Ship Island trips resume for first time since Hurricane Katrina

Ship Island trips resume for first time since Hurricane Katrina

- The storm destroyed the island’s basic services.

By PETE TATTERSALL

The Associated Press

BILOXI – West Ship Island, a haven of clear green water, quiet solitude and natural beaches stretching for miles, is a sparkling jewel in the string of barrier islands formally known as the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

As of Friday, for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, the island 12 miles south of Gulfport is once again accessible by ferry.

Ship Island Excursions, located in the Gulfport Small Craft Harbor at the intersection of U.S. 90 and U.S. 49, is now transporting visitors to the island Wednesdays through Sundays, provided at least 25 passengers show up. Travel time is about 45 minutes. This year also marks the family-run company’s 80th year of operation.

“The island weathered the hurricane quite well,” said Louis Skrmetta, operations manager for Ship Island Excursions. “West Ship Island and Fort Massachusetts are in excellent condition.”

Still, basic services no longer exist on the island – about 3 1/2-miles long and a half mile wide at its widest point.

“This place has gone back in time about 30 years,” said Jim Graves, a park ranger and law enforcement officer whose beat is West Ship Island.

About 500 to 1,000 feet of the east side of West Ship was swallowed by the storm, Graves said, although it appears at least some of that ground had been reclaimed by nature.

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East Ship Island, however, was not so fortunate.

“Approximately two-thirds of East Ship was lost to the storm,” said Graves, 39, who, for 4 1/2 years before Katrina, lived in the ranger station on West Ship five days a week.

According to some estimates, the channel between East Ship and West Ship islands, known as Camille Cut, has been significantly widened by Katrina.

“It really blew it out,” said Joe Wofford, who pilots one of the ferry vessels.

He said Camille Cut has gone from about 3/4 of a mile wide to about 2 1/2 to 3 miles wide.

Visitors to West Ship Island are encouraged to pack whatever they need, including small ice chests, keeping in mind that storage on the ferries is limited. Visitors must also take back whatever they bring, including trash.

Restroom facilities, basic concessions and shade will be available on the ferry boats. Umbrellas and beach chairs will also be available for rent, Skrmetta said.

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No glass is allowed on the island, a regulation that is strictly enforced.

“Make sure visitors are prepared with sun screen, hats and sun glasses,” said Faye Walmsley, a Gulf Islands National Seashore Mississippi District interpreter and supervisory park ranger. “And watch where you place your feet. I’d suggest folks wear shoes on the beach, because we don’t know how much glass and sharp objects are there.”

Aside from stunning natural beauty, the island is steeped in history. Fort Massachusetts was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers between 1859-1866. Both Confederate and Union soldiers once were buried on the island, which is now inhabited solely by a healthy population of alligators, birds – though fewer of late, due to a lack of rainfall – and numerous other types of flora and fauna.

The island was named by 17th century French explorers, who anchored their large sailing vessels there – hence the name Ship Island or Isle de Bateaux – using it as a base of operations while exploring the area in smaller boats.