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Sea turtles: Volunteers not troubled by fewer nests

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

So far, 2009 hasn’t been an impressive year for sea turtle activity in South Carolina.

Volunteers with S.C. United Turtle Enthusiasts, a group dedicated to sea turtle conservation in Georgetown and Horry counties, recorded 60 nests as of Tuesday. This time last year, the group had recorded more than twice that number.

But it’s nothing to be worried about, said Jeff McClary, one of the group’s founders.

“Turtles nest on two- and three-year cycles, so it goes up one year and down the next,” he explained. “Our average is about 100, but we won’t see that this year. We’ll be lucky to hit 70.”

The lowest number on record is 43. That was four years ago.

“At least we aren’t down that low again,” McClary said. “If we hadn’t gotten past 43, then I’d be upset.”

The decline in nests is being seen all along the S.C. coast, McClary said. And it’s not really a surprise, he added, as last year was a banner year for nesting activity. He expects the numbers will go back up next year, though they may not be as high as the 138 nests in 2008.

Having smaller numbers every once in awhile can actually be a good thing, according to McClary.

“There is such a thing as turtle burnout, and if there are a whole bunch of nests, the season has a tendency to run long and wear you out,” he said.

In addition to looking for turtle activity and relocating nests in unsafe areas, SCUTE volunteers inventory newly hatched nests to collect data for the state Department of Natural Resources. Combined, those tasks can be draining for volunteers during busy years. Slow years gives them a chance to recuperate.

June and July are the peak nesting months, so McClary said he only expects a few more nests this season.

Since nesting season began in May, Hobcaw and DeBordieu beaches have seen the most activity, as usual. They normally receive about half of SCUTE’s nests.

DeBordieu has had 17 nests this year and Hobcaw has had 16.

Eight nests have been reported on Pawleys Island, three on South Litchfield, five in front of Litchfield By The Sea and five at Huntington Beach State Park.

North Litchfield had its first nest Tuesday. The lack of nests there may be the result of beachgoers leaving items on the beach over night, according to McClary.

Two weeks ago, he said, a walker in North Litchfield reported seeing 33 beach cabanas between walkways 1 and 8 at 6:30 a.m.

That’s a problem for sea turtles, because if they bump into objects on the beach or are frightened by shadows cast by the objects, they may head back into the ocean without nesting. After enough aborted attempts to nest, the turtle will drop her eggs in the ocean, where they won’t hatch.

The cabana problem is one SCUTE plans to devote more attention to next year, McClary said. He said he knows it’s “a pain in the rear” to have to take cabanas down in the evenings only to put them back up again in the morning, but volunteers will be making a bigger effort to explain why it’s so important for people to do so.

Volunteers leave tags on items left on the beach, asking folks to take the items down and “appealing to their environmental consciousness,” but McClary said a lot of people ignore them.

The incubation period for sea turtle nests is about 60 days, so nests will be hatching through October.

For those who’d like to attend a nest inventory and keep up with the season’s nesting activity, follow SCUTE on Facebook.

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