Tybee Island is the farthest north of Georgia’s barrier islands. It is approximately four miles long and one mile wide and was built by sands brought in by the Savannah River. Tybee’s total acreage including marsh is 3,100 acres, 1,500 acres of which are non-marsh. The island has three and one-half miles of beach. The name Tybee is an Indian word meaning salt. Historical sites include the Tybee Lighthouse (completed in 1773 and rebuilt in 1867) and its accompanying museum, and Fort Screven, which dates to 1875.
Tybee is Georgia’s most developed barrier island. The commercialism on Tybee consists of hotels, year-round private residences, summer cottages, condominiums and various tourist facilities, such as public bathing beaches, fishing piers, marinas and public campgrounds.
Little Tybee, once privately owned, was acquired by the State of Georgia, with a conservation access allowed to the Nature Conservancy. The island has approximately three and one-half miles of beach with a total acreage of 6,505 acres only 600 of which are non-marsh or upland. The only access to the island is by private boat and as yet there is no development.
Known as Georgia’s newest island, Williamson Island was first detected around 1971 and later claimed by the State of Georgia. It formed by the growth of a sand bar or detached spit off the south end of Little Tybee and the sand is thought to have come from the erosion of Tybee. Its current length is approximately two miles. The island was named for Mr. Jimmy Williamson, a former Mayor of Darien, Georgia.
This seven-mile-long island is the most primitive and undeveloped of Georgia’s barrier islands. In 1866, a New England cotton merchant, George Parson, purchased the island for $2,500. Later, Parson’s descendants sold it to the Nature Conservancy with the understanding that no bridge would ever be built to it from the mainland. In 1969, the Nature Conservancy deeded Wassaw to the federal government as a National Wildlife Refuge. Since 1973, the Cabretta Research Project has conducted research on population levels and habits of loggerhead turtles at Wassaw. From mid-May through mid-September, volunteers observe and tag nesting female loggerheads and relocate threatened nests to protected hatchery sites.
2,500 of Wassaw’s 10,050 total acres are upland and the island has six miles of beautiful unspoiled beaches. One of Wassaw’s most interesting features is the “boneyard beach” on the northeast end of the island. Here hundreds of live oaks, pines and cabbage palm trees have fallen prey to erosion and now their “skeletons” line about a mile-long stretch of the beach. Erosion at the north end has also partially exposed the remains of an 1898 fort to the tides. Another interesting feature is the 50-foot-high dune line, which was created by the hurricane of 1890. Hundreds of gulls, herons, egrets, migratory songbirds and shorebirds use the beaches, marshes and freshwater ponds as breeding and nesting grounds.
Ossabaw Island is 10 miles long and two miles wide with an area of 25,000 total acres, 11,800 of which is upland. It has nine and one-half miles of beaches.
Ossabaw is extremely rich in history and was once a favorite hunting and fishing ground of the Indians. Skeletal remains of Indians dating back 4,000 years have been found there. Early colonists hunted the island as early as 1687. The island was bought by the Torrey family in 1924. Mrs. Eleanor Torrey West and her husband founded the Ossabaw Island Project Foundation in 1961. The foundation invited artists, authors, ecologists, musicians, sculptors and scientists to work on the island and share their ideas. In 1978, Mrs. West sold the island to the State of Georgia as a Natural Wildlife Refuge and in May of that year Ossabaw became Georgia’s first Heritage Preserve under the Heritage Trust Act of 1975. As a Heritage Preserve, Ossabaw can be used only for natural, scientific and cultural purposes. Mrs. West still lives on the island in her family mansion and works with the DNR in the management of the island.
St. Catherines is a 23-square-mile island with a total acreage of 14,640 acres and 11 miles of natural beaches. The total upland acreage is 6,870 acres.
Once the capital of the Guale Indian Nation, St. Catherines was also the site of Santa Catalina de Guale, the first Spanish mission in coastal Georgia (1566). The first book written in Georgia was an Indian grammar book written at St. Catherines by a Jesuit friar in 1568. Button Gwinnett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, bought the island in 1765 and lived there until 1771. His 19th century family home and slave cabins are still standing.
Blackbeard Island’s total acreage including marsh is 5,618 acres. It has 3,900 acres of uplands, 9 miles of beach, and is two and one-half miles wide at its widest point.
In the early 1700’s Edward Teach, the famous English pirate popularly known as “Blackbeard,” was thought to have buried treasure on Blackbeard Island. Sapelo’s Allen Green, who at one time worked on Blackbeard, once discovered a large chain around a live oak tree. The chain extended into the ground near a tidal creek. Could this chain have been attached to Blackbeard’s treasure? We will never know.
Sapelo is about 12 miles long and two to four miles wide with a total area of 17,950 acres, making it the fourth largest of Georgia's barrier islands. Sapelo has 10,900 acres of uplands and five and one-half miles of undeveloped beaches. Sapelo's Nannygoat beach is noted for having the most extensive undisturbed natural beach dunes of any of Georgia’s barrier islands.
Sapelo Island is jointly owned by the State of Georgia, the R.J. Reynolds Foundation and the residents of the Hog Hammock Community. Sapelo is a National Estuarine Research Reserveand Wildlife Refuge. The Department of Natural Resources, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the R. J. Reynolds Wildlife Refuge share the management duties of the island. At the south end of Sapelo, the University of Georgia Marine Institute conducts research in barrier island formation and salt marsh ecology. Primitive camping and short term lodging is offered through the residents of Hog Hammock and the DNR.
Wolf Island is located just south of Sapelo at the mouth of the Altamaha River. It has a total of 5,126 acres, of which only 250 acres are high ground including beach and dunes. Three and one-half miles of beach line the ocean side of the island.
In 1930, Wolf Island was purchased by the federal government. Wolf Island National Wildlife and Natural Wilderness system includes not only Wolf Island but Egg and Little Egg Islands as well. Access to the island is by boat and only limited public recreation activities are allowed in order to protect the nesting grounds of the least and royal terns, shorebirds, wading birds, migratory waterfowl and loggerhead turtles.
Little St. Simons Island is the last family-owned island on Georgia’s coast. One of its most famous owners was Pierce Butler and his wife Fanny Kemble, who grew rice there during Georgia’s plantation days. It was purchased in 1908 by Philip Berlzheimer and his descendants still own the island and operate a retreat where overnight guests are invited to visit to fish, hunt, horseback ride, canoe, take nature tours, and enjoy its six and one-half miles of beaches.
The island has a total acreage of 8,840 acres including marsh. 2,300 of these acres are uplands. The island has excellent examples of fresh and brackish water ponds that serve as habitats for more than 200 species of birds.
Sea Island is connected by causeway to St. Simons Island and is a privately owned beach resort with hotels and private cottages and residences. Development of Sea Island began in 1926 when Howard Coffin bought five miles of beach front and established the Sea Island Company to develop a first-class resort. The five-star Cloister Hotel opened in October of 1928.
Today the island has five and one-half miles of beach and 2,000 total acres including the marsh. The upland acreage is 1,200 acres. Because of its private ownership, there is no public access to the beach from the mainland.
St. Simons is the only one of Georgia’s larger barrier islands that has never been privately owned. St. Simons consists of 27,300 total acres including the marsh. It has 12,300 upland acres and three miles of beach. St. Simons and Sea Island together are 13 miles long and 4 miles wide. St. Simons is extremely rich in history, having been inhabited first by the Creek Indians and then by the Spanish, British, and finally by southern plantation owners who grew sea island cotton and live oak timber. Historic points of interest include Fort Frederica, Fort St. Simons, Christ Church, Bloody Marsh, Hamilton Plantation, Hampton Plantation, Cannon’s Point Plantation, and Retreat Plantation and the St. Simons Lighthouse. The lighthouse, first constructed in 1810 and rebuilt in 1871, is one of the nation's oldest continuously working lighthouses. After the Civil War, St. Simons became a much-loved resort. The causeway was built in 1924 and the airport in 1934. The Coast Guard Station which closed in 1996 was built in 1937. Today most of the island is privately owned residential homes and low-key commercial hotels and condominiums. Its fishing pier attracts visitors from miles around and serves as the center for many of the activities of the local village.
Jekyll Island, the smallest of Georgia’s major barrier islands, is 10 miles long and one and one-half miles wide at its widest point. It has 5,700 total acres, 4,400 of which are uplands. It has eight miles of beach. Jekyll was first used as hunting and fishing grounds by the Creek Indians who called the island “Ospo.” In 1562, the island was claimed by the French Huguenots and the name was changed to "Ile de la Somme." In 1566 Spanish Jesuit priests established a mission there. In 1736, after claiming the island for Britain, General James Oglethorpe established an outpost and renamed it Jekyll after his friend Sir Joseph Jekyll.
Cumberland Island is the southernmost and longest of Georgia’s barrier islands. Including the marsh, it has a total acreage of 23,000 acres, 15,000 of which are uplands. The island is one and a half to three miles wide and has 17.5 miles of beach.
Cumberland was once inhabited by a Florida tribe of the Timucuan Indians who called the island Missoe which means sassafras. The island was renamed San Pedro by the Spanish who settled, set up a mission and occupied the island for more than a century. It was named Cumberland in 1734 by Chief Tomochichi in honor of his friend William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland.
The beach forms at the edge of an island between the ocean and the sand dunes. The sand is deposited by waves and currents and is then blown around by the wind to create dunes. The beaches of Georgia’s undeveloped islands are made mostly of fine-grain sand. The beaches are fairly wide and slope gently toward the ocean. This harsh environment is a moderate energy area because the waves from distant storms release their energy as they roll up onto the beach. Winds keep sand in constant motion. In the summer the prevailing winds along the east coast blow from the southwest and in the winter from the northwest. The profile of the beach changes from a broad flat beach in the summer to a narrower and steeper beach in the winter.
Barrier islands are among the most beautiful and precious features of our coastline. A barrier island is defined as a long, offshore, dune-covered deposit of sand lying roughly parallel to and separated from the mainland by a shallow sound (lagoon) and/or salt marsh; barrier islands are separated from each other by tidal inlets. Our present barrier islands have evolved over thousands of years and are a wonderful example of a delicate but balanced system in a constantly changing environment.