The Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge is one of the Charleston area’s hidden gems. Situated between Edisto Island and Beaufort, the ACE Basin (so named because it sits at the confluence of the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers at the Atlantic Ocean) consists of marshland, pristine waterways, and several uninhabited islands.
One of these uninhabited islands is Morgan Island. Though, to clarify, while Morgan Island is uninhabited by people, it does have a rather unique population of roughly 4,000 full-time residents. This is a story about visiting the Morgan Island monkeys.
I left home in Charleston early Saturday morning and made the roughly 80-minute drive to Eddings Point Landing to kayak to (and around) Morgan Island. As usual, the drive down Route 17 to Trask Parkway was quiet and uneventful, though in the dark it was somehow more serene than usual. I crossed over the Beaufort Memorial Bridge in the dark as well, and I could just see the first signs of daylight when I pulled into the gravel parking lot.
Even though it was just 6:30 in the morning, I wasn’t the first one there. I parked next to two trucks with boat trailers, most likely owned by crabbers or oyster harvesters who had set off well before dawn.
Kayaking To (and Around) Morgan Island, SC
There are several ways to get to Morgan Island, though all of them involve traveling by boat. Today, I was kayaking. I chose Eddings Point Landing as the starting point of my trip for a few reasons:
- It is relatively close to Morgan Island – I had calculated my circumnavigation route at roughly 19 miles, including about 13 miles just to get all the way around Morgan Island. Eddings Point is one of two landings roughly the same distance away.
- I’d read that Sam’s Point Boat Landing has limited parking – The other landing in the area, Sam’s Point Boat Landing, is about the same distance from Morgan Island, but I had read online that it has limited parking. Even though I was going early, I didn’t want to risk having to go somewhere else and delay launching my kayak for my circumnavigation of Morgan Island.
- Eddings Point worked best with my trip plan – I was planning to ride the tide out to the eastern tip of Morgan island before riding the rising tide back west. With the time that I was planning to launch, leaving from Eddings Point made the most sense.
If you are planning to boat rather than kayak to Morgan Island, Eddings Point Landing and Sam’s Point Boat Landing would both work just as well (aside from the potential parking challenges at Sam’s Point). Of course, since this is the Lowcountry, there are several other options for launching boats within an hour or two of Morgan Island as well.
So far, everything was going according to plan. I unloaded my kayak from its trailer, loaded up with water, nutrition, and safety gear, and set off to eat breakfast during sunrise while watching the monkeys start their day on the shore.
Wait, There Are Monkeys in Charleston?
At this point in the story, you may have questions. For example, you might be wondering what type of kayak or trailer I have. Or, you might be wondering what I packed for breakfast.
Or, you might be wondering about the Morgan Island monkeys.
Morgan Island is home to Charleston’s resident population of roughly 4,000 rhesus monkeys. These monkeys live on the island full-time, unfenced and unencumbered. They are also undisturbed. While the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SC DNR) manages the island, stepping onto the island is strictly forbidden for all visitors.
Why are they there? An article published in the April 1989 edition of the Puerto Rico Health Sciences Journal explains:
“During the summer of 1979, the rhesus monkey breeding colony of the La Parguera facility of the Caribbean Primate Research Center [in Puerto Rico] was shipped to Morgan Island, South Carolina. During six shipments in 1979, and three more in 1980, over 1,400 animals were translocated. . . . Although the monkeys were not shipped in intact social groups, they restablished their groups shortly after [being] released onto Morgan Island. Since 1979 the colony has grown almost four-fold and now numbers almost 4000 animals.”
Morgan Island is privately owned, state-managed, and federally protected—and this seems to be just the way the monkeys like it. Their population has remained stable over the past 35 years; and, at least by my eye-witness account, they seem to be enjoying their time.
A Sunrise Breakfast with a Rhesus Monkey Serenade
The paddling distance from Eddings Point Landing to the beach where the Morgan Island monkeys spend most of their time is about four miles. As I approached Morgan Island in my kayak, from a few hundred yards away, the brown-gray splotches on the beach and in the trees began to take form. Then, they began to move. I was right on schedule, and the monkeys seemed like they were soaking in the early morning sun.
I stopped paddling after about an hour and let the tide carry me past the beach while I ate breakfast (a banana and granola bar). Even though paddling is a relatively quiet way to travel by water, the silence when I stopped paddling was palpable—until it wasn’t.
I’m not sure if it was because they saw me or because they were just doing what they do, but soon the silence was replaced with a serenade. I kept drifting for about 10 minutes until we began to part ways. I could have stayed longer, but I had a date with slack tide that I didn’t want to miss.
Morgan Island’s Monkey Colony was Just One Highlight of Many
When you are approximately an hour into a four-and-a-half-hour trip, knowing that you are already past the main attraction can make the rest of the journey feel like a bit of a slog. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case on my circumnavigation. As I headed toward the eastern tip of Morgan Island with slack tide approaching, the island, the water, and the morning sky all continued to offer views that distracted from the admittedly mundane task of propelling yourself forward a few feet at a time. For me, though, that’s what paddling in the Lowcountry is all about. I don’t just paddle for the sake of paddling. I paddle to explore remote areas and experience the Lowcountry’s unparalleled beauty.
I made it to the eastern tip right on schedule, paddled around Morgan Island’s oyster-covered eastern shore, then traversed the island’s northern coast for about three and a half miles. It was here that I saw the first of three pairs of dolphins I would see on my route, as well as many of the shorebirds that are typical of the area. I also saw a juvenile bald eagle followed shortly by an adult, and I also had the opportunity to see a squadron of American white pelicans, which are far less common than the eastern brown pelicans typically seen flying along Charleston’s barrier island shores.
I planned my trip in December, so I wasn’t too surprised that I didn’t see another vessel until almost three hours in. As I paddled back west, a sailboat passed, motor-sailing toward Bull River. As I rounded the western tip of Morgan Island, I passed a center console with three fishermen, and they were the last—and only—people I would see on my journey.
About half an hour later, I was back within view of the Morgan Island monkeys’ preferred beach spot, though I was too far away to see them for a second time. I turned at the red day marker I had picked out earlier in the morning, and paddled the rest of the way back to the public boat landing.
Plan Your Trip: Seeing the Morgan Island Monkeys By Kayak or Boat
Approximately 19 miles circumnavigating Morgan Island, either departing from Eddings Point Landing or Sam’s Point Boat Landing.
Approximately four and a half hours by kayak, taking advantage of the outgoing and incoming tides. Departing from the Safe Harbor Landing in Port Royal by boat provides for a similar trip duration, traveling at a casual but steady pace.
If going by kayak to Morgan Island from Eddings Point Landing, plan to shove off about two and a half hours before low tide, if not a bit before. When you get to Morgan Island, circumnavigate the island in a counter-clockwise direction.
Launching Points for Visiting Morgan Island By Kayak or Boat
For kayaking to Morgan Island, I highly recommend Eddings Point Landing. Options for kayakers and boaters include:
- Brickyard Landing – 474 Brickyard Point Road N, Beaufort, SC
- Eddings Point Landing – 500 Eddings Point Road, St. Helena Island, SC
- Safe Harbor Port Royal Landing – 1 Port Royal Landing Drive, Port Royal, SC
- Sam’s Point Boat Landing – 1009 Sam’s Point Road, Beaufort, SC
Tips and Advisories
If you are planning to kayak around Morgan Island, be sure to check the tides. You can go either direction around the island depending on the timing, but you will be going much slower and exert much more energy if you have to fight the tides the whole way. Also, as noted above, setting foot on Morgan Island is strictly prohibited. There are several signs on the island confirming this, and also instructing visitors not to feed or disturb the monkeys. Observe from a distance then continue on your way.
As always, when kayaking, boating, or engaging in any other form of travel by water, bring all necessary safety gear, check the weather regularly, dress for the water temperature, and stay comfortably within your limits.
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