Twelve miles off the Mississippi Gulf Coast and accessible only by private boat or ferry, Ship Island was a tourist destination for years. And then, in 1969, Hurricane Camille hit. She split the island in half, creating West Ship Island and East Ship Island. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina did even more damage.
Thanks to an Army Corps of Engineers project, the two halves were reconnected in 2019, making the entire island available again via a single ferry ride.
Spend the day exploring Ship Island—or sunbathe all day. The choice is yours. Either way, a Ship Island visit is a highlight on a Gulf Coast itinerary.
What is Ship island?
Part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Ship Island serves as a buffer to the mainland, both in terms of nature and national security. In fact, the remains of Fort Massachusetts still stand on Ship Island, and sea turtles and shore birds build nests on Ship island as well as on other, less-accessible-to-humans islands along the national seashore.
Planning Your Ship Island Trip
Private boats can dock at the island, but most visitors take the Ship Island Ferry from Gulfport Yacht Harbor in Gulfport’s Jones Park.
Pack what you’ll need for the day. Be sure to include sunscreen and a hat, since there is little shade. If you tend to get seasick, take what you need to keep that in check. I packed my Sea-Bank Nausea Relief wristbands and Dramamine Non Drowsy (the kind made with ginger), and used together, I never felt a bit of seasickness.
Since we planned to walk a lot, we packed just the essentials, including sandwiches, water, and light snacks into our backpack cooler.
There’s a refreshment stand on Ship Island, which offers hot dogs, burgers, and such, if you’d rather not carry food with you.
Ferry to Ship Island
The ferry ride from Gulfport to Ship Island takes about an hour. Along the way, watch for dolphin, which are abundant in that area of the Gulf. We saw a few, although not nearly as many as we did when we took a ferry to Channel Islands National Park in California a few years ago.
What to Do on Ship Island
Tour Fort Massachusetts
Park rangers begin the tour with a short history lesson on the fort.
Fort construction began in 1857, but remained incomplete at the start of the Civil War.
There was only one battle involving the fort. Union troops on the USS Massachusetts fired cannons at the fort, and Confederate troops at the fort fired back. Neither did much damage. The USS Massachusetts withdrew, with the battle indecisive.
The Confederacy later abandoned the fort and the Union took possession, naming the fort after the ship from that lone battle. They used the fort as a staging area to capture New Orleans.
Fort Massachusetts was no longer used after the Civil War, and in 1903 the Ship Island lighthouse keeper became the fort’s caretaker.
Following the history lesson, rangers lead you through the fort as they explain the construction and various stations.
Most of the fort’s cannons were dismantled long ago and sold for scrap. However, there is one 15-inch Rodman cannon left. The cannon weighs 50,000 pounds and was built to fire 450-pound cannonballs. To mount the cannon, it had to be raised up over the fort wall. The year? 1873. Can you imagine how they managed to do that? That was way before heavy equipment was around.
Enjoy the Beach
If sitting on the beach reading a book is your thing, you can rent a beach chair and umbrella.
If you’re a swimmer, follow the rangers’ instructions on where to swim and not to swim. On our visit, we were warned of strong riptides on part of the island. The park provides lifeguard duty seasonally, in specific beach areas.
We’re beach walkers and enjoy the lap of water on our ankles as we walk along the shore. We walked around half the island, collecting interesting seashells along the way, and made it back to the ferry just in time to return to Gulfport.
If You Go…
- The ferry schedule varies, depending on the season and day of the week. Check the schedule here.
- Save money and ensure a seat on the very by purchasing tickets online.
- Large items and glass aren’t allowed on the ferry. Check here for a list of what’s allowed and not allowed.
- On the island, you’re allowed to collect seashells but not driftwood or other materials.
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