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Jun 27, 2023

Nature Up Close: H20’s Nature and Alligator Boat Tours

Celebrate Hilton Head Magazine

Photography By

Maggie Washo
As the only boat tour allowed in the Sea Pines Nature Preserve, H2O’s Nature and Alligator Boat Tour is an entertaining and highly educational trip for all ages.

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Anthony Savarese holds a Rough Green Tree Snake while he pilots the “Patricia Anne” around the Sea Pines Forest Preserve.

Anthony Savarese has many titles: licensed Master Captain, Clemson-certified Master Naturalist, H2O Sports partner, science teacher … but the title he is most passionate about is conservationist.

Savarese, a Hilton Head Island native who began his career with H2O Sports as an employee 20 years ago, has been in charge of H2O’s Nature and Alligator Boat Tours for nearly eight years. The tour, located in the heart of the Sea Pines Forest Preserve—the largest tract of undeveloped land on Hilton Head Island at over 600-acres—primarily focuses on education and preservation, with Savarese and his captains striving to instill an appreciation for the Preserve’s native flora and fauna on every trip.

“We want our guests to leave with respect and appreciation for what the Preserve has to offer,” Savarese said. “The lake systems and surrounding areas are vital to the overall health of the island’s ecosystem. It’s important we protect it but also reflect positively on Sea Pines for allowing us to operate there.”

A female alligator suns herself in the grass on the banks of Lake Mary.

Even more important is ensuring guests walk away from the tours with a better understanding of alligator behavior, their history, and role in our ecosystem, he noted. In his book, An Informative Guide to the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, a project published in 2020 after a year of painstaking writing and research, Savarese points out that living among alligators can be enriching and rewarding. However, they are still large and powerful predators that need to be regarded with caution.

“Never feed the alligators,” Savarese said, the gravity of the bad practice weighted in his every word. “It often leads to unwanted encounters with humans and will result in the euthanization of the animal.”

Yet just as quickly as the serious educator makes his presence known, the enthusiastic environmentalist takes over, discussing the desire he had to write about the incredible beauty and resilience of the American alligator and the numerous creatures with which it shares its habitat. “I wanted to write a field guide correlating to the many different species often seen on the boat tour to further educate guests who are interested in learning more. It’s reader- and kid-friendly since the language corresponds with a sixth grade science vocabulary.”

For Savarese, the alligator and nature tours aren’t merely a job. Instead, in both business and the classroom, he is driven by a deep-rooted, unparalleled sense of responsibility to the conservation of this beloved environment, with his knowledge and dedication clearly on display during his and H2O’s captains’ hour-long tours through three of the five manmade lakes in the Preserve.

Savarese trains all of H2O’s alligator tour captains himself, teaching them to deftly navigate Lake Thomas, Wood Duck Lake, and Lake Mary in fully covered 25-foot Duffy cruisers, while simultaneously identifying many species of birds, their nests, turtles, alligators, and other wildlife.

Carol Barrientos helps guests disembark after an alligator tour.

The Duffys, eco-friendly and ultra-quiet electric vessels with no loud combustion engines to disrupt the peace of the preserve, increase the already high probability of viewing various animal species in their natural habitat. “They’re like golf carts on the water,” Savarese said.

The magic of the Duffy cruiser is apparent the moment you leave the dock. Surrounded by massive Live Oaks draped in Spanish moss, the all-encompassing quietude of the Preserve lends an ethereal quality to the trip. Even normally boisterous children can’t help but quietly “ooh” and “ahh” as the voyage begins.

In addition to wildlife spotting, the tours focus on the interesting history and development of the Sea Pines Forest Preserve.

In addition to wildlife, the tours focus on the interesting history and development of the Sea Pines Forest Preserve. Year-round, the Preserve is bursting with life, thanks to an intricate system of manufactured lakes filled by rainwater, run-off, and hydrostatic pressure—a phenomenon caused by the pressure of the ocean leaching through our sandy loam soil to fill the five holes dug in the 1970s for the purpose of extracting development fill dirt. The process converts salt water into fresh, although the Preserve still employs multiple aerators to oxygenate the lakes, creating a healthy environment that encourages fish and other wildlife to thrive.

Birds abound in the Sea Pines Preserve, with Herons, Egrets, Osprey, Anhingas, and countless others all calling the area home. In winter months, ducks and other migratory birds make guest appearances, although the main attraction is the American alligator. 

Savarese says the summer months are good for viewing alligators in the water since the ectothermic, or cold-blooded, animals depend on the cool waters of the lakes to keep their body temperatures from soaring. For guests eager to see the animals sunning themselves on the banks of the lakes, the spring or fall would be optimum for viewing.

Hunter Kostylo charms a new serpent friend.

Other reptiles are also plentiful, with a guest favorite being the rough green tree snake. Savarese and several of his captains are adept at gently plucking these beautifully colored, docile creatures from their homes in the wax myrtle trees surrounding the lakes, adding a fun and interactive element to the already educational tour. Children squeal with delight at this aspect of the trip, with a few braves souls eager to learn proper handling techniques so they can hold the harmless reptiles themselves.

As the only boat tour allowed in the Sea Pines Nature Preserve, H2O’s Nature and Alligator Boat Tour is an entertaining and highly educational trip for all ages. The long-standing businesses’ profound commitment to the preservation and conservation of the delicate ecosystem in which their tours operate ensures smiling guests leave the docks with a newfound sense of awe and wonderment at all the Lowcountry has to offer.

H2O’s Nature and Alligator Boat Tours operate year-round on a limited schedule. Peak season is April to September, with multiple trips per day being offered.  

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