Updated on May 22, 2024

By: Stephanie Westmoreland, South Carolina Aquarium


The days are getting longer, the air is getting hotter and plans for beach trips are ramping up. Summer’s just around the corner, so take a walk along a South Carolina beach with us. Learn how to make your next trip to South Carolina or any beach remarkable, while being respectful to local wildlife!


How to share the beach with wildlife


Sand dunes near a beach. There is tall, sparse grass and weeds growing on the dune, and behind the dune is bright blue sky.


Sand dunes home to many animals

Your adventure to the beach begins with a walk through the sand dunes. These small hills are often covered in sea oats or sweetgrass, welcoming you with a gentle wave in the ocean breeze. While you may not notice wildlife among the sand dunes, amazing creatures lie within, waiting to make their debut! Sand dunes are the chosen nesting spot for some shorebirds, such as least terns and American oystercatchers, as well as the endangered loggerhead sea turtle — South Carolina’s state reptile.


A loggerhead sea turtle hatchling is making its way towards the ocean. It's walking on wet sand and the ocean shoreline is near it.


Here are ways to safely travel through the dunes.

  • Stay on walking paths! Although sand dunes may look like a fun spot to run and roll for kids, human traffic can destroy nests or interrupt natural nesting behaviors. Conservationists who protect endangered sea turtle nests will mark them with orange diamond-shaped signs, but there may be more animal nests within that you don’t see.
  • Obey beach rules regarding dogs and keep a close eye on your furry friends! Dogs are known to sneak to the dunes and snack on bird eggs, so make sure they’re enjoying the day by your side.


A brown pelican flying above. The sky is bright blue around it.


A shore way to spend your day

 Past the sand dunes lies the open shore, a perfect location for play, relaxation and bird watching! As you enjoy the sun and breathe in the salty air, glance up to spot some of the state’s avian residents, such as seagulls and brown pelicans. Watch the waves roll in and enjoy the moves of various sandpipers as they skitter to pluck coquina clams from the sand! If you’re lucky, you may even spot more wading birds such as egrets or herons. Upon the sand, you’ll find unique seashells and pieces of coral washed up from days past.


A shark tooth and other pieces of shells and coral in the sand on a beach. The shark tooth is black.


Have an easy breezy day with these important reminders.

  • Pack reef friendly sunscreen. Protect your skin while protecting wildlife! Many sunscreens contain chemicals that are known to harm coral reefs. Plan ahead and purchase reef friendly sunscreen. These don’t contain chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate, which contribute to coral bleaching.
  • Keep an eye on your belongings! Whether you’re eating snacks, playing with beach toys, reading a magazine or using sunscreen, ensure nothing gets blown away by the ocean breeze and becomes debris. These efforts help plastic stay out of habitats (and their wild residents).


A cannonball jellyfish washed in the sand. It's silver looking with spots of brown.


Make your way to the surf

Spot species in the swash

Did you know that bit of water that runs down the sand and back into the ocean after a wave is called swash? As you walk the waterline, focus on the sand below to spot treasures such as shark teeth, fossilized vertebrae, bivalves, mermaid’s purses and more. Look out for the locals that rule this habitat, too. Sea stars, sand dollars, fiddler crabs, cannonball jellies, whelk egg casings and more reside in this dynamic space, so watch your step as you search for your swash “gold!”


A sea star washed up on a beach. It only has 4 limbs as is still pink-red, indicating that it is still alive.


Check out these tips to search the swash.

  • Gently scoop up any stray sea stars located beyond the tide line and bring them back to the water to lend a helping hand.
  • Leave sand dollars at the beach. Don’t take or touch any sand dollars that are brown or tan — these are still alive!
  • Watch out for jellies that may have washed in with the swash; they can cause a painful sting if you encounter them.


The shoreline of the ocean. You can see a little sand, some soft rolling waves, and the horizon is bright blue.


Make your day a splash hit

Once you’ve reached the water, another ecosystem awaits! Many surfers and kiteboarders take advantage of breezy days at the beach, while tourists and locals alike often spend hours floating in the waves … sometimes spotting our other locals. It’s not unusual to see pods of bottlenose dolphins swimming and feeding parallel to the shore!


The fin of one bottlenose dolphin and the nose of another, breaching the ocean water.


Enjoy a safe swim with these guidelines.

  • Practice the “stingray shuffle!” Instead of picking up your feet for each step in the surf, make smaller shuffling motions to move about the water. This keeps nearby stingrays safe from accidental steps (and keeps you safe from accidental stings).
  • Be aware of sea turtles if you’re fishing for a local catch to cook later! If you reel in a sea turtle, leave at least two feet of line attached to the hook and call the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, or a local wildlife agency, who can determine what further care is needed.
  • Practice safe wildlife watching! Federal regulations require boats and spectators to stay at least 50 yards away from dolphins and other marine mammals. Dolphins in this region practice a behavior called “strand feeding,” where they herd fish to the shoreline to make catching prey a breeze! If you’re lucky enough to witness this behavior, keep your distance and don’t disturb.


A sign noting there is a loggerhead sea turtle nest in the area. The nest is in some sand, and is blocked off by four wood posts and some rope.


Leave no trace at the beach

When your beach adventure ends, remember you’ve just visited the home of thousands of creatures; leave it wild, but keep it clean. Take a few minutes to gather all your belongings and keep these additional tips in mind to be a true friend to wildlife.

  • Fill in any holes so nesting sea turtles have a clear pathway to the dunes to lay their eggs!
  • Lights out! If you’re staying overnight along the beach, turn off all exterior lights at sundown and only use a red flashlight for nighttime beach strolls. Sea turtle hatchlings can mistake white lights for the moon, making their already arduous journey to the water much more difficult.


The Carolina coast is calling, and now you’re ready to answer! Respecting local habitats is vital to sustaining dozens of species, and it’s easy to be a friend to the extraordinary animals you see in this state. For an up-close look at these amazing creatures (and so many more), visit the South Carolina Aquarium, home to thousands of animals native to South Carolina’s diverse regions. Within the walls of the aquarium, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, opportunities for hands-on interactions and animal encounters await!

Enjoy your visit, knowing that your extra care to respect beach habitats ensures future generations can enjoy the thrill of South Carolina’s water, wildlife and wild places.


Learn more about sea turtles and more marine life by watching “Sea Creatures of the Florida Coast” on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild.

Plus, discover another South Carolina environment, the saltmarsh.

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