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Hurricane Irene: Erosion takes toll on sea turtle nests

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Volunteers who monitor local sea turtle nesting activity are still waiting to find out how many nests were destroyed by Hurricane Irene last weekend.

Some nests were washed away with sand from the dunes and others were damaged by overwash from the storm, but they won’t know for some time what the exact tally is.

Estimates are that more than 20 nests were lost to the storm, but some may prove to still be all right, said Jeff McClary, co-founder and head of S.C. United Turtle Enthusiasts.

“What we’ll do is look in areas where we know nests were laid and look for an emergence,” he said.

For nests that were overwashed, eggs that hadn’t hatched should be fine. However, hatchlings that had emerged from their eggs but hadn’t broken free of the nest might have been drowned.

“All we can do, basically, is wait to see how bad they were overwashed and whether the groundwater came up and drowned the eggs, but we won’t know until it hatches or 75 days have passed,” McClary said.

Some beaches were significantly eroded by the storm, while sand accreted on others. Walking the beach near Midway Inlet after the storm, McClary said he found materials that had been used to mark a nest from Litchfield by the Sea and a cage that had been carried all the way from Huntington Beach State Park.

Betsy Brabson, volunteer coordinator for DeBordieu and Hobcaw beaches, reports eight nests were washed away and three are missing.

All the nests on Pawleys Island were washed over, but only two were lost, McClary said. Similarly, all nests at Litchfield by the Sea and Litchfield Beach were washed over. One nest at Litchfield by the Sea and eight at Litchfield Beach were lost.

At North Litchfield, all the nests are intact, but two were adversely affected by high tides and many hatchlings were drowned in those nests, McClary said.

Of 10 nests remaining at Huntington Beach, half were lost.

“It’s not as bad as it could have been,” McClary said. “I’ve seen years where turtle season comes to an abrupt halt. You get a hurricane and it’s over.”

He’s been monitoring sea turtle activity for more than 20 years. He and Chris Marlow, who died 11 years ago, started SCUTE in 1989.

In all SCUTE’s years of monitoring, this year saw record nest numbers, with 204 nests recorded in Georgetown and Horry counties.

The previous record was 148.

Before Irene arrived, 130 nests had already hatched and been inventoried, “so it wasn’t an overwhelming hit to us,” McClary said.

Even if all the remaining nests had been destroyed by the storm, 2011 numbers still would have topped last year, when 77 nests were recorded.

“And we’ve still got a lot of nests out there,” McClary said.

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