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Sea turtles: Nest sitters still thwart volunteer monitors

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Volunteers who monitor sea turtle nesting activity are taking steps to make it harder for people to stake out nests that are nearing their hatch date.

In the past, sea turtle nests have been marked with the date on which they were laid, but that won’t be the case in the future and dates on existing nests have been removed, said Jeff McClary, co-founder and head of S.C. United Turtle Enthusiasts, a group dedicated to the protection of sea turtles.

People were using the dates to try and calculate when nests were likely to hatch so they could observe baby turtles as they emerged at night, adding to the myriad of dangers the animals already face as they try to reach the ocean.

With cameras and flashlights in hand, “nest-sitters” gather around nests nearing the end of their incubation period, waiting like celebrity-stalking paparazzi for hatchlings to break the surface. Volunteers fear the practice could lead to hatchling deaths.

“This is harassment of a species protected by the Endangered Species Act and it is against the law,” McClary said.

Penalties for violations can include hefty fines and jail time.

Volunteers are trying to handle the situation by educating people about why nest-sitting is dangerous for turtles. Hatchlings are only about 2 inches long and it would take only a single misstep for one to be crushed under a human foot.

Georgetown County has an ordinance calling for lights out on the beachfront during nesting season because artificial light can disorient hatchlings, leading them astray to be eaten by predators or to die in the heat when the sun rises. Light from camera flashes and flashlights pose the same danger, confusing hatchlings, which are guided to the ocean by the reflection of light off the water.

“It’s just too easy for bad things to happen,” said Mike Walker, an interpretive ranger at Huntington Beach State Park. He said he has heard of nest-sitters picking up hatchlings, another violation of state law, and even taking them home as souvenirs. One of his former employees works in Florida and has told him about multiple instances where boxes containing 1-year-old sea turtles have been left with her because someone took a hatchling home and eventually realized they couldn’t care for it. It’s anyone’s guess how many have died that way.

Yet with all the warnings, nest-sitters continue to gather, particularly in North Litchfield.

“I don’t think people are getting it,” McClary said. “I’m constantly getting calls from people saying, ‘My grandkids are here and we want to see a nest hatch.’ In my opinion, they’re being more selfish than anything. They’re not really in it for the turtles.”

Walker gets the same sorts of inquiries at the park, he said, and like SCUTE volunteers, he doesn’t offer up any information to help visitors pinpoint when nests might hatch. That has always been the park policy.

“I just don’t see where any good can come of nest-sitting,” he said. “It’s too dark to see anything unless you use a flashlight and that’s illegal.”

Those who want to see and learn about hatchlings in a way that doesn’t pose a danger to the animals are encouraged to attend a nest inventory. Volunteers inventory nests three days after they hatch to record information for the state Department of Natural Resources and are always happy to talk with the public about sea turtles.

If any stragglers remain in the nest, as is often the case, those gathered can get a close look.

To find out when inventories are scheduled, check the SCUTE page onFacebook.

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