Bull Island: Hilton Head's Little Neighbor with a Big Past

Sunset sailing in the Calibogue Sound
Sunset sailing in the Calibogue Sound Continuum360
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What if you were told that the Cincinnati Reds, American radio, Albert Einstein, and the invention of radar all had something in common? And, that the common thread could be found right off the coast of Hilton Head Island?

Just across Calibogue Sound and slightly north of Daufuskie Island lies a small, nearly uninhabited island that quietly boasts one of the most intriguing stories in the Lowcountry. The island is Bull Island; it is so unknown that if you search Bull Island, South Carolina you will probably be directed to Bull’s Island in the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge miles up the coast. As far as Google Maps is concerned the island does not exist, it is simply an unmarked body of land between Hilton Head and Bluffton.

Bull Island from across Calibogue Sound
Bull Island from across Calibogue Sound Jay Karr

The creek that runs behind the island is Bull Creek, a popular thoroughfare for Bluffton boaters making their way from the May River to Daufuskie. The creek is also a great place to explore via kayak or paddleboard, calm and scenic, and generally uncrowded. People who grow up on these waterways are raised on stories of the island being home to all manner of exotic beasts—including but not limited to zebras and American buffalo. These may sound like tall tales and local legends, intended to spark children’s imaginations. But, not only is there truth to these stories, there's also a rich history of wealth and power that intertwines the Lowcountry with our nation’s history in unexpected ways.

The story begins in 1917 when a man named Alfred Lee Loomis bought nearly all of Hilton Head Island, about 17,000 acres. At the time it was en vogue for well-off Northerners to buy large tracts of land in the South and use them as hunting retreats and quiet getaways.

Alfred Lee Loomis was no different. As a resident of Hilton Head, Loomis called Honey Horn Plantation home—the current site of the Coastal Discovery Museum. Loomis graduated from both Yale and Harvard, had his hand in corporate law, finance, and sailed competitively in The America’s Cup. Ultimately Loomis turned his attention to the sciences. He established a state-of-the-art physics lab in Tuxedo Park, New York, and attracted the likes of Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Weiner Heisenberg, and many more of the world’s greatest physicists. Loomis and his wallet devoted large sums to the progression of science and made large advances in chronometry (the precise keeping of time) among other things. During World War II Loomis played a large role in the development of radar— instrumental in the United States victory—and the original device was actually named in his honor.

Zebra standing among trees, Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Zebra standing among trees, Kruger National Park, South Africa. Scotch Macaskill

All the while, Loomis and his family were using Hilton Head as an escape from the pressures of life, enjoying Hilton Head’s peaceful outdoors just like so many do today.

In the 1950’s, the Loomis family made the decision to sell their property on Hilton Head to a group of investors from Georgia. The sale and subsequent purchase eventually led to the development of Sea Pines Plantation and the incredible Sea Pines Forest Preserve.

Loomis’s son, Alfred Lee Loomis Jr., decided he couldn’t leave the Lowcountry and moved across the sound to Bull Island. He bought the island from Powel Crosley. Crosley had developed a fortune after creating an affordable radio, and his own radio broadcast company, in the name of making radio accessible to everyone. Crosley also owned the Cincinnati Reds and split his time between Ohio and the Lowcountry (once again, not unlike many visitors to Hilton Head back in the day). Crosley used Bull Island as his personalized hunting playground. He brought a herd of wild buffalo to the island, a type of big horned sheep called mouflons, and a smaller species of donkey known as Sardinian donkeys. Some species did well on the island, others didn’t, but when Loomis arrived on the island he continued the tradition of exotic imports and added zebras to the menagerie.

Most of these animals weren’t built to survive in the Lowcountry, and these days they only exist in memories and stories. But a paddle around Bull Island won’t leave any doubt as to what drew these wealthy men to the island in the first place. There are two ways to get to Bull Creek with a paddle, and depending on your skill level, one way is better than the other. Either way prepare for a long and challenging adventure that will leave you feeling fulfilled at the end of the day.

This map shows Bull Island, Bull Creek, and launch locations
This map shows Bull Island, Bull Creek, and launch locations Edited by Zach Bjur

Both routes require you to cross relatively large bodies of water, the May River and the Calibogue Sound respectively. The May River can be a little more forgiving and is probably best for less experienced paddlers. There are two spots you can launch your kayak  from on the May River. The most direct route is to put your boat in the water at the Alljoy Public Dock at the end of Alljoy Rd in Bluffton. From here, it is a direct shot across the May into the mouth of Bull Creek. If you want a bit longer of a paddle start farther up the May River at the Bluffton Oyster Factory . Just make sure to stick to the left shore as you paddle toward Bull Creek, otherwise it’s easy to get off track. Once you reach the Alljoy Public Dock, make your way across to Bull Creek.

For a more challenging paddle you can launch from Broad Creek on Hilton Head Island. It makes the most sense to leave from the Cross Island Boat Landing; from here it is about a five-mile trip across Calibogue Sound to the southern mouth of Bull Creek. Calibogue sound can get a lot rougher than the calm creeks so only experienced paddlers should try this route, and as always bring your PFD. For a paddler looking for the ultimate trek you can leave from the Marshland Boat Landing. This is an eight-mile or so journey until you reach Bull Creek and is recommended for advanced paddlers only.

However you get there, you’ll have some of the Lowcountry’s greatest paddling ahead of you when you do. And as you paddle around Bull Island you can keep your eyes peeled and maybe catch a glimpse of a zebra or buffalo that has survived in secret.

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