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Sea turtles: Nesting numbers set record, but crowds pose a new risk

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

With about three weeks left in sea turtle nesting season, 2011 is already a record year.

As of Wednesday morning, S.C. United Turtle Enthusiasts, a volunteer group that monitors sea turtle nesting, had recorded 173 nests in Georgetown and Horry counties. The previous record of 148 was set about 15 years ago.

The numbers are great news considering that six of the seven marine turtles species are listed as endangered or critically endangered, but with more nests, comes more attention.

“Everybody loves turtles and they want to see them while they’re here,” said Jeff McClary, who heads SCUTE. He understands that, but “it’s a case where they’re loving them to death.”

Nests have just started hatching, but lately turtles have emerged from their nests at night only to find themselves literally in the spotlight, and that’s a big problem, McClary said.

People are staking out nests, waiting with flashlights and cameras, and don’t hesitate to use both if they manage to catch a hatching. McClary calls it “nest sitting” and says it creates more danger for creatures that already face great odds. Of every 1,000 eggs that hatch, only one sea turtle will survive to adulthood, according to turtle experts.

In addition to predators such as ghost crabs, and hazards that include holes dug by beachgoers, hatchlings now have to contend with the threat of being stepped on by people milling around a nest. That’s a vacation memory no one wants to go home with, but hatchlings are only a couple of inches long and scatter after they leave the nest, so it could easily happen, McClary said.

Also, artificial light disorients hatchlings trying to make it from the dunes to the ocean. If they go off course, they die. State and local law prohibits building lights from shining on the beach during nesting season.

SCUTE has recently received an influx of inquiries from people who want to know when nests are expected to hatch. Exact hatch dates can’t be predicted anyway, but SCUTE has opted not to offer any help to people hoping to add a hatch to their schedule.

“There are too many people trying to use these turtles for their own entertainment,” McClary said. “We don’t encourage nest sitting. It goes against our mission of protecting turtles.”

If people want to see turtles, the time for that is during nest inventories, according to SCUTE volunteers. Several days after a hatch, volunteers dig into the nest to record information for the state Department of Natural Resources, including how many eggs were in the nest and how many hatched.

The public is always welcome at inventories and volunteers are on hand to talk about sea turtles, nesting and what happens after hatchlings reach the ocean. Egg shells are shown to the crowd and if, as is often the case, a hatchling or two remains in the nest, people can get a close look at those too before cheering them on as they cross the beach to the surf.

Two nest inventories are scheduled tonight (July 21) at North Litchfield. An inventory at Walkway 52 (formerly Walkway 8) will start at 6 p.m.

An inventory at Walkway 46 (formerly Walkway 2) will follow.

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