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Hurricanes And Sea Turtles

By Mary Pringle for The Island Eye News

A nest on the brink during Irene. (Photo by Barb Bergwerf).

Now that we are approaching the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, those of us who protect loggerhead nests not only begin to worry about our houses but also the fate of nests that are still in the dunes.

Nesting habitat destroyed by Hurricane Matthew. (Photo by Mary Pringle)

The good news is that sea turtles have survived for over 100 million years through all kinds of climate change and even the cataclysmic event that may have caused the extinction on dinosaurs. Turtles can survive easily in the deep ocean, but it can be another story for their eggs.

Eggs exposed at 7th Avenue by Hurricane Irene. (Photo by Barb Bergwerf).

For this reason our nest protection efforts include a careful relocating of over half of the nests laid on the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island. Before groups like ours did this, the hatch rate was around 10% but our average this season is now at 83%. When embryos in eggs or underground hatchlings are deprived of oxygen for more than a short time, it causes their death. Severe storm surges have even washed away entire dunes in the past, taking all of the eggs and the nest sign with them.

A nest being flooded by storm tide at Station 20 on Sullivan’s Island. (Photo by Carol Killough.)

When a storm approaches we make sure to have accurate GPS readings on all nests and even add extra marking sticks in the sand behind them. Our Nesting Guidelines from the SC Department of Natural Resources prohibit us from doing anymore than this. No one is to risk his or her safety during a storm trying to protect a nest. We are not allowed to dig into a nest to encourage hatchlings to come out early. No nests can be moved from the beach for protection against storms. When a storm is approaching, the nest inventory to gather data cannot be conducted on hatched nests less than 3 days after a natural “boil” or emergence of turtles from the nest – no exceptions.

All these rules may seem harsh. However, consider that all sea turtles spread their nesting attempts temporally and spatially. In other words she lays her eggs four to six times throughout the summer at two week intervals and she also lays them in different places. So if you consider that she probably has already had five successful nests earlier in the summer, then losing one in September to a hurricane is not really such a catastrophe.

She also may lay some eggs high up on some dunes and some not so high. In these six nests there will be over 700 eggs, so losing about 100 of them does not mean her efforts were in vain.

At the time of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 there was no nest protection on either of our two islands. So we have no records of what effect that storm had. On Aug. 23 of 2011 Hurricane Irene side swiped our coast without damaging our houses, but it did destroy fourteen nests still on the beach.

Even though Hurricane Matthew did not come until October last year when all of our hatchlings were safely gone, it did much to damage the dunes all along our beaches greatly affecting the nesting habitat. We are hoping that the upcoming renourishment project in Wild Dunes will restore the beach and that the dunes that were bulldozed at the south end of the Isle of Palms will become more compacted to make nesting easier for the turtles and finding the eggs easier for us.

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