Emory’s Georgia Coast Atlas allows anyone to visit the barrier islands virtually

An interview with environmental sciences professor and project leader Tony Martin and videographer Steve Bransford

Emory’s Georgia Coast Atlas allows anyone to visit the barrier islands virtually
An aerial view of Jekyll Island

Photograph by Tony Martin

Many of the dozen or so islands that make up the Georgia coast are notoriously inaccessible. Most, in fact, are reachable only by ferry or charter boat. Of course, that very remoteness has preserved 100 miles of relatively natural landscape, unmatched along the Eastern Seaboard. Now, researchers and students at Emory University’s departments of environmental sciences and history and its Center for Digital Scholarship (best known for its decades-long effort to document voyages of enslaved people) are creating an online portal, open to the public, that allows anyone to visit the islands virtually. The rapidly expanding Georgia Coast Atlas features flyover footage, video interviews, informative articles, historical documents, annotated maps, and other resources.

One local expert featured is famed author and environmentalist Janisse Ray. She sums up the magic of our state’s shoreline:

“What a treasure we have, what an absolute treasure! . . . Look at what we’ve protected on these islands, and the fight continues. But all of the barrier islands have these places where you’re standing in a place that appears to be untouched by humans. You know that it isn’t, but the heaviness of industrialism and mechanization and technology hasn’t arrived and hopefully never will arrive. That is a sacred feeling and an extraordinarily rare feeling. It’s an endangered feeling, and I get it on just about every island that we have.”

Atlanta magazine recently spoke to environmental sciences professor and project leader Tony Martin and videographer Steve Bransford about the Atlas:

When did you start the Coast Atlas project?
Bransford We started the Coast Atlas in earnest right about 2015. But Tony and Michael’s research on alligator dens preceded it. [Michael Page is a geographer and lecturer in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences.]

Tell us about the alligators.
Martin Michael and I were at some social event for my department. He came up to me and said, “I know that you’re one of the people who does fieldwork, and I like doing fieldwork. Is there any project that I could help on using my skills as a geographer?” I said, “Actually, I need somebody to help me with mapping alligator dens on the Georgia Coast.” And he got this big grin on his face and said, “I’m in.”

So, we went down to St. Catherines Island and started mapping some of the alligator dens. Alligators modify their ecosystems to survive all sorts of environmental calamities. You got a bush fire, they’re okay. You got a hurricane, they’re okay. You got a drought, they’re okay. They are like the Swiss Army knives of survival.

One time, we were outside of a large alligator den in the middle of the forest with 14 undergraduate Emory students. One of my students said, “Dr. Martin, I see teeth down there.” I said, “Teeth as in, like, a snake or skull?” And she said, “No, teeth.” So, I look a little bit in there, and then I hear the loud hiss of the alligator reverberated by the burrow.

Michael says, “I guess we’ll mark that one as occupied.”

From then on, I’ve treated alligator dens like a loaded gun. I do not get in front of them.

When we launched this project, Steve asked me, “What do you think would be the best island to serve as a pilot project where we could test a framework for understanding the environmental and human histories of the Georgia barrier islands?” And I said, without hesitation, “Sapelo.” Sapelo is by far the most fascinating island in all of those respects.

Bransford Our fieldwork in 2015 to 2017 coincided with the widespread introduction of drones for aerial imaging technology. And that was a big part of our research on Sapelo, Ossabaw, and St. Catherines. Michael’s been going back to the same locations almost quarterly at this point, particularly this one spot on Sapelo called Cabretta Beach. You’ll go back literally four months later, and you’ll see things changing. Independent of climate change, barrier islands are dynamic systems. But sea level rise and climate change are making these islands even more dynamic.

Martin Forests are turning into beaches. On the north end of Jekyll, this has been nicknamed Driftwood Beach—all of [the dead trees] are lying in the surf. That beach is starting to move toward the center of Jekyll. If it continues at its present rate, it will reach the road in about 10 to 12 years.

Bransford Even though we see the acceleration of flooding and forest fires in the news, a lot of times the discourse about climate change is putting it off 25 years, 50 years, 100 years, thinking about Miami being underwater in the next century. But you go to the Georgia coast and, as Tony said, the effects of climate change are absolutely now. The effects are not in the future, they’re happening now.

Martin I’ve been going to Sapelo pretty much every year since 1997. But in 2015, we saw the tide actually flooding the road from the Marine Institute and the Reynolds Mansion to Nanny Goat Beach. I was shocked! I’d never seen that before. And this was just a regular king tide, not a hurricane.

That makes beaches with dead trees seem less romantic.
Martin Yeah, that’s right. We made a video on Ossabaw of a cabbage palm forest that was between the maritime forest and the marsh. The cabbage palms are all decapitated. They were killed by the rising sea level that poisoned their roots. But they’re not knocked over yet. This is where the drone footage is really helpful because we can have that bird’s-eye view showing this whole swath of dead cabbage palms going off into the distance. You see how pervasive it is.

Emory’s Georgia Coast Atlas allows anyone to visit the barrier islands virtually
Dying cabbage palms on Ossabaw

Photograph by Tony Martin

What’s causing these changes?
Martin On the Georgia coast, climate change is affecting the island, there’s no doubt about that. But human interactions with those environments are also causing changes. And then there are the natural processes that were happening before humans even occupied North America. People have interacted with the islands of the Georgia coast for at least 5,000 years. We have banned the word pristine.

Pristine implies the landscape is untouched by the hand of man. But the islands have been affected by people for 5,000 years at least. So they’re not untouched. They can still be beautiful, they can still be gorgeous ecosystems. And this is something I am still just so grateful for. On some of the islands, I can stand on the beach, look north, look south, and I’m the only person there. It really does make it special.

How have Georgia’s islands managed to remain relatively untouched?
Martin Because we’re not New Jersey.

We’re glad of that for many reasons.
Martin Students ask, “Why is the Georgia coast so special compared to what we see elsewhere?” I use the example of the New Jersey barrier islands. What happened? They got overdeveloped. The Georgia coast is far less developed. We do have a few developed islands. Jekyll is getting more developed, unfortunately. St. Simons is totally developed, Sea Island is totally developed, and Tybee. Those islands have a human presence—whereas on the other islands, like I said, you can have that experience of, “Wow, we are really in a wilderness.”

Bransford It’s due to a little bit of historical luck. Some of these Georgia islands weren’t developed because, quote, unquote, “robber barons” ended up securing access to a lot of the land: R.J. Reynolds on Sapelo, Sandy West’s family on Ossabaw [her father, Henry Torrey, was a prominent Detroit physician who bought the island as a winter retreat].

Martin St. Catherines was owned by Edward John Noble, the millionaire who founded the ABC network and cofounded Life Savers—the candy, not the preserver.

Reynolds and some of these other robber barons wanted to have private hunting reserves. Sapelo, again, is fascinating in that respect. Reynolds was really awful toward the people who had been living there for hundreds of years—the Gullah Geechee community. He forced them all into one area, Hog Hammock. They used to be all over the island.

He wanted more of the island for himself for hunting or otherwise. About a month ago I visited a duck pond on the north side of Sapelo. I had never visited it until just last month, and I was astonished. It’s this incredible freshwater wetland environment, completely artificial. But it’s been let go for the past 70 or 80 years. So, nature has taken it over. We have so much more to document and discover about how some of the landowners changed the islands to suit themselves.

Emory’s Georgia Coast Atlas allows anyone to visit the barrier islands virtually
Skeletal trees on Jekyll Island

Photograph by Tony Martin

There’s a lot of controversy over whether the feral horses should be removed from Cumberland Island. What’s your opinion?
Martin I have a chapter about it in my book Tracking the Golden Isles (UGA Press, 2020). I wrote: On ferry rides over, a visitor will inevitably say, “Ah yes, the wild horses of Cumberland Island. Roaming free since the time of the Spanish in a pristine, unspoiled landscape, grazing contentedly on the sea oats and strolling through coastal dunes, in perfect harmony with nature.” Yet everything in that statement, other than the words “horses of Cumberland Island,” is wrong. Records show they were released there in the first part of the 20th century. They are changing the geology of the island.

Bransford We ran into a feral bull on Sapelo. And there are donkeys; it’s not just the horses. There are a lot of non-native animals all over.

Martin The hogs on Ossabaw are actually descended from Spanish swine. A biologist did DNA analysis and tracked them back to Iberian stock. That’s why they are prized by some people who hunt them for their meat. They are free-range and all-natural. So there’s your marketing ploy. But they’re a huge problem on Ossabaw because they eat everything. They act like pigs.

Bransford There’s a really interesting back-and-forth between the imprint of humans and natural forces. And many of the videos we’ve done, especially on Sapelo and Ossabaw, show that tug between humans and the environment. It is fascinating. And that’s a big, overarching thing that we’re getting at with the Atlas.

Martin The Georgia barrier islands are this natural laboratory where we can see how humans and their histories have intersected with nature. We can use that past in the present to better prepare for the future.

Bransford The whole idea is to show us where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

These islands are such a gift. We have to tell their story to people who can’t get down there. We’re providing access because [it’s hard to visit] some of these islands. We’re sharing this treasure with as many people as possible.

Martin Even when you get there, you are seeing only a very small part of every island. Even if you’re a really rugged, outdoorsy explorer type, you’re still not going to see most of these places. And you certainly don’t get to see them change over time. There are very few people who get to experience that. One of my favorite scientists on the Georgia coast is Carol Ruckdeschel. By living on Cumberland most of her life, she’s actually observed and documented how those environments, those ecosystems have changed while she’s been there. The people in Hog Hammock have all of that life experience in their heads.

So, much of island knowledge is oral history?
Martin Yes. I never got to meet Cornelia Bailey [a Hog Hammock native and author who earned national recognition for helping preserve Gullah Geechee culture]. When she died, as the old expression goes, it was like burning down a library. When these people who have this incredible base of knowledge about the islands, when they pass on, a lot of that goes with them. So, we’re trying to interview some of the people who are connected to the islands. These records will live on.

People want to learn, they want to experience something new; they also want to have hope. We’re very conscious of this in the environmental sciences. You can’t do doom and gloom all the time; you have to have some message of hope.

Back to Exploring Georgia’s Enchanted Islands

This article appears in our August 2023 issue.