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Turtle Season Starts With A Bang

By Mary Pringle for Island Eye News

On Saturday morning, April 29, Captain Chris Wilson of Finaddict/Light Tackle Charters spotted a leatherback turtle entangled in a crab trap rope in Cove Inlet near the Sullivan’s Island boat landing. He reported it to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources hotline in Columbia (1.800.922.5431) and got close enough to the struggling turtle to cut the heavy crab trap away from the rope but was unable to remove the rope which was wrapped three times around the huge right front flipper.

When I got the call from Columbia, I called Chief Anthony Stith of the Sullivan’s Island Fire and Rescue Squad. He immediately dispatched a boat from the landing. These firemen rescuers were able to get close enough to the exhausted leatherback who remained docile long enough for them to gently untangle the rope and large float that was still attached.

They could see that there were no apparent injuries. Over time this can cause lacerations and cut off of blood circulation causing the loss of a flipper in sea turtles. It appeared to be a very recent entanglement and the turtle swam away in the direction of the harbor. Thanks to Chief Stith and the quick response of his department, this was a very happy ending. They are always quick to respond when help is needed whether it is a stranded turtle or marine mammal, dead or alive, or an injured pelican or other shorebird.

Leatherbacks are the largest species of sea turtles and range worldwide. They can exceed nine feet in length and weigh as much as 2,000 lbs.

Unlike other sea turtles they have a smooth black rubbery skin with seven narrow bony longitudinal ridges the length of the carapace or back. They feed almost exclusively on jellyfish and are now making their annual northward migration along the Atlantic coast feeding on the cannonball jellies that we are seeing on the beach. Of the 59 turtle strandings reported in SC so far, we have documented seven of them on our two islands, including five leatherbacks of which four appeared to have been killed by ships and other watercraft offshore.

First Loggerhead Nest North of Florida is on Isle of Palms:

The next morning after the leatherback rescue Bill Schupp of the Isle of Palms called to report loggerhead tracks near 56 Avenue. The Turtle Team does not begin morning patrol until the first nest is laid in SC – usually in Hilton Head or Kiawah or maybe at Cape Romain. So Bill’s report caused us not to miss the first nest laid not only in South Carolina but also in North Carolina and Georgia. This is the earliest nest we’ve ever had and we were not expecting an April start to the season.

We found the eggs and decided to leave the nest where it was on the primary dune. Since Hurricane Matthew so many of the best dunes have been lost to erosion that the female turtles may have more trouble this season finding suitable nesting places. This means that we will probably again be relocating nests to safer places for incubation which lasts about two months.

Last season was the most successful ever with 6,444 loggerhead nests recorded in our state. This upward trend is encouraging and could possibly indicate that the downward trend in loggerhead population is responding to several decades or nest protection and conservation efforts.

Sea Turtle Nesting Season Reminders from SCDNR:

Keep Lights Out! on beachfront property during nesting season.

Refrain from using flash photography on the beach at night.

Keep our beaches and ocean clean. Trash items such as plastic bags and balloons can cause injury or death when sea turtles mistake them for jellyfish, a favorite food.

Respect sea turtles by observing them from a distance on the beach.

Report dead or injured sea turtles and nest disturbances to SCDNR at 1.800.922.5431.

Mary Pringle is a resident of the Isle of Palms and grew up in downtown Charleston. She has been on the Turtle Team since 1998 and is now Project Leader for Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Pringle is also a medical clinic volunteer for the Center for Birds of Prey where about 400 raptors and 200 shorebirds and nonraptors are treated annually.

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