Carolina Bays—Nature’s Mysterious Landforms
Note: This feature originally appears in the Spring 2013 of SC Farmer magazine. The cover story is reprinted here with its permission.
During World War I, aerial photography sent in-flight artists scurrying to the breadline. Overnight, aerial sketches were old hat. Following the war, aerial photography, needing new markets, turned to non-military purposes and that led to a remarkable discovery. In 1930 the Ocean Forest Company of Myrtle Beach contracted Fairchild Aerial Photography Corporation to survey Horry County. Droning along, drawing eyes upward, Fairchild’s FC-2 Cabin Monoplane crisscrossed the coastal plain. What its photographer must have felt when he focused on the mysteries below.
Fairchild’s collage of elliptical landforms startled everyone. Depressions dimpled the earth as if an immense chef had pressed spoons into the land anticipating the broth of living things sure to fill their basins.
When Roosevelt’s Department of Agriculture studied East Coast aerial photography, a staggering finding surfaced: these egg-shaped landforms all ran northwest to southeast. The similarity to craters on Mars and the moon was astonishing. Did a celestial bombardment gouge out what would become Earth’s most mystifying landforms?
Eighty-three years later Carolina bays astonish as ever. Thousands stipple the landscape from New Jersey to Florida. (Aerial laser technology would confirm a million.) The most beautiful fleck North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. A bit like divots most bays occur in the Carolinas, hence “Carolina” Bays.
We call them “bays” because bay trees—magnolias and laurels—dominate many of these pockets. At ground level they look like, well, like swamps. Chances are you’ve driven by many a Carolina bay and didn’t realize it.
James Luken, Ph.D., biologist and associate provost at Coastal Carolina University, would. He studies wetland ecology and carnivorous and aquatic plants.
Carolina bays’ habitat diversity suits Luken’s interests to a T. And while the bays’ mystifying origin and geographic features commandeer the imagination they’re exceptional for their flora and fauna. Plants eat insects and frogs sing out like hammering woodworkers.
“What makes bays unique are the different habitats, wild plants, and wildlife,” said Luken. He mentions Lewis Ocean Bay. “There are a dozen or so habitats in this 9,000-acre preserve. The interior parts are thickets of evergreen shrubs that create great habitat for black bears and bobcats. In fact it’s prime habitat for black bears. They spend the winter in the dense vegetation and seek refuge there in summer.”
Carolina bays support a long list of plants. Varying water depths, sand rims, and peat mats nurture a cavalcade of botanical stars—water lilies, sedges, red bay, sweet bay, butterworts, sundews, gallberry, white- and yellow-fringed and rosebud orchids, and the rare Wells pixie moss. And that’s but a humble list.
From Poverty To Fame
“Around the edges where you move from low, wet, thick vegetation to the dryer not-so-thick vegetation there’s a little transition zone ten to twenty yards wide,” said Luken. “That’s where you find a lot of rare plants.” Plants like the Venus flytrap, which Charles Darwin called “the most wonderful plant on Earth.”
Venus flytraps grow where sandy, nutrient-poor soil changes from wet to dry beneath showers of sunlight. Unwary insects provide what barren soils cannot—sustenance. The flesh-dining foliage finds that any insect will do, as will, ghastly, humans. Well in Hollywood’s hinged-leaf imagination at least. The Little Shop of Horrors, 1960, crossbred a Venus flytrap with a butterwort that ate humans. In 1970’s Venus Flytrap a demented scientist used thunder and lightning to turn carnivorous plants into man-eaters. You could say flytraps rose from poverty to fame. People just had to own these Hollywood stars. Finding them, hard at first, gets easier.
“Once you see the environment where they grow, you instantly become the expert,” said Luken. “You can eliminate 90 percent of the rest of the area and go exactly where they’re going to be.”
Poaching flytraps pales in comparison to the days when swamp phobia led people to drain bays. Just the opposite is happening now.
“People have plugged ditches to restore the hydrology and the bay that used to be there,” said Luken. “The reason for doing that is to make wetland mitigation banks. If you restore the hydrology you’d be amazed what comes back into the system.”
(Under the Clean Water Act, Section 404, the federal government and many state and local governments require mitigation for disturbing or destroying wetland, stream, or endangered wildlife habitat. Mitigation banks may sell credits to developers affecting said ecosystems above [with regulatory agencies’ approval]. Credits are units of exchange representing one acre of a wetland or ecosystem’s ecological value and the linear distance of a stream functioning at the highest possible capacity within the bank’s service area.)
Scott Harder, hydrologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Land, Water & Conservation Division: “Wetland mitigation offsets the impacts to other wetlands resulting from development. Several banks in South Carolina consist of Carolina bays and restoration efforts typically consist of plugging or filling in ditches.”
Harder analyzes what lay folks merely appreciate. “These bays, with their unique oval shapes and northwest to southeast orientation, provide valuable ecosystem functions and are worthy of our attention and protection. They add greatly to South Carolina’s rich natural beauty and heritage. Anybody who has been in the interior of one these bays, Cathedral Bay, for example, can attest that they offer a unique outdoor experience.”
Late afternoon sunlight slants across black water, throwing cypress knees’ jagged shadows afar. Backlit Spanish moss glows as motes of organic matter sparkle in slanting bars of light. Few things equal the beauty of a cathedral-like bay ere sunset. Corinthian columns of buttressed cypresses uphold an impenetrable canopy and yet light seeps in. Reflections shimmer across coal-black waters, while a short walk away, African-like savannas ripple beneath the gathering winds of dusk. A walk along the sandy rims feels beach-like, but alien plants sprout here.
Carolina bays are otherworldly, so the question must be asked: did shooting stars create Carolina bays?
For a moment let’s look at other popular theories. One bizarre theory claims dinosaur footprints created the bays. Ancient volcano activity makes the list. Others claimed ancient buffalo wallows formed them—absurd all.
Henry Savage Junior’s The Mysterious Carolina Bays proposed that meteors created the bays. The late attorney’s theory had a big problem though. Not one meteorite fragment was found in a bay, no nickel, no iron. No ejecta.
Perhaps an icy comet blasted them out. J. Ronald Eyton and Judith I. Parkhurst presented a paper at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Paraphrasing: “The comet’s incoming nucleus approached from the northwest and fragmented near the surface. The resultant shock waves created shallow elliptical depressions best displayed in the sandy sediments of the Coastal Plain.” Some believe this comet exploded near Saginaw, Michigan.
More recently researchers claim extraterrestrial markers such as nanodiamonds and iridium clinch a celestial bombardment theory. Critics scoff, saying these markers rain down every day.
Dr. Luken favors the wind and wave theory with good reason. He’s seen the process in action. “Up on the coastal plain of the Arctic near the Bering Sea, they have footprint lakes that look just like Carolina bays. Up there it’s peaty, and you can watch the ends of the lakes eroding and forming the tips of the ellipses. This less exciting explanation is probably the better one.”
How poor we’d be without the bays and their life-giving water. Said Harder, “Some Carolina bays may only hold water for several weeks of the year; others may hold water year-round except during severe drought, while a few bays can hold water even during severe droughts. These wetlands’ ability to retain water along with their varying hydroperiods provides interesting habitat conditions.”
Johnny Stowe, DNR wildlife biologist/heritage preserve manager, and Bob Perry, DNR’s Office of Environmental Programs director, champion Carolina bays’ benefits. They work on the mission-critical Isolated Wetlands and Carolina Bay Task Force.
“We’re trying to give a Carolina Bays 101 course to the General Assembly,” said Stowe who’s managed all bays titled to DNR. The objective? Justify why Carolina bays are important to South Carolinians and merit preservation. The method? Explaining bays’ value and uniqueness using facts and the best science available. The caveat? “Striking a balance between preservation and economic interests. A continuum of values exists here,” said Stowe. For sure. Bay habitat is much needed but we need soybeans and corn too.
An Unforgettable Oasis
Years ago I helped make a film that explored the bays’ origins and extolled them as wildlife oases. I shot footage at Woods Bay. Serene and isolated. Those words describe Woods Bay. No, three words—all with equal weight—serene, isolated, and primeval. I captured ancient creatures on 16-millimeter film. An anhinga drying its wings. A gator gliding past water lilies. A stubby cottonmouth braiding through cypress knees. Turtles sunbathing on logs. Primeval denizens. I felt like I was in 1800s Botswana.
There was a boardwalk, too, from which I filmed birds. Woods Bay always delivered a profusion of wildlife … osprey, carnivorous plants, wood ducks, and otter.
Aerial filming was next. I would see what the Fairchild Survey photographers saw. I boarded a Cessna 180. Near the coast, oval depressions peppered the landscape. I passed over freestanding bays, interlocking bays, and bays within bays like nesting Russian dolls.
Mysteries Of The Carolina Bays turned out to be a decent film. It too supported the uninspiring wind and wave origin theory. I found it hard, though, to forsake the notion that something alien created Carolina Bays.
Many days at Woods Bay I thought of Leonid Kulik, chief curator for the St. Petersburg museum meteorite collection. This courageous Russian made exhausting expeditions to remote Siberia where the 1908 Stony Tunguska explosion knocked 80 million trees down over 830 square miles. Kulik saw things that only black holes, comets, nuclear bombs, asteroids, and alien spacecraft might explain. Had something cataclysmic taken place where I stood at Woods Bay? I like to think it did.
In 1978 I spent many a day alone shooting film at Woods Bay. It was just an eight-to-five job. Many years later, my film days behind me, longing sent me back to Woods Bay one autumn afternoon. As blue light lit up orange cypress needles their images danced across black waters. I too reflected. Over 30 years my life had changed in unforeseen ways, but the bay had not. Woods Bay and its fellow bays were quietly doing what they’ve always done: controlling floods, purifying water, stockpiling carbon, and giving man a place to sort out things. Add clean air, sediment retention, and nutrient recycling to the benefits. And add two things that banish humdrum: beauty and mystery, especially mystery.
Friends and I were discussing these strange ellipses one night and a fellow broke into our conversation. He seemed knowledgeable. “Those bays are beautiful sure enough. Grew up next to one.”
Then this. “Meteorites really did create them you know,” he said. “Venus Flytraps prove it. A plant like that had to come from outer space.”
Carolina Bay Field Trip
Cathedral Bay. This bay classically illustrates the Carolina Bay phenomenon. In the dry season its grasses and sedges soften the bay’s interior, which as its name suggests is regal. Myrtle-leaf holly is common in the shrub layer with wax myrtle and buttonbush less common. The 58-acre Cathedral Bay Heritage Preserve sits near the junction of SC Highway 64/US Highway 301.
Lisa Matthews Memorial Bay. Acquired by the South Carolina Native Plant Society in 2003, this bay hosts the federally endangered Oxypolis canbyi (Canby’s Dropwort), carrot family member and perennial aromatic herb. Wiregrass is being restored as a key understory plant to support the periodic burning necessary for Canby’s Dropwort and many other species. The 52-acre preserve is in Bamberg County.
Savage Bay. Kershaw County’s Savage Bay Heritage Preserve honors meteorite proponent Henry Savage. Pines and broomsedge are the dominant vegetation. This heritage preserve features two bays. The larger bay floods during wet years, but dries completely during drought summers. Savage Bay is one of the few undisturbed bays. Savage Bay’s original 59 acres became a Heritage Preserve in 1987.
Woods Bay. Spilling into Florence, Clarendon, and Sumter counties, Woods Bay is among the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain’s last remaining large bays and includes marsh, sandhills, oak-hickory forest, and shrub bog. Strolling the 500-foot boardwalk through cypress-tupelo swamp reveals alligators. More than 75 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and more than 150 species of birds, some seasonal, live here.