St. Simons Sound was as smooth as polished marble. Our boat broke the calm, puttering in the general direction of a pair of shrimp boats a few hundred feet apart. The first, still and silent, almost looked abandoned. "They're probably sleeping or drinking. That's pretty much all they do," cracked our skipper, Cap'n John D. McCleskey.
The other boat was a relative beehive, or rather bird-hive, of activity. As we drew closer, the crew began hoisting up two green nets, bulging almost to the point of bursting with the catch of the day. Three dolphins glided about the boat, and scores of seagulls, which had been ominously lined up along every available horizontal surface, darted in a hundred directions, a chaotic, cacophonous mass in search of a free meal.
Alfred Hitchcock could not have choreographed it better.
For all of St. Simons Island's denizens -- be they flying, swimming or earthbound -- life is about the water. Most local livelihoods and tourists' recreational activities, not to mention the vibrant cuisine, revolve around the fresh, brackish and salty waters surrounding this slip of an isle.
So it was on the shrimp boat, where the men would soon start picking through their haul and tossing the "bycatch" -- a mélange of small fish, crustaceans and baby sharks that amount to about 8 pounds for every pound of shrimp netted -- to the nearby mammals, birds and the occasional loggerhead turtle.
And so it was throughout an idyllic long weekend on this barrier island halfway between Savannah and Jacksonville. Lollygagging was the order of every day we spent on the island, alongside or on the water. Rubbernecking for dolphin sightings and ambling along the beach were pretty much the extent of our physical activity.
We were even too lazy to climb the "new" lighthouse, built in 1872. Our rationalization: The view from the sand beneath was just dandy, thank you.
The lighthouse stands on the site of its predecessor, which went up in 1808 and came down when fleeing Confederate soldiers burned it to keep invading Union forces from seizing and using it. "I don't think that worked too well," Cap'n John had quipped on our boat ride.
It's part of a brief but rich history built almost entirely around bodies of water.
Formed 25,000 to 35,000 years ago by sediment from the Altamaha River, St. Simons was home to sundry native tribes before Spanish missions and then English settlements popped up in the 17th and early 18th centuries. When the two European nations waged the War of Jenkins' Ear, a key turning point was the Battle of Bloody Marsh in 1742, in which English, Scottish Highlander and Indian forces rebuffed the Spanish, prompting them to leave the island. A half-century later, St. Simons' "Southern live oaks" were felled to help build a new nation's first navy.
Wars have touched the island for centuries; it was a base for torpedo bombers during World War II. But the most wrenching chapter in St. Simons' history was written in 1803, when at least 10 members of Africa's Igbo tribe walked into Dunbar Creek and drowned themselves rather than become slaves. (The site, known as Igbo or Ebo Landing, is on private property, where the slaves' ghosts reputedly still roam.)
A causeway was built from the mainland in 1924, traversing five tidal rivers and creating easy access to St. Simons and the adjacent Sea Island. Tourists started to flock here, drawn by what Southern novelist Eugenia Price dubbed the island's "special cosmos."
It's hard to argue with Price's notion when strolling still-quaint Mallory Street, or driving beneath humongous Spanish moss-festooned oak limbs along Deermer Street, or gawking at boats and dolphins from our deck at Adams High Tide Cottage, one of scores of seaside rental properties. Dusk was especially memorable, Ol' Sol slouching its way down the endless horizon beyond nearby Jekyll Island, sliding through layers of clouds with uniformly laser-straight bases and poofy crowns.
We came, we saw, we dawdled.
Nothing but leisure time
In such a sedentary mood, we eschewed some of the more popular tourist activities -- golf, biking, kayaking, bird-watching, crabbing -- in lieu of an up-close-and-personable tour on Cap'n John's boat. We stopped for beer and headed across the island -- encountering vast wetland meadows and that distinctive brackish odor even in what passes for "inland" here -- and soon enough were on board and pulling out into St. Simons Sound.
During our two-hour tour, Cap'n John kept us entertained and edified with the gifts of a true raconteur: effortless folksiness and countless anecdotes.
He pointed out the tall white towers built for cormorants, which use them to dry off (from the Who-Knew Files: These aquatic birds often drown after getting too waterlogged). He told us that the Spanish moss dangling from oaks is actually not a moss, but an "air plant" that gets its nutrients from rainfall and air (which is why it is found only in humid climes).
He puttered close to a few more of Georgia's 15 barrier islands, only four on which cars are allowed: St. Simons, Sea, Jekyll and Tybee. We skirted the waters off the Lodge at Sea Island, where nightly rates start at $500, butler service runs 24 hours a day and a bagpiper plays at sundown every evening.
As we pulled up near Jekyll Island's undeveloped Driftwood Beach, Cap'n John recounted the "huge development fights" waged over the years at the state-owned island, where the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Morgans vacationed in homes "that have no kitchens, because they always eat at the club."
But mostly, Cap'n John talked about the aquatic life: the almost-extinct Right Whales that migrate through here (nine were known to have been born in these waters last winter); the resurgence of redfish, joining sea trout, shrimp and blue crab as primary targets for commercial fishermen. The Jekyll Island crabber who, like many of his peers, ships his catch to Maryland twice a week "because he gets a lot more money from the folks up that way."
And it was impossible not to notice, or chat about, our constant companions, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Sluicing through the waters silently -- contrary to the image fostered by TV's "Flipper," they have no vocal cords -- these mammals can swim at 35 miles per hour and eat 10 percent of their body weight daily.
"The dolphins are doing a people tour today," said our wiseacre pilot, who kept craning his neck in search of the largest and best known of the local pack. Finally, we spotted Nick, so named because of a missing hunk in his dorsal fin.
"He's on the prowl," Cap'n John chortled. "This guy is a serious alpha male. When you see him, you know there's some family planning going on."
Which was all the planning being done by anything, or anyone, we came across on this languid day.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643