South Carolina

Will ‘king’ tides prove a royal pain for Hunting Island’s new campgrounds?

Hunting Island lifeguards Vince Dean, seated, and Ben McHone watch swimmers Thursday on the North Beach.
Hunting Island lifeguards Vince Dean, seated, and Ben McHone watch swimmers Thursday on the North Beach. sfastenau@beaufortgazette.com

Phil Gaines was back in what has become his second home, his shirt drenched from a humid Thursday morning walk along the beach at Hunting Island State Park.

The director of the S.C. State Park service would soon hop in a white SUV with park manager Daniel Gambrell to assess the park’s new campsites. The campground has been closed since Hurricane Matthew in October.

But with more rain this week and unusually high tides expected this weekend, park staff and engineers continued work at the site on Thursday. Park officials announced later Thursday the sites wouldn’t be ready by July 1, their latest target.

The sites are booked through the summer, Gaines said.

The high tides, known as “king” tides, are the product of Friday’s new moon. The higher water shouldn’t affect the new campground, park officials said, because the new sites are set well back from the water.

“We monitor it closely,” Gambrell said. “We just stay on top of it. Whenever the highest tide point is supposed to be, we make sure that we are checking it and see what’s going to happen.”

One of the most vulnerable areas to king tides in past years was the oceanfront campground, which flooded when the water rose and required park officials to caution campers.

But those sites were wiped out by the hurricane.

“It’s bought us a little bit of real estate, if you will, for the new campground,” Gaines said.

The beach was busy Thursday morning with vacationers and visitors in town for Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island graduation.

Two red flags were out Wednesday during rough conditions as Tropical Storm Cindy approached the Gulf Coast, lifeguard Vince Dean said. The double flags typically mean swimmers should go in the water only ankle deep or avoid going in at all.

Only one red flag was out just before lunchtime Thursday. The extreme tides aren’t cause for much extra concern for swimmers, Dean said, but visitors should always keep children close, know their swimming ability and avoid straying close to the rocks that jut into the water.

That’s where rip currents are more likely, and an incoming tide and rough waves can force swimmers against the rocks and sharp barnacles.

Lifeguards patrol the North Beach from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. They will also be stationed at the campground when it reopens.

The team of volunteers that monitors turtle nesting activity on Hunting Island will be wary of the high tides this weekend. A king tide can wash out a turtle nest.

“A nest can stand getting washed over,” volunteer Buddy Lawrence said. “It can’t stand to get washed completely out.”

Lawrence has worked with the turtle program for 17 nesting seasons and holds the team’s state permit from the Department of Natural Resources.

The team relocates nests to higher ground when necessary. So far, 59 nests have been identified this year.

That’s more than the 41 counted “false crawls,” when a turtle comes onto the beach but returns to the water without nesting. To have more nests than non-nesting crawls is unusual, Lawrence said.

Park regulars have noticed many of the barrier island’s features have changed since the storm. The absence of a dune system has left much of the park vulnerable and made it impractical to restore the oceanfront campsites.

The park store near the lighthouse is also an area of concern during king tides and extreme weather and will benefit from an upcoming beach renourishment effort, Gaines said. More sand will be pumped onto the beach during a major project planned for the winter.

Some areas of the park have remained under water since Matthew, Gaines noted.

“The island’s draining a little bit better,” he said. “But it’s still wet.”

Stephen Fastenau: 843-706-8182, @IPBG_Stephen

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