As we planned for our trip to Charleston, we found one activity that we really wanted to do — shark tooth and fossil hunting on the uninhabited beaches of Morris Island.
Nerd out with me for just a moment!
Morris Island sits north of Folly Island and south of Fort Sumter and is known for its red-and-white-striped Civil War-era lighthouse.
Morris Island is a barrier island, which means it’s basically a huge sandbar. South Carolina has tons of barrier islands (35 to be exact), and these islands protect the coast by taking the brunt of the ocean’s ravages—that’s why shark teeth, bits of ancient indigenous pottery, and sea glass constantly wash ashore.
South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources manages the island and works to preserve this natural ecosystem. Camping and development are prohibited, and the island is only reachable by boat.
Only a select few tour companies have access to the island – including our guide, Captain Mike of Folly Boat Tours. We had to reschedule our trip a few times due to the rain and the tide, and for a minute we worried this excursion just wouldn’t work out. But Captain Mike kept working with us.
Zoomin’ through the marsh
We met Mike at a small marina in Folly Beach at 10 a.m. on an absolutely perfect day. He loaded us into his skiff and we set off across the water, pointing out the fascinating features of the marshy inlets along the way. Honestly, the 20-minute boat ride in the cool, tranquil morning was worth the trip.
Once we made landfall on Morris Island, Mike gave us a rundown on what to look for—different types of shark teeth, shark and tuna vertebrae, sea glass, fossils, and shards of pottery.
It took us a while to get the hang of it, or maybe there just weren’t many treasures in the first half-mile or so of the trip, but before long we started finding the good stuff. Captain Mike struck out ahead, occasionally calling us to places where teeth were likely hiding.
A-hunting we will go
It seemed like once we found the first few, our eyes knew better what to look for. We found sharp, gleaming, tiny teeth and palm-sized Megalodon teeth. We found several of the bizarre-looking vertebrae. We found an abundance of whole sand dollars and conch shells.
I’m originally from South Carolina, though I’ve only been back once since I was 10. My dad served in the Navy, who stationed him at Charleston Naval Base in North Charleston. My parents moved back to Mississippi and split up a few years later, and my mom still has jars of shells from those years. I remember our time there in flashes and in songs my mother would play while she tended to the house - Fleetwood Mac and Simon & Garfunkel. Now I have my own jar of shells and my daughter, her own memories.
We didn’t cover the entire three-and-a-half-mile stretch of the island, but in no way did we feel like the trip was cut short. My husband and I are the type to take our time. If we visit a museum, we read every plaque and explore every room. About three miles in, Captain Mike turned us around.
The sun had risen high, the morning evaporated and replaced by the midday heat. On the walk back, the tide had gone out significantly, providing an entirely different experience and new tide pools to search. By the time we made it back to Mike’s skiff, we’d packed a fanny pack and a backpack full of goodies.
Pleased with our haul, we settled in for the return trip. The ride back would be eventful in itself: we saw several birds and a dolphin even followed us alongside the skiff for a while. Seriously, it was almost close enough to reach out and touch!
Pulling into the dock, we felt satisfied and hungry! Captain Mike pointed us to LoLo’s, which we’d noticed on our way in. By this time, it was around 2:30, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves, and we indulged in a cocktail and a massive platter of steamed shrimp, crab, corn, and potatoes.
Five out of five stars!
Morris Island was a cool escape from Charleston’s hustle and bustle. It’s a surreal place to explore, and the timing was perfect. Not too early, not too late, not so long that we got too tired (or hangry). Of course, actually finding a few treasures didn’t hurt either, and I can’t praise Captain Mike enough for being so kind and hospitable.
This trip is for you if:
You have some flexibility in your trip schedule. Visits to the island depend on the weather and the tides. Depending on the day, your treasure-hunting time slots may vary, from 7 in the morning to late afternoon. As we mentioned, scheduling our excursion was kind of a moving target.
You’re down for 3-4 hours of walking. Make no mistake, this is a lot of walking, searching, and meticulously picking through detritus to find teeth, etc., in the full sun.
You have kids aged 9 and up. Our kiddo is 16, but she is not very outdoorsy, yet she loved this excursion. However, note the previous bullet point. There is virtually no shade on the island, so keep that in mind if your young explorers have a particularly short battery.
You’re a nature or history nerd enthusiast like us. Morris Island’s lighthouse is one of the first lighthouses built after Europeans made landfall on this continent. It played a role in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and even saw pirate activity. For a timeline of the lighthouse’s history, click here. Check out more info about the island’s history and ownership here.
What to bring:
Sun protection: Sunscreen, hats, sun shirts, sunglasses, etc.
Water-friendly shoes: IF you wear shoes. We wore some old sneakers, but definitely wear something comfortable that you don’t mind getting soaked.
Snacks: plenty of water and trail mix/granola, or some other easy-to-nom snack. Don’t plan on a picnic or anything like that. We’d advise having a real meal before you go.
Something to carry your finds in. We had two backpacks and a fanny pack, but it’d be handy to have some rags to wrap delicate items (like sand dollars), and some ziplock bags to keep the sand from getting everywhere.
Cash for a tip. Up to you, but we felt compelled to show our appreciation for our guide.
Other ways to experience Morris Island
Charleston Outdoor Adventures offers a Charleston Marsh Eco Boat Cruise with a stop at Morris Island*.
Thriller Charleston offers catamaran tours that let you see five forts and two lighthouses. Tours are one hour and can be pretty wet and rocky.
Sea Kayak Carolina provides daily 5-6 hour kayak tours for those with open water kayak experience.
If you want to kayak on your own, you can put in at the creeks to the rear and south of the island. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into with the tides and all that.
The James Island County Park is the closest camping spot to Morris Island, if you’re one to throw up a tent!
Looking for more Charleston travel inspo? Check out my 3-Day Family-Friendly Itinerary in Charleston, South Carolina, guide over on Fora!