Petit Bois Island Wilderness

An island extends into the distance on the right. The island begins with a sand beach, then dunes, then a pine forest.
Petit Bois Island

NPS Photo

Petit Bois Island Yesterday

Before the 1600s, American Indians called a very different looking Petit Bois home. Petit Bois Island is the quickest changing island in Gulf Islands National Seashore. Once connected to Dauphin Island, Petit Bois Island is shifting westward. When Europeans discovered the island in the 1600s, they named it Massacre Island. They found human remains mysteriously piled at the southwestern end of the island. The name did not stick and today we call the island “petit bois,” meaning “little woods,” in French.

Petit Bois Island Today

In 1978 Gulf Islands Wilderness designated the wilderness character of Petit Bois and Horn islands. This affords the islands the highest level of federal protection for public lands under the Wilderness Act of 1964. The designation preserves the tangible and intangible qualities of a wilderness area. These protections allow for the plants and animals to thrive undisturbed on Petit Bois.

Birds, alligators, raccoons, frogs, snakes, and turtles all make their home on Petit Bois Island. Ponds, lagoons, and marshes decorate the island. Seagrass beds in its shallow waters provide shelter for juvenile fish. The island lives up to its name, “little woods,” with a small forest of slash pine providing shade. With a lack of wilderness on the mainland, Horn Island is a popular destination for people looking for solitude. Today, people boat to the island for fishing, camping, birding, or to sit on the shore of an undisturbed beach.

Petit Bois Island Tomorrow

The six mile stretch of wilderness that is Petit Bois Island is under threat. Petit Bois Island faces many of the same threats as other islands in the Gulf of Mexico. The 2,300-mile reach of the Mississippi River carries with it garbage and excess nutrients from fertilizer into the Gulf. This waste makes its way to the shores of Petit Bois and degrades the pristine environment. You can help protect these natural wonders by recycling and avoiding single-use plastic.

Petit Bois Island also has the unique threat of rapid erosion. The Mississippi barrier islands are moving east to west at a rate of almost 200 feet per year. In 1950, Petit Bois Island reached the Pascagoula shipping channel. Over two miles of the island have “disappeared” into the shipping channel, with no sign of slowing down. Barrier islands are dynamic by nature. Being so close to the shipping channel exasperates these changes. In a few hundred years, Petit Bois Island will be gone.

Yet, as Petit Bois Island is shrinking, a new island is forming. The Corp of Engineers dredge the Petit Bois Island sand from the shipping channel. This dredged sand is creating a new island, called West Petit Bois Island. As West Petit Bois Island continues to grow, plant and animal life will find its way to the island. This life will create a new wilderness. The impermanence and ever-changing environments of barrier islands are what make them so unique. You never visit the same barrier island twice.


Last updated: April 13, 2020

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