The pristine condition of Wassaw Island, located southeast of Savannah, Georgia, surprises me. It’s hard for me to believe that such a prime piece of real estate has never been logged, cleared for agriculture, or developed for tourism. Before European colonization Native Americans fished and hunted on the island, and they left small shell mounds. They also gave the island its name, Wassaw, which means sassafras; but Anthony Odingsell is the earliest known European to own it. He willed the island to his mulatto son who enjoyed a bucolic existence here with his 11 slaves. Though I’m sure they maintained vegetable gardens and fruit trees, the land was never lumbered nor cleared to grow cotton. In 1866 the Odingsell family sold the island to George Parson, and his descendents used the island as a fishing and hunting destination. One-hundred years later, The Nature Conservancy bought the island and sold it to the federal government for a dollar, and now it is a National Wildlife Refuge. The ruin of a fort erected during the Spanish-American War is about the only sign of man on the island besided a boat dock that provides the only access here, unless one wants to traverse miles of salt marsh, then swim the tidal creek that separates Wassaw from the mainland.
Map of Wassaw Island.
Wassaw Island consists of over 10,000 acres of salt marsh, beach dune, interdunal wetlands (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/05/14/when-pleistocene-megafauna-roamed-interdunal-wetlands/), and maritime forest. Old growth oak, pine, cedar, palm, and holly dominate the forest composition. There must be centuries old live oaks here. The island provides an unique opportunity to study what barrier island flora was like before European settlement because it’s the only island where feral livestock were never introduced, yet as far as I can determine no botanist has ever studied the flora on Wassaw. Some university professor needs to hire a boat man and survey this rare gem.
Photo of the north end of Wassaw Island. The beach is eroding into the forest here but it is building up on the south side of the island.
Freshwater wetland on Wassaw Island.
Over 200 species of birds have been recorded on the island. During the summer neotropical songbirds swell the avian population, and during winter Wassaw provides refuge for migrating ducks. Painted buntings, rare elsewhere, are reportedly common here. White-tail deer and alligator are the only large animals on the island. Deer were hunted to extirpation on the island, but deer from Wisconsin were introduced, and they brought a northern species of parasite with them. I found a youtube video of a man who sails to Wassaw Island. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYOsXVSHEC8) He caught a bonnet head shark offshore adjacent to the island.
I couldn’t find many scientific studies of the island–it’s notably understudied. I did find a paleotempestology study that determined 9 hurricanes have hit Wassaw Island over the last 1900 years, so it endures direct hits about once every 200 years, perhaps altering the floral composition. (Scientists can look at sand overwash layers in the salt marsh to determine when hurricanes events occurred.) The response of floral and faunal composition to past hurricanes would be another worthy subject of scientific inquiry.
Wassaw Island is of recent origin being in the neighborhood of 7000 years old. It began forming with the rise of sea level that occurred following the dissolution of the massive glacial Lake Agassiz in Canada. Longshore currents are eroding the north end of the island but building the south end. Skidaway Island, located directly behind Wassaw Island, is a Pleistocene-aged barrier island. Skidaway Island is part of what is known as the Silver Bluff shoreline, and it was at sea level between ~41,000 BP-~36,000 BP…before the Last Glacial Maximum. This climate phase was a warm interstadial, the temperatures similar, but probably a little cooler than those of today. The Silver Bluff shoreline formed as sort of a pause in the lowering of sea level during the Wisconsinian Ice Age.
I’ve visited Skidaway Island State Park. There is a nice museum with an impressive fossil replica of the giant ground sloth, Eremotherium. I walked on a nature trail behind the museum and saw live megafauna–a deer in its reddish summer coat. Wassaw Island may be difficult to access for people without a boat, but Skidaway Island was worth the visit.