Blackbeard Island NWR

A pair of gulls on the beach.

Open daily, sunrise to sunset. Free admission. No pets. Access is by water only; fees may apply.

Blackbeard Island, protected as part of the National Wildlife Refuge system, is one of Georgia’s most secluded barrier islands.

Roughly mid-way down the state’s coast, just north of Sapelo Island in McIntosh County and around 40 miles south of Savannah (see on map), the island is most conveniently reached as a day trip out of Darien, Brunswick or St Simons Island.

With well over 5000 acres of forest-covered dunes and salt- and freshwater marsh plus miles of beach, Blackbeard Island is a perfect spot to enjoy the nature of the Georgia coast away from the crowds.

Blackbeard Island is also an important site in Georgia’s maritime history. Named for the infamous British pirate Edward Teach – “Blackbeard,” as he was more commonly known – who reputedly used its creeks and inlets as a hiding place for his ships, the island was also used by the US Navy as a lumber source and quarantine station.

As the island has no road bridge, you will have to make your own way there by boat or kayak, or take a guided tour.

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Visiting Blackbeard Island

Blackbeard Island is administered by the Fish & Wildlife Service as a National Wildlife Refuge. Official website

The refuge is open for daytime use, sunrise to sunset, every day year-round, with the exception of two several-day periods in fall and winter when annual deer hunts are held. There is no access to the general public during these times. See the Fish & Wildlife Service’s website for more information.

Activities

Hiking and biking Blackbeard Island has several scenic designated trails suitable for hiking and biking (see map), through maritime forest and marsh. Keep to the marked trails to protect wildlife and the environment.

Wildlife watching and photography Blackbeard Island is an especially good spot for wildlife observation and study, with large numbers of shorebirds, songbirds and waterfowl of many species. Photography is a very popular activity here.

Fishing Saltwater surf and creek fishing are allowed at Blackbeard Island. Freshwater fishing in the refuge’s ponds is not permitted.

Wildlife, Ecology & History

At 5618 acres, Blackbeard Island is one of coastal Georgia’s largest National Wildlife Refuges. The varied environment of the island – maritime forest, freshwater ponds, salt marsh and beach – provides a home to many species of wildlife and birds.

Bald eagles, word storks, American oystercatcher and piping plover are some of the bird species you can see. Other wading birds, shorebirds and songbirds are all present on the island over the course of a year, with populations and the species mix varying by season as birds migrate northwards and southwards along the eastern coast.

Blackbeard Island is an important nesting place for the endangered loggerhead turtle, which lays its eggs on the island’s beaches. Alligators too, along with other smaller wildlife, can be seen.

Blackbeard Island’s name derives from its reputation as a hiding-and-waiting place used by the legendary pirate Blackbeard and his crew as they targeted ships to plunder.

Blackbeard was active along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts for several years in the 18th century. It is probable that the pirate and his men did in fact sail in the waters around Blackbeard Island, its inlets and creeks providing ideal places to hide. Less credible is the belief that he buried some of his treasure on its shores: despite many searches, no hoard has yet been uncovered.

Blackbeard Island’s earliest official – and documented – use was as a source of lumber for ships.

The US Navy bought the island in 1800 from its French owners. The Navy wanted it for its heavy stands of live oak, a tree considered especially useful for ship building on account of its hard wood and curved limbs, perfectly suited to forming ships’ hulls.

Later, in the last two decades of the 19th century, Blackbeard Island was developed as a quarantine station.

The epidemics of the mid century – Savannah’s yellow fever of 1876 was particularly devastating – prompted a raft of regulations intended to curb the introduction and spread of disease.

Georgia’s ports were a dangerous source of infection, as diseased sea travelers arrived in Savannah or Brunswick – or indeed any other port – from overseas. On shore, they passed on their afflictions, sometimes killing hundreds before the epidemic died down.

One of the most obvious sanitary measures to impose was inspection of incoming ships and quarantine of any of these ships and their men found to be harboring disease. Quarantine stations were therefore built at suitable points, at which ships were obliged to call before proceeding to port.

The station at Blackbeard Island operated for roughly three decades, finally closing up in 1909 once the threat from yellow fever had been largely eradicated by the development of vaccination programs.

A crematory, bult in 1904, remains visible on the island today; the hospital for infected sea travelers and other buildings associated with the quarantine station are gone.

Once it was no longer used for detaining ships, Blackbeard Island was set aside as wildlife preserve, later becoming part of the system of National Wildlife Refuges.

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