Captain Kevin and Cecilia McCarthy have always been fond of the sea. Born and raised in the port town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Kevin sojourned south in 1968 before meeting his wife Cecilia, whose family had arrived on the marshy shores of Fernandina nine generations ago. After Kevin worked as a building contractor for nearly 30 years, he and Cecilia opted to embrace their shared love for being on the water, and founded Amelia River Cruises in the summer of 2000. Twelve years later, their fleet is three U.S. Coast Guard–inspected boats strong, and each cruises steadily along myriad tours of Cumberland Island, Beach Creek, and the shores of Amelia Island. History buffs rejoice in narrated jaunts down the Intracoastal Waterway that lead to the Kingsley Plantation—whose 1797 establishment makes it the oldest surviving plantation house in Florida—before traveling to the historic Fort Caroline National Memorial, one of the first permanent settlements in North America. Two-hour eco tours journey through state parks and aquatic preserves, where hands-on shrimping experiences let guests identify their captured creatures before asking them the current exchange rate of a sand dollar and releasing them back into the wild. The local and surrounding ecosystem, with diverse wildlife that appears most prominently during the summer months, boasts playful pods of dolphins, an abundance of shore birds, and sea turtles who visit to nest on nearby island shores.
The Shoemaker clan has been sailing around the East Coast since the 1600s, making the family as native to South Carolina as the state's alligators and seaside bluffs resembling John C. Calhoun. After inheriting an in-depth aquatic knowledge from his father, who spent 25 years as a commercial fisherman, Captain Chris Shoemaker?a Coast Guard?licensed captain?conveys that love of the water to even more generations by leading fishing, shrimping, and crabbing excursions on his 24-foot Carolina Skiff boat. Collectively known as May River Excursions, Captain Chris and his crew make twice-daily trips to Daufuskie Island, a rustic, historical idyll with a single schoolhouse, dirt roads, and wild bald eagles, armadillos, and alligators that still comprise the island's local constabulary. The guides also lead regular 90-minute tours along the May River in search of ospreys, egrets, and dolphins, always including a history lesson about the country surrounding the towns of Bluffton and Hilton Head.
The guides and instructors at Palmetto Paddle Sports help customers explore the world around Hilton Head Island from the perspective of the water. Inside kayaks, they lead groups of fellow rowers through the waters surrounding the island, where they can take in picturesque scenes of nature and wildlife. Paddleboard instructors teach students the techniques they need to traverse local waters atop a stand-up paddleboard, from rowing motions that help them keep their balance to angry gestures that will prevent turtles from cutting them off in traffic.
Amid cypress swamps and the gurgling waters of Seventeen-Mile River, anglers and nature enthusiasts alike can quiet their minds and enjoy the sunshine. While spending the nights at one of General Coffee State Park's 50 primitive campsites, visitors can spend the day with their line in the water, spotting gopher tortoises crawl through endangered plants in the wiregrass nearby. But there's also plenty to do besides fish. The onsite Heritage Farm, for instance, showcases the area's agricultural history with log cabins, a tobacco barn, a cane mill, and a corn crib, as well as friendly sheep, chickens, and pigs. To get the full rustic experience, campers can also roast hot dogs in a fire pit, draw water for their breakfast from the nearby spigots, and look up at the stars to find all the constellations they just made up.
Aboard her 25-foot Stingray 234LR, Captain Megan escorts up to six passengers on more than 10 intimate charters. The USCG-licensed captain navigates waters teeming with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins by day, floats through Calibogue Sound at sunset, and cruises past Shelter Cove's summertime fireworks displays from the water at night. Her Stingray 234LR also pulls one- and two-person tubes along the whitecaps and navigates backwater marshes en route to open areas ready for watersports such as wakeboarding, water skiing, and turtle wrestling.
The salty sea sprays behind Captain Michael’s boat as he veers into the ocean near Hilton Head with his trusty first mate—a great dane named Dozer—by his side. As captain and owner of On the Water Hilton Head, Michael guides kayak trips through Lowcountry salt marshes and tidal creeks, and leads boat trips to view dolphins and seabirds in the waters around Pinckney Island and Port Royal Sound. Michael also runs water-taxi rides, charters fishing trips, and encourages visitors to take to the water themselves with kayak, standup-paddleboard, and jet-ski rentals.