- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

CONWAY, S.C. — They may not have the beauty of a waterfall or waves crashing on the beach, but few places on the Southeast shore can match the variety found inside the mysterious shallow depressions along the coastal plains called Carolina bays.Their allure from a biological standpoint is simple, said Jamie Dozier, a biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. “That one little 20-yard stretch from the sandy rim to the wet part of the bay has more diversity than many acres around,” he said.

That diversity includes bears, deer and even the occasional bobcat, as well as orchids, pitcher plants, wire grass and Venus’ flytraps, which are found in the wild in only a small part of the Carolinas.

Reptiles and amphibians make their home in Carolina bays because they don’t have to go far from the dry land on which they thrive to find the water they need to lay eggs, said Peter Harrison, park ranger at Woods Bay State Natural Area just off Interstate 95 near Turbeville, which includes an 1,100-acre bay.

“They really haven’t been explored that much,” Mr. Harrison said. “There’s not that much we know about them.”

Named for their bay trees, roughly 500,000 Carolina bays dot the landscape from Georgia to Maryland, although the depressions are found most often in the Carolinas.

The bays are hard to see from the ground, but they stand out in aerial photos with bright white sand marking some of the edges of the egg-shaped areas, which usually are oriented from the southeast to the northwest. Most are just a few feet lower than the surrounding land.

Scientists haven’t settled on exactly what formed the bays. The most-accepted theory is that winds and water over thousands of years carved out the depressions and gave them their elliptical shape, said Jim Luken, a biology professor at Coastal Carolina University.

Other ideas include a meteor breaking apart and pockmarking the land, he said.

The bays range in size from a few acres to the 9,000-acre Lake Waccamaw in southeast North Carolina. Some are dry or wet nearly all year long, but most fill during the winter and spring and drain by summer.

On a recent muggy afternoon, the Carolina bays in the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve were quiet.

Bordered by two of the area’s newest highways, the 6,000-acre site is accessible only by a dirt road off state Highway 90. The only sounds above the hum of an occasional insect is a plane flying overhead. In fall and winter, the sweet sounds of songbirds ring through the air just miles from the hotels, shopping centers and miniature golf courses that line the roads of Myrtle Beach.

The Carolina Bays Parkway, a six-lane freeway, cuts just east of the preserve and through one of the greatest concentrations of bays around. Two legs of the highway have been completed, and a third is planned. Just off the freeway is a subdivision that eventually could contain 22,000 homes with yards that back right up to the edges of the depressions.

Population growth along the Grand Strand and in other coastal areas has gobbled up several Carolina bays.

“They’ve been disappearing for a long time,” Mr. Dozier said. “In the turn of the [19th] century, it was agriculture. Later, there was a second resurgence that saw them disappear for development.”

Mr. Luken drives through the preserve, pointing out how the landscape seems to change around every bend. At one point, short grass and bushes turn into tall evergreen shrubs so thick that it is impossible to enter. Farther down, there is a clearing where wire grass and short longleaf pine trees resemble a desert landscape. Another short trip down the road reveals standing water, mosses and bogs.

The summer was especially wet in Horry County, so water still stands in bays that are normally dry. It was a good year for butterflies, too, as hundreds can be seen fluttering around the preserve.

Fire, not water, drives the life cycle of a Carolina bay. If left undisturbed, the dry areas on the rims of the bays burn an average of every two to three years right up to the edge of the thick marshy shrubs. The blazes get so close to the water they create one of the most unusual areas found in South Carolina, Mr. Luken said.

The edges of the wet areas also are home to one of nature’s most interesting plants: Venus’ flytraps, which likely evolved into insect eaters because nutrients are hard to find in the sandy soil, Mr. Luken said.

The highlight for most people who tour the preserve are the flytraps. Most people are surprised to discover the plants are often no bigger than a lima bean and grow right along the ground. “They are expecting something that would grab their foot, I think,” Mr. Luken said.

Carolina bays weren’t discovered until the 1930s because they are nearly impossible to see except from the air. With so little time to explore them, the depressions remain a mystery to researchers, Mr. Harrison said.

“There really is a lot of untapped knowledge in these bays,” the park ranger said.

Mr. Luken still marvels that in his four years in South Carolina he has studied Carolina bays as much as anyone and has been out to the preserve hundreds of times. “[Yet] every time I come out here,” he said, “I see something new.”

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