline,” Crawfish adds. “They only live where there is plenty of wave action and plenty of healthy small organisms to eat.”
The Eagle’s Lofty View
Back in the boat, more good environmental omens abound. Dolphins, pearlescent as hot rods, surface repeatedly to watch us with their knowing smiles. Dark and hulking, wild boars and their piglets root around on a scruffy beach.
Crawfish stops the boat to scan the hammocks for eagle nests in the trees. We see three massive nests and then a bald eagle at the top of a towering pine, the bird’s beak scowling, its dark feathers lined in gold.
“Seeing eagles is another good sign,” Crawfish tells me. More bald eagles roost in the Coastal Empire each year, he explains. They’re recovering in the wake of the 1972 ban on DDT, which sterilized much of the population.
Crawfish celebrates these victories, one by one.
“If I wasn’t optimistic, I couldn’t do what I do,” he smiles. “My mission is teaching people about the life that’s out there. I don’t focus on the garbage. I focus on the natural environment and I want to get the beauty, diversity and value of that across to my students. And once people appreciate stuff and begin to understand it, they can’t help but want to preserve it.”
I know it’s true for me. Out here, despite its obvious bounty, the coast seems more precious, more illusory, more fragile than ever. It’s like a beautiful dream that I’m scared to wake up from. On our way back to the aquarium, I pepper Crawfish with fearful questions. How are we ruining this bit of paradise? Will this still be here for Santo’s and Lauren’s children?
“Our problems are solvable,” he assures me, steering into the wind.
As much as the harbor deepening and the Ogeechee fish kills have made environmental headlines, the saltwater world before us is threatened most by nonpoint source pollution, including pesticides, fertilizers and runoff from parking lots and roads. We can limit the damage by choosing alternative lawn treatments and paving with permeable materials, which filter pollution rather than storing it up for the next rainstorm. And then there are the septic tanks, many below sea level, that can leak out into our waterways at high tide if not properly inspected and repaired.
We also urgently need to limit our use of plastics, and Crawfish has a much more local reason than the horrifying “plastic continents” scientists have discovered floating in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
“Even if plastic doesn’t strangle a dolphin or get eaten by a sea turtle, it breaks down into tiny particles that don’t go away,” he explains. “When we do plankton tows with our students, we bring in jars full of organisms, and every time, the kids put them under the microscopes and say, ‘What it this?’ Brightly colored microscopic bits of plastic. This can be confusing to planktonic animals that are the basis of food webs. They might spend a whole lot of time trying to get rid of debris that they can’t digest. That could lower their productivity, meaning that the disruptions could move up the food chain.”
The Sea of Love
This is a sobering thought: that the worst damage to our touted “salt life” comes from all of us at once. But as we travel home, Crawfish gives me the greatest hope of all. Revealing that he knows just as much about Savannah’s human history as her natural history, my host points out the various hammocks and islands that have been saved by local families who opted out of opportunities to develop their land.
Wassaw’s Parsons family, for example, chose to convey their land to the Nature Conservancy of Georgia in 1969. Ossabaw Island’s remarkable centenarian Sandy West is widely credited for one of the most public-minded land deals in recent Georgia’s history, ceding her 26,000-acre barrier island system to the state for less than half its value. In 1970, still more concerned citizens brought about the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act, which, among other things, prevented oil and gas giant Kerr McGee from drilling after Midnight’s infamous Jim Williams sold Cabbage Island to the company.
Humans may be the greatest threat to our wetlands, but we’re also their staunchest defenders. We’ve made tough choices before, and we can make them again.
“If it weren’t for locals who care about the environment, all this would look like Hilton Head,” my host says with gratitude.
And if it weren’t for locals like Crawfish, we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.