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Big nest, huge crowd

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

The first sea turtle nest to hatch on Waccamaw Neck this year is the largest volunteers have seen on Pawleys Island in the 16 years they’ve been monitoring nesting activity.

Located on the island’s north end, near the Pearce Street beach access, it hatched Friday night and contained 171 eggs. The only nest recorded in Georgetown or Horry counties that had more eggs was at DeBordieu about five years ago. It had 194 eggs, said Jeff McClary, founder and head of S.C. United Turtle Enthusiasts, a volunteer group dedicated to protecting sea turtles and reporting information on nesting activity to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

“They called her Myrtle the fertile turtle,” he said.

Nests usually have between 100 and 130 eggs, although McClary said he’s seen nests with as few as 35.

The biggest nests are usually laid at the beginning of nesting season, because turtles have been “holding” eggs for a while, according to volunteers.

The Pawleys nest was laid on May 13 about 300 yards from the Pawleys Pier and relocated to a safer spot by volunteers.

“That’s really before nesting season even starts,” said Mary Schneider, a volunteer coordinator with SCUTE. “This is the earliest one we’ve had in a long time.”

Nesting season officially begins on May 15, though it’s usually a week or two after that when nests start showing up on beaches this far north. It was May 21 before the area’s second nest of the season was laid at Hobcaw Barony, so there will be a short wait until the next hatching. But after that, Schneider said, nests should start hatching one right after another.

Sea turtle nests incubate for about 60 days before hatchlings emerge and head for the ocean. To get there, they have to get past predators and man-made hurdles, such as tents and holes left on the beach — quite a feat, even at high tide, for a reptile about two inches long.

Three days after the hatching, SCUTE volunteers conduct a nest inventory, digging into the nest to record data on how many of the eggs hatched and whether any baby turtles remain. Any stragglers are assisted down the beach, where they make their way into the surf, generally greeted by much fanfare from beach-goers who gather to watch the proceedings.

Last week’s nest was a record breaker not only because of its size, but also because of the size of the crowd it attracted. More than 400 people are estimated to have gathered to watch the inventory.

Volunteers said it was the largest crowd an inventory has ever drawn.

“We’re always glad to have a good crowd,” Schneider said, “because we use these events to educate people about sea turtles and what they can do to help them — things like picking up their trash, taking in chairs and tents from the beach and filling in holes in the sand,” she said.

If hatchlings are trapped by holes or debris on the beach, they’re likely to die of dehydration by the time they’re discovered the following morning.

“When people see these little hatchlings and what they go through, they are going to be more respectful and helpful,” Schneider said.

Those who went to the inventory Monday got to see seven hatchlings who were lingering in the nest. Volunteers removed the hatchlings and gave spectators a chance to look at them and take pictures before the critters were released into the ocean.

Among the spectators were Kathy Taylor of Georgetown and her daughter, Nikki, 16. It was their first inventory, though Kathy has lived in the area for 30 years. Both expected the babies to be smaller.

“They were really cute,” said Abby Miss, 5, of Belmont, N.C., as she showed off pictures she took of the hatchlings. She watched the inventory with her family, and said she learned a lot from the program.

Sudie Pasco of Richmond, Va., said she was as amazed by the crowd as by the turtles. It was amazing to see so many people gathered in support of the hatchlings, she said.

Pasco heard about the inventory from an area resident and brought her two sons, ages 5 and 8, to watch.

Walking up the beach to the nest site, they stopped to talk to folks along the way and everyone they met took time to share what they knew about sea turtles and their nests.

Sea turtles nest from May through October. The hatchlings that beat the odds and reach the ocean embark on a 60-mile journey to the Gulf Stream.

They stop in the Sargasso Sea, where they use a floating mass of seaweed to feed, rest and hide from predators. From there, the turtles catch a current, called a gyre, that sweeps them toward Portugal and on to the Canary Islands and Cape Verde.

Male sea turtles never return to land, but when female turtles hit maturity, somewhere between age 20 and 30, they mate at sea and return to the beach where they hatched to lay their eggs.

In addition to being a danger to hatchings, items left on the beach can be a deterrent to adult turtles looking for a place to nest.

A county ordinance passed last year declares property left unattended on the beach after sunset to be abandoned and gives the county the right to remove it.

To find out when nest inventories are scheduled, check SCUTE’s Facebook page or at Pawleys Island Town Hall.

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