South Carolina

SC’s ‘Monkey Island’ can only be viewed from afar and from a boat

All smiles: A Rhesus monkey grins at onlookers. But don't be fooled by what may seem like a cheerful invitation. These are wild creatures living on Morgan Island near Beaufort.
All smiles: A Rhesus monkey grins at onlookers. But don't be fooled by what may seem like a cheerful invitation. These are wild creatures living on Morgan Island near Beaufort. Special to The Bluffton Packet

It’s no secret that there is monkey business going on in the Lowcountry.

I’m referring to, of course, Morgan Island near Beaufort. Since the 1970’s, this small, remote sea island has been populated by a colony of Rhesus monkeys. There are, at last count, over 3,000 of them and they play a very special role in the life of our region. The colony is used by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases as a source of research.

Morgan Island is a 2,000-acre island owned and managed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. The colony is protected under federal law. Although no actual research is conducted on the island, the colony is closely managed by the institute. The monkeys are free to roam the island and live in their own society of family groups across their territory. This is the part that is most intriguing to the local human population for as the monkeys move at will about their island habitat, they can be often seen hanging in the trees and gathering along the beach and marshes of the small island.

A common invitation to guests and friends in the Beaufort area is, “Do y’all want to go see the monkeys?” This doesn’t mean a trip to the zoo but a short boat ride up the Morgan River to see the only colony of Rhesus monkeys living in the wild this side of Florida’s Silver River.

If you want to see the monkeys, you will need to arrange a trip by water – and timing is everything.

Morgan Island lies off the northern shore of St Helena Island on St. Helena Sound. Strong tides and wide marshes lend to its remote beauty that both limits human interaction and prevents any monkeys from casually escaping. If you wish to take a short journey to visit these transplanted jungle inhabitants you will need to arrange a boat ride or prepare for a day of kayaking.

The closest public landing for launching a small boat or kayak is Eddings Point boat ramp. This public landing places you a relatively short 4.5 miles from the island and allows for a day trip to be made with little trouble.

There are two main factors however that may determine when you go: time and tide. Per their habits, the monkeys are best glimpsed in the morning hours – the earlier the better.

A bright Lowcountry morning may readily reveal hundreds of the monkeys in the trees or along the beach, screeching and calling to each other in their simian conversations. On a warm day, the rising heat chases them into the shady interior of the island.

Tide is the other factor: the paddle from Eddings Point is best calculated to descend an outgoing tide and a return on the incoming flow. The tide swing around these pluff-mud ringed islands can be fierce if mistimed but it will propel you to your destination with ease if calculated correctly.

Remember, there is no access to “Monkey Island.” This protects both you and the monkeys. Prepare to stay in your boat and come no closer than the water’s edge. Fortunately, there is a very long and popular sandbar that extends across the Morgan River that allows excellent viewing at low tide and an afternoon of sandbar fun – another local pastime.

Recently I paddled to Morgan Island with a group of friends. The tides and weather were perfect but we arrived a little too late. By the time we reached the island - around 10 a.m. - only about three or four monkeys were visible. That was exiting enough, however and it made for quite an experience.

“Monkey Island” is well worth a visit and it will bring home a little of the wild side of the Lowcountry in a way you may not have imagined.

Bluffton resident Matt Richardson enjoys taking day trips with his family and exploring the Lowcountry. To see more pictures from his adventures, go to www.Flickr.com and search on the username “greenkayak73.” He can be reached at greenkayak73@gmail.com.

Getting There:

Morgan Island is located on the Morgan River near St. Helena Island in Beaufort.

Eddings Point landing is located on Eddings Point Rd. on St. Helena and is managed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. The landing is open year-round from dawn to dusk and there is no charge.

If you are kayaking to “Monkey Island” be sure to consult tide charts, weather conditions and any other watercraft advisories. There are no facilities at the landing or on Morgan Island so plan accordingly. It is recommended that you contact one of several local kayak tour companies or outfitters in the area to see if a tour with one of their guides is available.

Remember that Morgan Island is not a zoo or a park. Like the other wildlife refuges and preserves in the ACE Basin and Lowcountry the island is home to carefully managed wild animals that must be respected and viewed only fgrom afar. O. Obey all signs, rules and warnings and attempt no landing there.

For more information, contact SCDNR at 803-734-9100.

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