Whether you’re a Lowcountry local or visiting Charleston for some “R&R,” it’s likely that you’re looking to connect to the diverse environments of the Carolina coast in one way or another. Here at the South Carolina Aquarium, we’re pretty into nature… almost like it’s our job (wink). If you’re looking for an activity to book on your weekend trip, different landscapes to explore over Spring Break or a week-long getaway or if you just want to connect more to the vast wonders of your own backyard, you’ve come to the right place — here are 12 ways to connect to nature around Charleston!
#1: Sink Your Toes Into the Sand
If you crave sunshine, salty air and the sounds of gentle waves, a visit to the beach should top your list of Charleston activities! This area has several options, including Folly Beach, Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island. Take a look at the activities, local restaurants and accommodations around each to find your best fit for fun. Not only will the vitamin D intake and sand exfoliation bring you joy, but you can also enjoy some amazing nature only found on the beach, including unique driftwood and the state shell, the lettered olive!
DYK: Many of our former Sea Turtle Care Center™ patients were released from Folly Beach County Park and Isle of Palms County Park! Remember to respect the local wildlife and do not approach nesting sea turtles, hatchlings or nests that are roped off, fill in any holes you dig before you leave the beach and only use a red flashlight at night.
#2: Work up an Appetite With Activities on the Water
If you’re ready for a closer look at the water, we recommend renting a kayak and paddling through a local waterway like Shem Creek! Kayaking provides a unique perspective to see saltmarsh habitats up close, a stunning view of local landmarks like the Ravenel Bridge and even some great people watching as you cruise by docks and restaurants. Don your life jacket and enjoy a moderate (but easygoing) outing. Keep an eye out for dolphins and cormorants as you enjoy the sweeping views!
DYK: Kayaking through Shem Creek is a staff-favorite outdoor activity. If you’re looking for a guided paddle, you can find a local company to help you with every detail, from rentals and safety to the tour itself!
#3: Get a Taste for the Local Catch at a Hometown Restaurant
Once you’ve taken in the sites or jumped into a physical activity, it’s time for some delectable Lowcountry seafood, and there’s no shortage of local hot spots that serve up fresh catches daily! Eating local seafood is not only delicious, but it supports a balanced ecosystem and the local seafood economy. Plus, purchasing local seafood also means fewer miles traveled before it reaches your plate, lowering your carbon footprint!
DYK: Much of the seafood served at restaurants throughout the United States isn’t local but imported. We suggest you “ask before you order” to find local seafood on the menu or reach out to your top restaurant choices to find out if they serve local seafood prior to making your reservation!
#4: Dive Into Your “Blue Mind” With Incredible Views of South Carolina Wildlife
Did you know that science has proven a mental health benefit to being in, on, under or even just near water? Among other proven benefits, the color, sound and feel of water can actually lower your heart rate. The Aquarium is the perfect place to dive into your “blue mind” in multiple ways! Grab a seat and bask in the subtle glow of the Great Ocean Tank for a recharge or enjoy quiet moments of reflection in the coastal breeze from one of the observation decks overlooking the Charleston Harbor. Whether you’re taking in the meditative swimming of the underwater wildlife or the soothing waves at the water’s shore, the Aquarium is your spot to be surrounded by blue!
DYK: The Great Ocean Tank at the Aquarium is the deepest tank in North America! This 42-foot saltwater tank houses hundreds of sea creatures, and you can catch a show during your visit to learn all about the local wildlife represented in this exhibit.
#5: Take in a Stunning View of Charleston’s Famous Waterfront
Charleston is synonymous with several notable landmarks, like Fort Sumter, the pineapple fountain in Waterfront Park and of course, the Ravenel Bridge. If it’s a nice day and you’re looking for a little bit of activity and a lot of amazing views, enjoy a leisurely stroll or scenic bike ride across the bridge. While you’re enjoying the coastal breeze from high above the water, be on the lookout for shorebirds like brown pelicans, which can frequently be spotted in this area. When you’re done enjoying a stroll atop this architectural beauty, head to the Aquarium to see it from a whole new view!
DYK: The Ravenel Bridge’s deck is suspended 186 feet above the water and it is the third longest cable-stayed bridge in the western hemisphere. You can spot the Aquarium on your journey by looking to the right for a building with several triangular sails and a feature atop the aviary that looks like a whale’s tail!
#6: Sift Through the Sand for Shark Teeth
There’s nothing quite as uniquely invigorating as the excitement of finding a perfect shark tooth in the sand. Charleston beaches are filled with fun fossil finds, and the search will entertain both kids and adults alike. While our beaches are definitely hot spots for fossil hunting, if you have access to a boat, more secluded sandy areas may have even more to find (just be sure to double-check that the location you’re headed to is open to public visitors). Pro tip: Search at low tide when there is more sand to comb, and you’re likely to find even more treasures!
DYK: Kids can bring in nature finds like shark teeth to the Aquarium and trade them for other cool nature artifacts at The Trading Post. Plus, watch their jaws drop at the sight of a megalodon jaw replica filled with dozens of huge teeth!
#7: Recreate a Movie Scene as You Tour Local Filming Locations
Perfect for a nature-filled day date or even a pop culture scavenger hunt of sorts, you can enjoy the beautiful landscapes and weather of the Lowcountry as you tour some famous filming locales. Recreate the canoe scene from “The Notebook” at Cypress Gardens, stroll through Washington Square Park as they did on “Outer Banks” or enjoy a picnic lunch where “Dear John” was filmed in Riverfront Park!
DYK: Several productions utilize downtown Charleston as a backdrop — “Southern Hospitality” has even filmed on location in the Aquarium! Keep an eye out to see if you spot wardrobe trailers and production equipment on your walks around the city.
#8: Cast Away Your Cares With an Outing of Fishing or Crabbing
The coast is the perfect place to try a new hands-on activity. We suggest reeling in some fresh fish to grill up by casting off a pier or dock along the water, like the stunning Mount Pleasant Pier, just across the harbor from the Aquarium. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, try crabbing with a cast net to see what tasty treasures you can catch!
DYK: Charleston is home to a top-ranked Airbnb experience – “Let’s Go Crabbing” with Tia Clark! A quick online search will show you many local companies who can curate a hands-on experience that will be sure to give you a “taste” of southern living.
#9: Scan the Waters and Enjoy the Thrill of Dolphin Spotting
If you’re on an outing via boat or kayak, or even onshore at waterfront lookouts like the Aquarium’s Harbor Overlook, keep a close eye on the water’s surface to spot wild bottlenose dolphins! These charismatic creatures are known to frequent the waters all around Charleston, so there’s a good chance you might spot them. If you’re paddling or boating through waters near shore, keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of strand feeding, a behavior in which dolphins trap prey onto the shoreline!
DYK: It is illegal to get too close to wild dolphins. Whether by land or by sea, enjoy the views from at least 50 yards away. We recommend carrying a small pair of binoculars or pack a zoom lens in your camera bag to get a closer look!
#10: Relax With an Incredible Sunset View
Visiting the coast means epic sunrise and sunset views, but you don’t have to be on open water to enjoy them. Take some time to visit a local green space to enjoy native fauna like oak trees, palmettos, hydrangeas and magnolias. Try visiting the nearly 500-year-old Angel Oak for an intimate day date or practice some self-care with relaxation by the Pitt Street Bridge in Mount Pleasant via a slow stroll or some quality time in a hammock.
DYK: Whether you’re a foodie, an avid learner, an animal lover or anything in between, if you’re looking for a unique event after the sun goes down, consider one of the Aquarium’s adult-focused programs. Throughout the year, you can attend all-inclusive After Hours events or learn more about our incredible world at a Holland Lifelong Learning lecture!
#11: Become a Bird Nerd by Hitting the Trails
The Lowcountry is an amazing destination for the avid birder, but even if you’re new to birdwatching, you’re sure to spot several incredible species your first time out! Areas around Charleston have the unique distinction of including a variety of habitats for different types of birds, from colorful songbirds to fierce birds of prey to unique shorebirds! Take on a trail in a local Charleston County park to see if you can spot a painted bunting or the swallow-tailed kite. Or visit a saltmarsh along the water to look for shorebirds like roseate spoonbills and great blue herons.
DYK: Bald eagles can be spotted all the way to the South Carolina coast and have been known to nest in this area. Plus, fun fact: Bald eagles were one of the first species protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973! This protection was so successful, they were removed from the endangered species list in 2007.
#12: Keep our Incredible Landscapes Beautiful by Picking up Litter
No matter where your journey takes you throughout nature, we encourage you to leave the planet cleaner than you found it. If you see litter like to-go containers, cigarette butts, aluminum cans and more, take a few moments to pick up the debris and know you’re making a difference for all who enjoy our beautiful scenery, human and otherwise!
DYK: You can log the litter you pick up into the Litter Journal, a project in the South Carolina Aquarium Citizen Science app. More than two million pieces of debris have been logged so far, and data like this is invaluable on the road to making positive change for the environment!
There you have it, folks! We hope you utilize this list of recommendations on your next nature-filled adventure in or around Charleston. Be sure to swing by the Aquarium while you’re out and about to get an in-depth look at the incredible wildlife that surrounds us daily!
Published March 1, 2023