If you have some kind of allergy to seagrass, nautical beauty, pristine water and/or atlantic bottlenose dolphins, it’s best you stop reading now as you may be tempted to send yourself into anaphylactic shock.
However, if your spring allergies are in check and you find yourself swooning at the thought of boat rides, swimming with stingrays and pouring cans of carbonated margaritas down your parched gullet, everything about West Ship Island is right up your alley, and you should start planning a trip immediately.
Getting to the Island
When I first saw maps of an archipelago cradling the sole of Louisiana, I couldn’t help but imagine myself skipping across the barrier islands like a stone, but without having access to a boat, it’s not really a goal that can easily come to fruition.
Luckily for lubbers like me, Ship Island Excursions runs a ferry from the harbor (located at the intersection of U.S. highways 49 and 90 in Gulfport, Miss.) to West Ship Island from March 24th through August 12th.
The ferry is $27 round-trip for adults; children, seniors and those who wield a military ID can purchase tickets at a discounted price.
During the summer months, it departs Gulfport for Ship Island every day at 9 a.m. and noon. The returning ferry leaves West Ship Island for Gulfport at 2:30 and 5 p.m.
Riding the Ferry
Upon boarding, attach your cooler (which should be filled with a day’s worth of tasty snacks and beverages) to the designated hooks on the first deck. Then make a beeline for the bow or the top deck for the best seats in the house.
Many people prefer the front of the boat because it provides the best view of dolphins surfing the bow wave, but if you can’t snag a spot near the bow, calm your blowhole. You’ll be able to see dolphins doing aquabatics so long as you keep your eyes peeled on the wake.
After smothering yourself in sunscreen, you’ll have ample time to walk around the boat or stop at the refreshment stand which serves a generous selection of snacks and drinks.
Landing on the Island
West Ship Island comprises a small portion of Gulf Islands National Seashore. Located in north central Gulf of Mexico, the uninhabited island is about 11-12 miles off the coast of Mississippi, and depending on weather conditions, the ferry ride usually takes a little under an hour.
When I stepped off the ferry, I had the feeling that we had landed on a stray piece of the Caribbean that had broken off from its sister islands and floated up the Gulf.
Here there is an abundance of beauty, no cars, very few people and zero cellphone reception. Visitors are forced to live entirely in the moment, and lucky for them, it’s so wonderful, it’s surreal.
After a few seconds of walking on the boardwalk, which covers the entire width of the island, my friends and I noticed a pack of stingrays skimming the ocean floor underneath a private boat named “buoy call," and there were several species of birds lurking nearby that I’m sure I had never seen before in my life.
Photo by Tarani Duncan
One of the only structures on the island is Fort Massachusetts, a brick fort built for national defense following the war of 1812. It is open to the public for guided tours.
After you tour the fort, make your way south along the boardwalk which cuts through clumps of giant seagrass.
South Shore Luxuries
The south shore of the island is just as impressive as the north shore. After about 400 yards, the green hue of the sandbar gives way to a deep blue that stretches itself across the natural curve of the earth. The horizon is only broken by fleets of ships and the occasional dorsal fin.
Aside from exploring the fort, visitors have the option of beach combing, snorkeling, fishing, hiking and swimming. While swimming and snorkeling, expect to be in the company of shy stingrays and hermit crabs.
While on the island, you can visit the store for beach rentals, concession-style food, or those tasty margaritas I mentioned earlier.
You can find a detailed list of everything the island rents or sells right here.
Bring comfortable shoes. The walk across the island to access the swimming beach can be a long haul for those not used to the exercise.
Also bring a towel, beach blanket and lots and lots of sunscreen.
Pack food and drinks. Even though the concession prices are reasonable, it’s always nice to have your own stash of goodies. While packing, bear in mind that glass containers are forbidden on the island.
I encourage everyone to ride the 9 a.m. ferry. After spending a couple of hours in the sun, I was ready to craft a shelter out of fish bones and stray beach towels and begin my life anew as a mermaid. Obviously different people have varying tolerance levels for paradise (I think this is based on factors like presence of children – usually their own – and photosensitivity), but for me, four hours on the island was not nearly enough.