In many ways, Whym Island is like any of the hundreds of tiny islands dotting the South Carolina coast. It’s got year-rounders, plus an infusion of visitors that swells its population to more than five times its off-season size. It has windswept cottages, sprawling resorts, and a coastline that makes visitors catch their breath and immediately do some mental math, desperate to find some way to live there year round. And, like all islands, it has secrets. Everyone knows that, in the 1960s, the mayor ran off with his gardener’s wife, and everyone knows people can occasionally hear an otherworldly keening by the beach on Bloody Point thanks to a nineteenth-century shipwreck.
During the summer, year-rounders will avoid the ferry dock, the Hardware Store bar and restaurant, Burton Park, and the town square commons, because they know these spots will be overrun by tourists. On the beach, the two groups, indistinguishable from each other to outsiders, will barely acknowledge each other with anything besides a chilly nod. Just like all the other islands in the Calibogue Sound.
Except the one thing that Whym has that other nearby islands—like Breton or Johns or Adventure Island—don’t, is an air of mystery. For one thing, Whym has unusual tides, which don’t always conform to the tide chart. This is annoying to fishermen, enchanting to visitors. Called witch tides by locals, low tide can suddenly, in an instant, turn into a relentless rushing high tide. Oceanographers say it’s a natural phenomenon caused by unusual plate tectonic activity. The locals explain that there’s a sunken island beneath the sea, ruled by a sea witch.
The visitors can’t get enough of that story. Which is why, during the summer, there are sea witch tours instead of whale watch tours, sea witch specials at all the seafood restaurants, and, of course, plenty of sea witch souvenirs at the postage-stamp size Souvenir Shoppe, a weather-beaten shack that lies to the right of the Faunterloy Ferry dock. The Souvenir Shoppe, too, is just like any other souvenir shop on any other island. You know the ones: The floors are perpetually gritty with sand, there’s a thin layer of dust on all the shot glasses, ashtrays, and bells that are perched on high shelves, and there’s a line of cheap candy at eye-level for five-year-olds. On Whym, the Souvenir Shoppe also contains handmade puppets of the mermen and mermaids believed to live beneath the sea. They all have slight smiles and hair made out of yarn and are usually only purchased by well-meaning grandmothers. Next to them is a shelf of mermaid food, which is simply multicolored fish pellets that children enjoy throwing into the water as the ferry is departing, as well as mermaid gloss, a sparkly lip gloss popular with visitors under ten.
And then, of course, there’s a shaky rack of postcards. The postcards always show the most beautiful images of the islands. They’ll show the sunset, the line of gorgeous willow trees that hide the row of mansions that regulars live in, a couple walking on the beach, just hazy enough to be unidentifiable.
On all of them, the same tagline: “Whym Island: Some things have to be seen to be believed.”
But that’s not exactly correct. What it should read is: “On Whym Island, some things have to be believed to be seen.”
© 2012 Anna Davies and Simon & Schuster