Geographical Information about Georgia’s Coast
Georgia’s coast is among the most popular tourist attractions in the South, and also one of the most historic places in Georgia - it was along the coast where Georgia’s earliest settlements were established. The geography of the Georgia coast has played an important role in the development Georgia as a colony and state, and continues to play a vital role today in modern Georgia. Georgia does not have a long coastline; it extends roughly one-hundred miles from Tybee Island in the north to Cumberland Island in the south. Georgia’s coast is not a continuous beach where sea suddenly meets dry land, but an irregular, beautiful mixture of rivers, streams, swamps, estuaries, and islands. Another important item to note about Georgia’s coast is that it is not a static place; because of tides - the daily rise and fall of the ocean - the points where the ocean touches the land is constantly changing. At low tide, sea level is down and coastal rivers freely flow out into the ocean. But at high tide the ocean level rises by up to seven feet, pushing seawater inland for distances up to ten miles, sometime more. When this happens the coastal rivers overflow their banks and flood low-lying areas, creating saltwater marshes. These marshes are one of the most important geographical features of the Georgia coast.
For more on Georgia’s saltwater marshes, see the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
There are 400,000 acres of saltwater marshes along Georgia’s coast. Twice each day - at high tide - the Atlantic Ocean floods coastal rivers, streams, and estuaries, causing them to overflow onto low-lying nearby land. Saltmarsh grass, cordgrass, and a few other plants thrive in this environment, marking the beginning of an amazingly rich food chain. The saltwater marshes are teeming with life. Acre for acre they are the most productive land in Georgia. A wide variety of wildlife inhabits the saltwater marshes, including insects, birds - and most important of all - fish, shrimp, and crabs. Here they find food, and safe places to raise their young. Because of Georgia’s saltwater marshes, an important seafood industry has developed along the coast.
Saltwater marshes also serve as buffers, helping to protect inland locations from storms. They also filter out many pollutants from coastal rivers before they empty into the Atlantic Ocean. And as many travelers have seen, the saltwater marshes are a delight to view. Here one can see marsh grass swaying in the wind, egrets, herons, and other wading birds, fiddler crabs, and much more wildlife. In the late 19th century the beauty of Georgia’s coastal saltwater marshes inspired poet Sidney Lanier to to write “The Marshes of Glynn,” his most famous work.
The islands off the Georgia coast are called barrier islands because they form a barrier, or wall, blocking ocean waves and wind from directly hitting the mainland. Georgia has fourteen primary barrier islands - from north to south they are Tybee Island, Little Tybee Island, Wassaw Island, Ossabaw Island, St. Catherine’s Island, Blackbeard Island, Sapelo Island, Wolf Island, Little St. Simons Island, Sea Island, St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, and Cumberland Island (the largest of Georgia’s barrier Islands). Most of Georgia’s barrier islands are protected by the state or federal governments. Some have been reserved as national wildlife refuges and wildernesses, and one - Cumberland Island - is a national seashore. These designations help protect the islands and their plant and animal life from human injury and destruction.
Large areas of of Georgia’s barrier islands barely rise above sea level and thus exist as saltwater marshes (as mentioned above). Most of the islands are crisscrossed with rivers and streams, making them appear to be several small connected islands.
For more on Georgia’s coast see the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
Georgia’s beaches are found on the seaward side of the barrier islands. The most visited beaches by tourists are on Tybee, St. Simons, and Jekyll Islands. Bridges and elevated highways connect these three islands to the mainland, allowing visits by motor vehicles. Access to the other barrier islands is by boat or helicopter only. Crossing onto the barrier islands one will see boats on the waterway separating the islands from the mainland. This is part of the famous Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, which stretches over one thousand miles from Miami to New York. This waterway is another important geographical aspect of the Georgia coast; it allows fishing boats, pleasure craft, and ships to travel along the coast protected from direct ocean winds, waves, and current.
See some images of geographical features of Georgia’s coast below.
Textual descriptions of Georgia’s coast based on: Ed Jackson and Mary Stakes, The Georgia Studies Book: Our State and Nation, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 2004.