May 9, 2019
Naturalist History: The Naturalists of Little St. Simons Island
Posted by: Cohen Carpenter
The Beginning: Cathy Sakas and John "Crawfish" Crawford
The naturalist program on Little St. Simons Island has been a platform for many great educators to share their knowledge and love for the natural world with guests since the late 1970’s. In this series of blog posts, I’ll identify some of those great educators, uncover their experiences and memories of the island, and highlight their careers and achievements after leaving Little St. Simons.
The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island opened to guests in 1979 after decades of hosting the Berolzheimer family as a retreat for hunting and leisure. Allowing guests to experience the natural wonder and wilderness of the island was an obvious necessity for island manager Buddy Hasell. Enter Cathy and Crawfish.
Cathy Sakas and John “Crawfish” Crawford, then a married couple living in Savannah, were hired to develop and oversee a natural history education program for island guests. At the time, Cathy and Crawfish worked at a wilderness expedition company co-founded by Crawfish, Wilderness Southeast, Inc., guiding clients through the wild places of the southeast US, Caribbean, and Central America. The island they found upon moving to Little St. Simons Island could have been described as a bucolic place in some regards. Cattle grazed between the forest and the beach. Staff mounted on horseback herded them ‘round in scenes more reminiscent of the wild west than a modern Georgia barrier island. From the forest edge, looking out among an open grassland all the way to the ocean, the only structures in sight were a few solitary live oaks and a windmill drawing water for the cattle.
A different scene indeed, but the excitement of the natural world and the charm of the lodge were very much the same. Cathy and Crawfish led island guests on excursions seeking the same wild encounters we’re still after today, and in doing so, initiated a decades-long program of environmental education through the platform of our beloved island.
Cathy says this about her time on LSSI:
“Life on LSSI was idyllic for me. I had the best of all worlds in that I lived right on the marsh on this incredibly diverse island with the best beach on the entire Georgia coast. I learned so much by just observing and sharing insights with my then husband and colleague Crawfish and our guests who were all eager to learn. I became as tuned into the natural rhythms of the island as the daily tides and monthly moon phases. It was such a fantastic playground for a naturalist as there ever could be! My favorite memories of being on the island are walking and sleeping on the beach (until the winds died allowing no-see-ums to bite!), riding gentle giant Dan, the quarter horse in the surf and through the woods and over the “prairie”, and smelling the faint aroma of anise of the green fly orchids at night. Oh yes, I will never forget the clam digging and crab catching and the wonderfully delicious, free spirited crab boils that we ate on the beach while pitching the shells over our shoulders for the tide to wash away. Of course, my greatest delight was discovering the neonate North Atlantic Right Whale on the north beach in January 1981. That discovery led to the realization that the Georgia and northeastern Florida coasts were the calving grounds of the most endangered large whale in the world. I am forever grateful for my time on Little St. Simons Island!”
Crawfish on his memories of LSSI:
After I was asked to comment on a favorite moment during my years as a naturalist on LSSI, I gave it much thought. I was hard pressed to come up with a “favorite” memory; there are just too many choices!! What I can say, is that the years Cathy and I lived on the island were some of my lifetime favorites! The island was less busy in those days and only 6, or so, of us lived out there full time. On days off, I would go for long cross country (and cross marsh!!) solo excursions. I would look for new places to sit and absorb the awesome natural beauty surrounding us. Whether it was a spectacular vista or tiny and rare flower, they all gave me goose bumps of pleasure. And, as it is today, such beauty was everywhere on the island. Many of these habitats looked very different then; having been overgrazed by fallow deer and free ranging cattle. But, it was educational to see how animals and plant species adapted to the stresses, and many even flourished! Another “one of a kind” experience we had on LSSI was being on the island for the last direct hit Georgia has had by a hurricane. The eye of Hurricane David passed over the island in 1979. It was an exciting and educational experience. I am so very thankful for my time on this rare island. The learning and inspirational opportunities were, and are, unmatched.
After leaving their marks on LSSI, and vice versa, both Cathy and Crawfish went on to build impressive careers in science and education, and neither one of them is finished yet. Cathy turned to television, writing, hosting and co-producing two Emmy-winning nature documentary series, Coastal Naturalist for Georgia Public Broadcasting, and writing and co-producing Secret Seashores, a one-hour program on the human and natural history of Georgia’s barrier islands. She also hosted and was a naturalist consultant for the multiple Telly-award winning series, The Natural South on Turner South. Cathy also worked for 15 years at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary as an educator, scientific diver, and pilot of a one-person submersible. She’s conducted 12 submersible missions of the Georgia and Florida coasts, she was once an aquanaut spending 9 days underwater researching corals in Key Largo, Florida, and though retired, she continues to work with the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Foundation (which she launched).
Other current projects include:
· Ocean exchange, a non-profit she co-founded focusing on sustainability solutions
· Tybee Island Beach Task Force
· President of the Tybee Island Marine Science Foundation
· 2018 documentary she co-produced called Shifting Baselines profiling the fishing industry on Georgia’s coast.
· Lead singer of local band, “The World Famous Crabettes”
Cathy currently lives in Effingham County with her husband Christopher and their many animals.
Crawfish returned to Savannah upon leaving LSSI to the board of directors and as the head expedition leader and naturalist for Wilderness Southeast, Inc. He is still active as a co-founder and supporter, but since 1990 has been faculty for University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant at Skidaway Island, where he is a senior naturalist and marine educator. There Crawfish lectures and leads educational programs for elementary to graduate level students and captains UGA research vessels. Most of his days are spent in the field, engaging with audiences of all ages and backgrounds, whether at the Marine Institute on Skidaway or other locations along the coast with various groups and organizations. In addition, Crawfish provides ecological consultation for several universities and state and federal organizations.
He currently lives on the Isle of Hope with his wife Jeana and their daughter Lauren.
If it were possible to quantify the number of people these two individuals have connected to the natural world and thus, the positive impact they’ve made on it, the numbers would be staggering! We are so proud to call both Cathy and Crawfish family and for the legacy they left on the island and then laid ahead after leaving Little St. Simons. On behalf of the LSSI family, thank you both for your inspirational work.
Recently Little St. Simons Island hosted a naturalist reunion in its 40th year of being open to guests, where previous naturalists, from the beginning to present day, joined for a weekend of exploration, shared stories, tears, and laughter. Among us were the two who started it all! Cathy and Crawfish, though no longer married, remain good friends and were very helpful in leading discussions on the island’s history, lending insights, and connecting the dots between the island we know now and the one they knew through the lens of a naturalist. That experience was invaluable, and we are truly grateful. Thank you both for that visit and for your help in putting this piece together.
Cathy above and below. Below, she is in the yellow, photographing the newborn North Atlantic Right Whale that washed ashore on LSSI in 1981. This provided the first strong evidence that Georgia's coastal waters were calving grounds for this endangered species.
Crawfish above with cobia and alligator and below educating a young audience.
*^Naturalist reunion on LSSI, January 2019. Many of the former and current naturalists and ecological management staff, including Cathy and Crawfish.