The Port Royal Sound Foundation Maritime Center in Okatie is a hidden gem on the stretch of highway between Bluffton and Beaufort. The center aims to create awareness for the need for protection for the remarkable and unique Port Royal Sound ecosystem. And while it certainly does that, it‘s also a place for a wonderful family outing while vacationing in the Lowcountry.
The Port Royal Sound is highly unusual. It's not quite an estuary or a brackish tidal river like you might expect on the coast. Instead, its water is much saltier than many other coastal sounds. It is one of the most "productive" ecosystems in the world, which means that the plant and animal life is richer here than almost anywhere else. It's home to some of the greatest tidal changes on earth, which mean that the amount of water that moves in and out of the sound with each change of tide is greater than almost any other bay, sound or inlet. It's also of the most pristine bodies of water in the US. There's very, very little commercial development along the Port Royal Sound.
The Maritime Center celebrates all this amazing natural history. A 3,000-gallon aquarium is filled with fish found in Port Royal Sound. Observation tanks, low to ground and at a perfect height for little ones, are filled with turtles, snails, crabs and other sea life. Touch tables welcome kids (and grown-ups) to pick up and explore the shells and furs of the animals who live on the land and in the sea of this area.
The center also celebrates the human history of the sound. The center is housed in a former oyster canning factory at the edge of the water, and exhibits explore the history and culture of people who have made the area around the sound their home. A 14-foot bateau, or skiff boat, once used for fishing these waters sits in the middle of the center, and children are welcome to climb aboard.
Outside, a long dock lets visitors walk right out over the remarkable sound they've just been learning about. The views are magnificent. And if you look down, you can see where the center staff has been building artificial oyster reefs to try to recultivate the oysters that were once so abundant here.
The center also runs programs that expand and build upon the exhibits, from story times for kids to speakers series for adults, art shows, boat shows, Coast Guard emergency boat displays and kayaking trips. If you love the beauty of the Lowcountry, there is a program for you at the Maritime Center.