The Lowcountry's Dirty Little Secret
Updated: Jun 27
"The smell hit her as soon as she stepped outside on the museum's front porch. Delta recognized the earthy tang of Lowcountry pluff mud, all sweet grass and salty sea. It was a strange mixture of life and death, with the slick mud's decaying plants and sea life providing nourishment for the living marsh grasses and oyster beds above. To Delta, it was the scent of South Carolina, of the Sea Islands, and of visits with Tootsie and Pops. Delta loved that smell." -- THE SEA ISLAND'S SECRET, by Susan Diamond Riley (The University of South Carolina Press, 2019)
Oo-ooh, That Smell!
If you've ever driven through the Carolina Lowcountry, particularly at low tide, you've undoubtedly noticed a distinct aroma. As 12-year-old Delta Wells, one of the stars of my Delta & Jax Mysteries book series, explains above, she finds the scent familiar and comforting. I happen to agree with her, but opinions are decidedly mixed. Many folks liken the smell to rotten eggs, but never fear. You're not smelling air pollution. It's just our ever-present pluff mud.
You can see this brown, gooey substance along any tidal creek or leeward Sea Island coast much of the day and at all times of year. Twice a day, though, when the ocean tide is at its highest, these mud flats are completely hidden beneath the salty waters. What provides their pungent smell is the rich recipe that comprises them: salt water, sand, chlorophyll from living marshland plants, decomposing sea animals, decaying Spartina grasses, and the hydrogen sulfide (sulfur) that is released from the oxygen-poor mud. While this may sound unappealing, this muck plays an essential role in the entire Lowcountry salt marsh ecosystem. Those patches of pluff mud serve as nurseries and popular feeding spots for flora and fauna including oysters and clams, sea birds such as egrets, sandpipers, and gulls, crabs, insects, and fish species too numerous to count--all critters that help make the Lowcountry the magical place that it is.
If you weigh more than the bird pictured at right, I suggest you stay off of mud flats. When my son was about eight years old, he stepped onto the Broad Creek pluff mud and promptly sank up to his waist. It took my husband and I both to pull him out. Every so often an adult gets so stuck in the Lowcountry mud that emergency personnel must be called in to rescue them. What's the deal with that?
The issue is that, along with the decomposing plants and animals, sand, and buried oysters, 70 percent of pluff mud is water. Its solid appearance is a ruse. And once you sink into it, the suction created makes it difficult to escape. If you DO happen to find yourself in this predicament, slowly wiggle your feet until the suction loosens. Don't yank, as this can make you sink further. Try to distribute your weight evenly across the mud and pull yourself to more solid ground, with the help of nearby plants or branches when possible. Better yet, just admire the mud from a safe distance.
The Secret's Out....
Like other barrier islands, my little Sea Island is literally built on pluff mud, soaking up oceanic storms like a sponge and controlling flooding along the coast. So now you know our dirty little secret--our beautiful Carolina Sea Islands wouldn't even exist without that funky smell, nor would many of the coastal animals that so entrance locals and visitors alike. Love it or hate it, pluff mud is doing its job and doing it well.