Circulating throughout this 2,000-acre mid-Hilton Head Island neighborhood, the 11-mile lagoon system is the lifeblood of Palmetto Dunes.
It is teeming with roughly 40 species of birds and fish, which entice a steady flow of residents and visitors to Palmetto Dunes Outfitters, where people can rent kayaks, canoes or book a fishing trip.
The system is more popular than the beach in the minds of residents and management, who proudly claim that there's no other quite like it on the country's Eastern Seaboard.
"The way the canopy from the trees hangs over, the way the lagoons just weave through here, you'll think that you're a million miles away," said Frank Gaston, manager of Palmetto Dunes Outfitters. "You feel like you're in a rain forest."
For about 30 years, the health of the lagoon system has relied heavily on nine tide gates that ensure the waters stay at a consistent level and the water temperature doesn't get too hot, protecting the various aquatic life.
"The lagoon system is one of the main reasons why we were voted the No. 1 family resort by Travel Leisure and Leisure magazine," Sharp said of the 2003 designation. "It's an incredible animal habitat -- and it's unique to us."
Hilton Head Island
In the spring, bald eagles are spotted in the morning. Osprey, great blue herons
and deer abound at other times. Even ornery sea otters often are spotted,
sometimes in the bait basket in Trent Malphrus' boat.
Malphrus, who leads fishing expeditions in the lagoons, said red fish, sea trout, flounder, black drum and tarpon are the most common catches. The biggest catch on record was in 1987 when a 58-pound red fish was reeled in, he said. "The biggest attraction here is nature," Malphrus said.
The fish population has its quirks. Because of high salinity levels in the
water, the fish aren't able to reproduce. Friends of the Lagoons, a charitable organization, raises money through oyster roasts to stock the lagoons with
11-inch fingerlings each year.
Water flows in a big loop through the lagoon system, largely because of the tide gates at two points on Broad Creek. A 10-inch gap lets the water in, while a weir ensures that the water level does not change much. Without the gates, the unique ecosystem wouldn't thrive, and it wouldn't have the calmest waters in the area, Sharp said.