The Beautiful Waters of the Winyah Bay Estuary

By Tamela Walters

An estuary is a body of water that is comprised of more than one source of water flowing into it. Winyah Bay, in Georgetown is a unique estuary – there are only two that replicate it on the East Coast. Five rivers flow in out and of this one body of water – The Waccamaw, the Little Pee Dee, the Big Pee Dee, the Sampit and the Black Rivers all drain into Winyah Bay.

Estuaries act like filters to clean the water as it comes in and out.  That’s why we have some of the best oysters on the east coast.  The water is being cleansed by the diverse water flow into the bay. Fresh water is pushed out by the tide, taking anything inland out to the ocean. Salt water comes back in and feeds the many organisms that live on it. Our water is cleansed every 24 hours, a two tide cycle. We also don’t have major industry along our rivers helping keep our water clean.

The upper regions of Winyah Bay are fresh water and the closer you get to the ocean, the saltier the water. How much rain we have every year determines how far the salt water goes inland. Back in the middle 2000s our area  was impacted by a severe drought, and dolphins were seen in the river near Brown’s Ferry due to the salt content of the water reaching several miles inland.

If you’ve been on a boat in Winyah Bay, you’ve probably seen the foamy line in the water. That’s where fresh and salt water mix and a lot of animals feed along that line. While it looks dirty and foamy, it’s full of beneficial microorganisms. This is a great place to see dolphins feeding.

Winyah Bay also has a fascinating history. It was used for shipping for many years – the industry that built Georgetown. Native Americans and their predecessors probably lived in Winyah Bay for thousands of years ago, but our recorded history goes back to 1526 when the Spanish settled here. That Spanish settlement has yet to be discovered, but it is documented in writing. If it is ever found, this discovery would make Georgetown the oldest settlement in the United States.

About this writer

  • Tamela Walters

    Tamela Walters

    Tamela Walters is the owner of Rover Tours in Georgetown, located on the Harborwalk in Georgetown. To learn more about the ecology of Winyah Bay and its rich history, join her experienced staff for one of two boat tours. The Shelling and Lighthouse Cruise is a four hour boat tour full of excitement, and the newest cruise, a collaboration with Hobcaw Barony, takes guests on a trip back in time through Barnard Baruch’s winter hunting retreat, and includes a tour of the famous Hobcaw House. To learn more and book your boat tour, visit or call 843-546-8822.

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