By Mary Pringle for The Island Eye News
When a female loggerhead sea turtle is ready to lay her eggs, she follows a very set group of instinctive behaviors. She looks from the surf to make sure there are no lights on the beach before crawling ashore. This is a very stressful undertaking and requires a great deal of energy since she weighs hundreds of pounds and has a body made for swimming, not walking. She crawls out of the ocean and tries to find a place on the beach that is at least somewhat elevated from the tide. She uses her large rear flippers alternately to excavate an egg chamber approximately two feet deep and shaped like an inverted light bulb with a narrow neck and rounded bottom section in which to drop around 100 eggs.
After covering them up, she disguises the spot, and throws sand around before returning to the ocean.
On Sunday July 22, Turtle Team volunteer Elizabeth Crider was doing her dawn patrol between Breach Inlet and 9th Ave. when she came upon a very strange sight. A loggerhead had left 70 eggs on the surface of the beach at the high tide line right at the 5th Ave. vehicular access path.
At first Elizabeth thought that someone had scattered ping pong balls around as a prank.
But there were very noticeable wide turtle tracks leading to the spot and then going back into the ocean. A sea turtle will always bury the eggs at least a foot under the sand, so seeing eggs means that something is not normal.
In past years we have had turtles with flipper injuries due to shark attacks, who were incapable of digging an egg chamber that is deep enough for all of her eggs. In these cases, we might find several eggs on the surface, usually broken by the mother as she covers the nest. But these eggs were strewn all over the area.
Her tracks indicated that her front and rear flippers seemed to be intact with the single claw mark on all four of her limbs. And she had dug a very deep egg chamber where there were 16 more eggs underground where we would expect them all to be. She had only broken four of the 70 exposed eggs when she crawled back to the water.
The mystery is why she did not put all of her eggs safely underground. To save the eggs and get the nest to a safe place, we put the 66 unbroken eggs and the 16 buried ones into a bucket and relocated them to a safe dune away from the truck path and above the tide line to insure their successful incubation. We were able to use some of the broken ones for our genetics research project.
Because of the work of groups such as ours who are permitted to find and protect sea turtle nests, we are told that hatch rates have gone from about 10% to as much as 80% along the South Carolina coast. We have relocated 58% of our nests since the first one was laid on May 19th. Our early nests have begun to hatch and the four that have been inventoried as of July 24 have shown a 97%, 97.8%, 92.7 and 92.7% hatch success. This may go down some as the season progresses, but we are hoping for another good year.
Mary Pringle has been the Project Leader for the Isle of Palms/Sullivan’s Island Turtle Team since 2000. It is one of about thirty nest protection projects under the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. She is also on the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network.