[Fig. 9, Fig. 11] Little Tybee, Williamson, and Cabbage islands are sparkling young jewels on Georgia's coast, reachable only by boat and open to outdoor recreation. If you can reach these islands, you will be treated to a barrier island in its unspoiled state. On Little Tybee and Williamson islands, shelling, picnicking, nature hiking, bird-watching, and fishing are first-class experiences. Little Tybee, with 6,780 total acres including marsh, is actually more than twice the size of Tybee Island to the north. Its beach is as long as Tybee's, but its upland is half the size of Tybee's with only 600 acres. Williamson is a recently emerging island that has evolved from a sand bar. Cabbage Island, located south of Wilmington Island and west of Little Tybee, is mainly marsh with some beachfront.
Visitors must be careful not to disturb sensitive species that depend on this island complex. Found on these islands are declining species of rare sea and shorebird species. Least terns, Wilson's plovers, and American oystercatchers use sand scrapes right on the beach sand as nests. Their eggs and young are vulnerable to mammalian predators such as raccoons and hogs as well as thoughtless humans who interfere and destroy the nests or bring destructive dogs to the island. Many sea and shorebirds use these beaches as migratory stopovers or wintering habitat and arrive at Georgia's coast with depleted energy reserves so even minor disturbances can negatively impact them by interrupting their feeding and resting habits. Threatened loggerhead sea turtles nest on the islands.
Little Tybee is visible from the south end of Tybee Island. Between the islands is Tybee Creek and Inlet. Williamson is at the southern end of this island complex, and its southern end looks over to Wassaw Sound and Wassaw Island about 4 miles away. Little Tybee is a young, Holocene island that has developed in the last 4,000 years.
Little Tybee and Cabbage islands, purchased in 1968 by the Kerr-McGee Corporation, were to be mined for their rich phosphorites then filled for development. Then Georgia Governor Lester Maddox assembled an advisory team from the University of Georgia to assess the environmental impact of the mining activities. The committee reported that the operation had the potential of breaking through the layer of clay that protects coastal Georgia's freshwater aquifer, contaminating it with salt water. Also, the oxygen demand created by the mining operation could have depleted oxygen levels, threatening the entire estuary by suffocating the shrimp, crabs, fishes, and other creatures that depend on the inshore nurseries.
Public outrage at the plan eventually resulted in the passage of the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act of 1970, which effectively prohibited Kerr-McGee from developing the islands' mineral assets. In 1990, the Kerr-McGee Corporation donated the islands to The Nature Conservancy of Georgia, which in turn sold them to the state for $1.5 million. The state was helped by a generous $1 million donation from a private donor. Today, The Nature Conservancy retains a conservation easement over the islands, which are managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Geologists believe Little Tybee and Williamson islands have been created from southward migrating sands from Tybee Island and shoals located offshore. They both have the traditional look of a recurved spit, which is the geological result of twice-daily tides and longshore currents.
Natural communities on the islands include tidal creeks, salt marsh, hammock, and beach. Spartina is found in the marshes, while maritime forests of Live Oaks, cabbage palms, and saw palmetto are found on the upland sand ridges. Pines, cedars, and wax myrtles colonize the high ground, and dune plants and sea oats are found trapping blowing sands and growing the dunes.
Williamson Island is the newest kid on the block on Georgia's coast. Before 1957, the island didn't exist in aerial photographs. In the 1960s, it started developing as a peninsula attached to Little Tybee. In the early 1970s, a tidal creek had effectively cut the peninsula off from Little Tybee, creating a "new" island from migrating sands. By 1976, the island consisted of 250 acres with 2 miles of beach, and it was large enough to acquire the name of Williamson Island, in honor of the then recently deceased former mayor of Darien, who served on the Georgia Board of Natural Resources. The state claimed ownership of the new island, and by the mid-1980s, this ephemeral piece of land appeared to be shrinking and migrating westward toward the privately owned Little Tybee Island. Today, the small sand bar island continues to be important and protected nesting habitat for rare species of birds, such as the least tern.
Shaped like a quarter moon, Williamson is fascinating to scientists who study the still-mysterious development of barrier islands. Forty years ago, Williamson was merely shoals under the water threatening watercraft. Today, pioneer plants struggle to develop and gain a foothold, ghost and hermit crabs scuttle across the sandy beaches, and migrating shorebirds depend on its remote and undisturbed habitat. The island is like a living laboratory, where scientists can observe the natural succession of plants and animals to learn how natural communities evolve.
In July 1997, public concern over threats to critical shorebird nesting sites led to the formation of a state committee to study the problem. In April of 1998, the Board of Natural Resources approved the Bird Island Advisory Committee's recommendation to make the interior of Williamson Island off limits. The north and south ends of the island and the entire beach along the front are open to recreational use, but dogs are strictly prohibited. Visitors to Williamson Island should be particularly careful not to disturb nesting sea or shorebirds in the Williamson Island Bird Conservation Area. Pamphlets with additional information on the restricted conservation area (located in the center of the island) may be found at local marinas.
Little Tybee Island was very busy in the summer of 1996 as the site of Olympic yachting events. A temporary marina was built just off Little Tybee Island in Wassaw Sound to accommodate the competitors.
Beach recreational activities are permitted on these islands, such as picnicking, shelling, and fishing. Shelling is frequently excellent as visitation is light.
Approaching these islands, which must be done in a boat, can be very tricky even for experts. Be very aware of the tides. Many have gotten their boats stuck on shoals and had to wait 12 hours for a rising tide to carry them out. The water is shallow and the currents can be treacherous and deadly if you try to swim to the islands. Some get as close as they can, anchor their boat, and wade ashore. If you do this, you may want to consider leaving someone in the boat who can keep an eye on the tides.
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