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Advice To Hatchlings

By Mary Pringle for The Island Eye News

Loggerheads by the hundreds will hatch from Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms this turtle season. 
(Photo by Barbara Bergwerf)

Once again we feel that it is time to give advice about survival to the hundreds of loggerhead hatchlings who are now coming out of nests on Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms. Even though instinct has been telling them what to do for over 100 million years, on our developed beaches with artificial lights things are not always suited to what the voice of instinct is teaching them. 

Here is what the Turtle Team would like them to know: 

Survival in the nest 

• Use the sharp-pointed “egg tooth” on the tip of your beak to cut out of your leathery shell. You’ll know it’s time when your egg has been in the warm sand for 45-60 days. There is just enough air underground to breathe. If it was above 85 degrees during the middle two weeks of your incubation, you are likely to be a girl. If it was below this, then you could be a boy since the temperature determines your sex. But there could be both in your nest depending on the position of your egg in your clutch of over 100. 

• After hatching, wait about three days until your little hard shell has straightened out and the yolk sac attached to your belly has been absorbed and disappears. If you come out too soon, you probably will not be strong and vigorous enough to make it through the difficult migration ahead. 

• No sibling rivalry now! Remember to cooperate with all of your nest mates for the good of all. As you and your brothers or sisters come out of your eggs and become more active, it will stimulate you all to move and to start digging upward toward the surface of the sand, so don’t get mad at them for jostling you. All of you should dig upward and then rest repeatedly in cycles because you might have several feet to dig and it will take several days. 

• Once you arrive just below the surface, wait until the temperature cools down. You really don’t want to come out in the hot sun where dehydration, heat exhaustion, stinging ants, birds and other predators await. Sometimes you can be fooled by an afternoon thunderstorm, but nighttime is the safest time to make a break for the ocean. 

What to do when you come out of the nest 

• Travel to the water in a large group and spread out on the beach. Ghost crabs will be waiting to try to drag you away and down their holes. There is safety in numbers. Move quickly and steadily as possible as if you were an Energizer Bunny. There are also fish waiting in the water to eat you. 

• Go downhill and follow the slope of the beach toward the ocean. Look around and head toward the brightest light or lightest horizon you see. For millions of years that was good advice before people built houses and cities. However, that’s not always the case now because of beach houses, street lights and the glow of lights in the sky over Mt. Pleasant, Charleston and North Charleston. The best thing to do is look for the moon and follow it. Don’t be fooled by the lighthouse on Sullivan’s. I knowyou may want to go there. 

• If you are lucky enough to make it to the ocean, swim against the wave action at first. When you pass the breakers, you might be able to use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate the latitudes as is done by migrating birds. Scientists have found magnetic crystals in sea turtle brains that might help you find your way. 

• Swim offshore and look for the floating beds of sargassum weed in the Gulf Stream. Here you can take shelter, rest, hide from predators and find your first meal. For the first few days of your life you don’t need to eat because you still have enough yolk from your egg in your body to give the energy for this first swimming frenzy – what a great thing.

 • Float in the sargassum in the circular current across the Atlantic Ocean as you begin to grow. Avoid small plastics which are also floating there. Your journey will be a solitary one, but you might be in the presence of other small loggerheads from South Carolina who have been found and identified by scientists sampling DNA off the coast of Africa and near the Azores. 

• If you make it to 12-15 years of age, you will be approaching 100 lbs and not so vulnerable to predators who want to eat you. Then you can return to the South Carolina coast as a juvenile. Here you will hang out and forage not only offshore but also in bays, sounds, creeks and even marinas. Watch out for boats whose propellers can chop you up. 

• You need to be 25 or 30 years old to be considered a mature adult. If you are a male, you will never need to come onshore. If you are a female, you may be able to leave your tracks here for the Turtle Team volunteers to find when you lay your eggs and complete the life cycle. 

NESTING UPDATE: As of Aug. 18, 16 of the 36 nests laid on the Isle of Palms and six of the 13 nests on Sullivan’s Island had hatched. With eggs in all but eight nests counted because they were not relocated, there had so far been 4,614 eggs on our two islands. Average clutch size was at 115 eggs on Isle of Palms and 100 on Sullivan’s Island. Combined hatch percentage was a very good 84%.

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