By Erin Weeks for The Island Eye News
Department of Natural Resources biologists reported the start of the turtle nesting season with a nest laid the night of April 30 on Lighthouse Island. Located within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, the site of South Carolina’s densest sea turtle nesting area, the loggerhead nest was discovered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife sea turtle technician Billy Shaw.
South Carolina’s official sea turtle nesting season runs from May 1 to Oct. 31 each year. Nesting in South Carolina typically starts soon after Georgia’s first nesting report, which occurred April 25.
“Staff and volunteers are very excited to celebrate the official opening of sea turtle season,” said Michelle Pate, SCDNR sea turtle biologist. “This year has been an especially difficult one for all of us globally, and we welcome the seasonal return of these ancient creatures back to South Carolina’s nesting beaches.”
Pate added that she expects a productive season, though not reaching the level of nesting seen in 2019. Last year in the Palmetto State, sea turtles laid the greatest number of nests ever recorded in a season. Volunteers and
biologists counted 8,802 of them in South Carolina, a 37% increase over the previous record set in 2016.
Last season followed an unusually low year in 2018, in which only 2,767 nests were counted. Because nesting exacts a high energy toll on the large reptiles, female sea turtles do not come ashore to lay eggs every year. This pattern results in nesting fluctuations from year to year, but, as a whole, sea turtle nest numbers across the Southeast have trended up over the past decade.
The ongoing COVID-19 global health crisis is expected to reshape sea turtle nest protection efforts this year. Typically, more than 1,300 volunteers from 30 different nest protection programs spend the summer months patrolling South Carolina’s beaches each morning for crawls, the telltale tracks left by a female sea turtle as it trundles ashore. Volunteers and biologists meticulously identify, count and protect these nests throughout the season until they hatch, after which time nests are inventoried to collect additional data. Due to current guidelines meant to safeguard employee and community safety, the volunteer network has been restricted until beaches across the state fully reopen and state employees are permitted to return to the field.
Four sea turtle species nest on South Carolina beaches: loggerheads, greens, Kemp’s ridleys and leatherbacks. Loggerhead nests comprise the vast majority of the state’s total number each year, but 2019 saw 20 green sea turtle nests and one Kemp’s ridley nest – only the fourth in the state’s history.
All four sea turtle species are classified as endangered or threatened and are protected under the Endangered Species Act, in addition to local and state ordinances.
Sea turtle clutches average 120 eggs and hatch after approximately 60 days. Nesting females may remain in South Carolina waters and continue to nest every two weeks, laying up to six nests per season. Throughout this stressful time, the turtles abstain from eating.
South Carolina beach-goers can help the state’s sea turtles by keeping beaches clean, turning beachfront lights out to avoid disorienting turtles and giving all sea turtles and nests a wide and respectful berth when encountered on the beach.