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Aerial Beach Shot

Our Wide Open Space: Hilton Head Island’s Beach Is Vast, Hard-Packed, and Lively

By Hilton Head Insider

Bring flip flops when you go to the beach on Hilton Head Island. The shores are sugar sand firm. Your bare feet may soon grumble, for this seashore is about as solid as pavement. There is good evidence for this—millennia of geologic activity and ocean waves have molded our solid strand. It is wide and level and unlike most other shores in America. Let’s find out why.


The southeastern Atlantic Coast is shaped like a huge bay. In scientific terms, this great inward curve in America’s coastline is called the South Atlantic Bight. The word, “bight” descends from the Old English word for “bend.” Science tells us that at least 180 million years ago, the coast of the present-day South Carolina was knitted to the coast of West Africa. As the crustal plates separated, so did these continental shores. Look at a world map: can you envision how the coast of Sierra Leone could have nestled into the South Atlantic Bight? And yes, it does look like someone took a giant bite out of the southeast coast, doesn’t it?


Hilton Head Island’s location deep in the inner curve of the coast—nearly due south of Cleveland, Ohio—offers protection and enhances nature:

  • The sea floor is shallower to about 70 miles offshore (location of the Continental Shelf).
  • Wind and wave energy is less, reducing the effect of tropical storms and beach erosion.
  • Waves grind rocks and shells over a longer distance. The result: sand grains are flatter and smaller. The gentler waves compact these well-worn particles into a hard surface—solid enough to wear out bare feet!
  • The beach is wider and flatter, due to lower wave energy. This means more space for people to play and explore.
  • More animals live in burrows, tunnels and tubes in our seashore because their homes won’t collapse.
  • The broad, hard beach offers more space for large wildlife: raucous gulls, gangs of shorebirds, threatened loggerhead turtles, feisty ghost crabs, and more.

So the next time you go the beach, look offshore and give a nod to the far coast of Africa. Watch the birds scamper in tandem along the water’s edge. Count the holes and tubes in the solid sand: something lives in each there. And then, put on a pair of shoes and enjoy a long, comfortable walk.

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