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Sea turtles: Nesting season turns to hatching season

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Sea turtle nests in Georgetown and Horry counties have started hatching, which means inventories have started too.

The events — in which volunteers with S.C. United Turtle Enthusiasts dig into recently hatched nests to collect data for the state Department of Natural Resources — provide an opportunity for the public to learn more about sea turtles and efforts to protect them.

Inventories are set for three days after a hatch and are listed as they’re scheduled on the SCUTE Facebook page or, for nests at DeBordieu, at the community’s beach club.

The first hatch of the season was reported last weekend on Hobcaw Beach. The nest was laid on May 4 and volunteers had been watching it closely for signs of activity for weeks. The nest turned up 25 healthy hatchlings that were helped past roots and into the ocean. The nest had 168 eggs and a 57 percent hatch rate, which is “fairly good considering it was the earliest nest ever for SCUTE” and it experienced a number of washovers as a result of high tides.

Another nest, laid on May 9, hatched shortly after the May 4 nest. From this point, hatchings and subsequent inventories will take place regularly in the coming months.

As of Wednesday, 125 nests have been recorded in Georgetown and Horry counties by SCUTE volunteers. That already puts the area over its 100 nest average, with more nests expected. About half of those nests have been on DeBordieu and Hobcaw beaches. That area normally gets between 25 and 50 percent of nests, according to Jeff McClary, SCUTE co-founder. McClary is hoping for at least 150 nests this year. Volunteers recorded more than 200 last year, setting a new record. The lowest number of annual nests on record for SCUTE is 43.

“This is a good year,” McClary said.

However, it has been better for some beaches than others. After a late start, Pawleys Island is up to six nests and Litchfield is up to nine. Huntington Beach State Park has 11 and Litchfield by the Sea has three.

North Litchfield hasn’t even had an attempted nesting.

“That’s the only big surprise this year,” McClary said. “I can’t figure that out.”

In nearly 30 years working on sea turtle nests, he said one thing he’s learned is that nesting seasons are unpredictable.

“Last year we had four in North Litchfield before DeBordieu got their first one,” he said.

As hatching gets under way, McClary stresses that inventories are the best way to see and learn about sea turtles. There aren’t always hatchlings left in the nest when an inventory takes place, but if there are stragglers, spectators get a chance to look at them up close and watch them make their way into the ocean under the supervision of trained certified volunteers to help ensure there are no accidents.

People are discouraged from “nest sitting” — staking out a nest and waiting for it to hatch — and reminded that camera flashes and flashlights shouldn’t be used if hatchlings or a nesting adult are spotted. Sea turtles are a federally protected endangered species, so tampering with a nest or behavior that hinders nesting adults or emerging hatchlings can have serious legal consequences and environmental ones.

“I’ve done this for 29 years and I’ve seen two hatchings just because I walked up on them,” McClary said. “It’s a chance encounter kind of thing, but everybody wants to have a photo op, and you can’t have a photo op.”

There was a recent incident in Horry County where a nesting sea turtle climbed onto the dune to nest and was frightened back into the ocean by humans who spotted her and got too close.

At DeBordieu last week, a man told volunteers he was walking on the beach at around 10 p.m. when a sea turtle lumbered ashore and was rushed by five vacationers taking pictures with cellphones flashing. That turtle, too, was frightened back into the ocean without nesting.

“Sea turtles and lights don’t mix,” said Betsy Brabson, the SCUTE volunteer coordinator for DeBordieu and Hobcaw. “Not only are they causing an aborted nesting attempt when this turtle is desperate to deposit her eggs, they are depriving themselves of an experience of a lifetime to see a turtle lay its eggs.”

She posted on the DeBordieu SCUTE website last week the proper procedures for an encounter with a sea turtle on the beach.

“If a female turtle is seen coming on to the beach to nest, squat down and remain still,” she said. “Turtles are very skittish on land and movement will cause her to return to the water without nesting.”

Healthy male sea turtles don’t come ashore.

People should also avoid interfering with or crowding around a turtle that is crawling to or from the ocean, Brabson said. Minimizing beachfront lighting and nighttime beach activities, both of which might prevent sea turtles from coming ashore, is also recommended.

And of course, no flashlights, flash photography or other lighting devices should be used while observing the nesting turtle.

For more information, visit SCUTE’s Facebook page or debordieuscute.org.

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