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Gail Bishop, Associated Press
Passenger ferry takes tourists to West Ship Island at Gulf Islands National Seashore, Miss., about 12 miles from Gulfport.

GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE, Miss. — It's like something out of a movie: A boat filled with tourists — drinking and happy, delighting in the exploits of the passing dolphins — washes up to a rugged island whose exotic name conjures the mystique surrounding this place.

This is West Ship Island, the most touristy of the barrier islands in this part of the Gulf.

For those seeking an upscale getaway, this isn't it. There's a fishing pier and white sand beach, but the island, with its rugged, brown-washed interior, beckons a hardier traveler, one who doesn't mind using the bathroom in a travel trailer. Who can see past the debris that's washed ashore with the shells to take in the austere beauty and watch out for birds and other wildlife. Who digs history with his 'rays and wants to see, firsthand, the erosion of an island that acts as a first line of defense from hurricanes for the mainland.

"The island has changed nonstop, every day," says Frank Bordeaux, a crew member for Ship Island Excursions, the National Park Service concessionaire that takes the mainly regional visitors the roughly 12 miles out from Gulfport. "It's exciting, because you get to point that out to people."

One of the constants, at least of the past 142 years, has been Fort Massachusetts, the brick relic raised in response to fears the island would be used by U.S. enemies. The fort, part of a coastal defense system, went up after the British amassed on what was then known as Ship Island before the Battle of New Orleans. The only action it saw came during the Civil War, when Southerners who'd claimed the site exchanged longshot cannon fire with offshore Union troops.

A portion of the island served for a time as a POW camp for captured Confederates, political dissidents and Union soldiers who had not obeyed orders.

A map of the area, from the years immediately following the Civil War, shows a smattering of buildings and an ample buffer of land around the fort. Today, the buildings are long gone, and water laps up against the still-intact, roughly 30-foot high fort.

West Ship Island is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, which is managed by the National Park Service and in Mississippi and Florida. Faye Walmsley, the park's Mississippi district interpreter, says her agency is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to try to develop a plan to shore up the beach in hopes of better preserving the fort. The park service said salty air and slapping waves have begun eroding the mortar though the elements haven't "significantly" undermined the fort so far.

"We know that's a concern, and we're working on that issue," she said.

Storms and erosion are a fact of life on the island; in 1969, Hurricane Camille split the island in two — East and West.

But Hurricane Katrina, which devastated parts of the Gulf Coast in August 2005, took an immense toll on West Ship Island, swamping the island in a storm surge of approximately 35 feet and washing away virtually every structure — bathrooms, exhibits, a replica lighthouse.

As much as 18 percent of the island, mostly its tips, were lost in Katrina, ranger Don Holifield said. It's now about 3 miles long, he said, and the gulf between it and the more wild East Ship Island — seen as a line of dead tree stands from West — has widened to more than one mile.

There is a days-gone-by eeriness, particularly as one wanders farther from the main, umbrella-dotted beach, just off the boardwalk that passes the restrooms, outdoor showers, the picnic stand and the snack trailer.

The landscape calls to mind a mix of prairie and swamp — a ranger says an alligator or two may be hanging around the interior marshes — and the open air staves off the fish-farm smell that hangs heavy over some inland beaches. Sunbathers each have their own patch of sand; hikers gain solitude along the sandy rim, where black sand often mingles with white; and families frolic in the waves as gulls glide on the wind. Before the storm, West Ship Island averaged about 64,000 visitors via Ship Island Excursions, the most popular way to get there, she said. Since the storm, visitation, which fell off sharply, has rebounded, reaching about 32,000 passengers on the concessionaire's boats last year.

"It's encouraging that people are returning," said Louis Skrmetta, whose family runs the boat service and caps the number of people it takes out to the island to help preserve the more natural, quiet ambiance.

"What you have here is a true National Park experience, for someone not interested in commercialization," he said, adding: "It's something you never forget."

• SHIP ISLAND EXCURSIONS: While West Ship Island is accessible to private boaters, this National Park Service concessionaire is the most popular way to visit the island. Boats leave Gulfport, Miss., Wednesday through Sunday through May 16, and daily after that through Aug. 17. The Wednesday through Sunday schedule resumes through Oct. 26. For information, www.msshipisland.com or 866-466-7386. Tickets $22 round-trip; children, 3-10, $12; seniors, $20.