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Nature Calls

Beautiful beaches have long attracted visitors to South Carolina’s sun-kissed coast. But with the increasing popularity of eco-tours, more and more vacationers are venturing beyond the seashore to explore the area’s other natural attractions – its rich tidal marshes, moss-draped maritime forests and pristine rivers.

“People staying in beachfront hotels come out and see a natural beach and it blows their minds,” said Michael Rutenberg, a marine science and biology teacher and Myrtle Beach eco-tour operator. “We’ve got a gem of a natural environment here. By showing it to people, they will come to appreciate it and want to help conserve it.”

At the other end of the Carolina coast, Hilton Head Island’s Coastal Discovery Museum has developed a series of guided walks and talks focusing on a wide range of environmental topics from sea turtles to salt marshes. In one program, participants learn how to throw a cast net; in another, they’re introduced to some of the island’s native wildlife, including snakes, turtles, lizards and alligators.

Whatever your destination, from the Grand Strand to the sea islands of the Lowcountry, you’ll find plenty of eco-inspired activities that are both educational and entertaining. Among the most popular are dolphin tours, biking excursions and kayaking trips. Below is a sampling of what’s available:

Dolphin Tours

The must-see superstar of the Carolina coast is the loveable, always entertaining Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. Local outfitters offer a number of ways to get out in the creeks, rivers and ocean where you’ll find the marine mammals feeding and frolicking. Among the options are kayaks, cruising yachts, inflatable Zodiacs, sailboats and Jet Skis.

With Thomas Outdoors Water Sports in Myrtle Beach, you get a double dose of excitement – riding a personal watercraft and seeing dolphin. The two-hour Seadoo tour sets sail from Anchor Marina with a stop at Bird Island before heading out to the ocean. Led by an experienced guide, you’ll ride alongside a shrimp boat, watching for dolphins which often follow the trawlers in hopes of a free meal.

“On a Jet Ski, you’re almost at water level, so you get a very cool perspective,” said owner Richard Thomas. “It’s not unusual to have a dolphin come right up to our Jet Skis. We’ve even had people get splashed by them.”

Cost of the dolphin tour is $145 for a single rider, $5 each for up to two more riders. Riders must be at least 30 pounds.

Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn

Designed to introduce visitors to Hilton Head Island’s coastal ecology and cultural heritage, the museum features indoor and outdoor exhibits, interactive stations, a 1,200-square-foot butterfly enclosure, self-guided tours of the 68-acre historic plantation and a dozen different “walk” and “talk” programs.

Among the most popular on-site tour is “Salt Marsh Discovery,” a 90-minute nature walk that takes visitors on the museum’s three boardwalks overlooking Jarvis Creek.

“The salt marsh is such an important element of the coastal Carolina environment,” said Carlos Chacon, the museum’s manager of natural history. “Most of the fish on the coast are dependent on the salt marsh. They were either born in the marsh or they feed on the crustaceans that live there.”

The tour docent will pull up traps and plastic crates from the creek’s brackish waters to reveal a sampling of the organisms that make their home in the marsh, such as sea squirts, ghost shrimp, stone crabs, barnacles, mussels, clams and blue crabs. Participants also will learn how to throw a cast net from the dock.

On “Beach Discovery,” visitors will explore the seashore near the Folly.

“You never know what you will find from week to week,” Chacon said. “The beach is a very dynamic place.”

“Salt Marsh Discovery” costs $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 4 to 12. “Beach Discovery” is $12 for adults, $7 for children.

Alligator and Wildlife Tours

Next to dolphins, alligators are the next most popular wildlife attraction in the Lowcountry. If you want to see the prehistoric-looking reptiles from the safety of a boat, take a tour with H2O Sports.

The Hilton Head Island outfitter offers one-hour guided trips on the freshwater lakes of the Sea Pines Forest Preserve. Traveling in a covered 12-passenger electric boat, guests will have the opportunity to see a variety of wildlife, including turtles, aquatic birds, Golden Eagles and, of course, the native American alligator.

“We see alligators 99.9 percent of the time,” said H2O Sports owner Brooke McCullough. “There’s a bunch of them in those lakes. You see them sunning on the banks and swimming in the water. The biggest one is a 10-footer.”

The Alligator and Wildlife Tour is $25 for adults, $20 for children 12 and younger. H2O Sports also offers a guided one-hour walking tour of the 606-acre preserve, which features an Indian shell ring and the remains of antebellum rice dikes.

Pinckney Island Bicycle Tour

One of the best places to observe wildlife in the Lowcountry is at the 4,053-acre Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. But with more than 14 miles of trails, it could take you all day to traverse the island by foot. Instead, try a bicycle tour with Water-Dog Outfitter of Hilton Head Island. The two-hour excursion usually covers eight to 10 miles of the refuge’s diverse terrain with stops at some of the best birding sites, including Ibis Pond. Great flocks of white ibis, egrets and herons roost on an island in the center of the water. A flat gravel road makes it easy to ride from one end of the island to the other. Grass trails lead to other wildlife observation areas and spectacular waterfront views. “You can cover so much more ground on a bike,” said Water-Dog owner David Fleming. “And it’s very easy riding. The highest point on the island is just 20 feet above sea level.”

A two-hour tour, which includes bicycle rental, is $35.

Ace Basin Kayak Tour

The pristine ACE Basin, the largest undeveloped estuary on the East Coast, serves as the backdrop for Beaufort Kayak Tours blackwater river excursions. Certified master naturalists David Gorzynski and Kim Gundler will take you on the Combahee River where you’ll paddle past rice plantations dating back to the 1800s.

“Kayaking is one of the best ways to see the Ace Basin,” Gundler said. “You’re traveling at a human pace, so you get to really look around and observe nature.”

On any given day, you may see bald eagles, osprey, alligators and armadillos. You’ll also learn about the Lowcountry’s rice culture and the incredible feat of labor it took to carve hundreds of acres of rice fields out of marshland. A half-day trip costs $40 for adults, $30 for children.

Eco-boat tours

A number of outfitters also offer eco-tours by motorized vessel. Capt. Michael Rutenberg of Coastal Eco-Charters in Myrtle Beach will customize a trip to suit your preferences, whether it’s exploring a barrier island beach or salt marsh or seine netting for shrimp and puffer fish on a sandbar.

A high school marine science and biology teacher, Rutenberg carries a microscope on board his 19-foot boat to allow passengers to get a closer look at the plankton in the area waters.

“I call it the outdoor classroom,” Rutenberg said. “I’m all about education. I talk about oysters and marsh grass, the dunes and the importance of the salt marsh. It’s the real deal.”

A four-hour trip for up to five people is $250.