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Sea turtles: One volunteer stands out in an international crowd

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Betsy Brabson was walking the beach at DeBordieu Colony a little more than 20 years ago when she stopped to see what the commotion was all about.

Jeff McClary, a founder of South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts, had three turtle hatchlings, and a crowd had gathered to watch.

“I didn’t know anything about turtles,” Brabson said. “We’re from Charlotte. I didn’t even know they nest on the beach. When I saw those hatchlings, I just was hooked and started volunteering the next summer.”

Betsy and her husband, Bill, both became SCUTE volunteers in 1991. She volunteered to walk Hobcaw Beach five mornings a week, looking for evidence of turtle nests. “Today that’s still my favorite beach to walk,” she said. “It’s so undisturbed.”

When Barbara and Bill Schuette, the original SCUTE coordinators in DeBordieu, were ready to hand the job to someone new, Betsy was there to take it in 1995. “We had a record number of nests in ’95,” she said, “and I asked myself what have I gotten into?”

For her efforts, Betsy was presented the Ed Drane Volunteerism Award at the International Sea Turtle Society’s 33rd annual symposium this past weekend in Baltimore, Md. The award goes to a volunteer who commits a significant portion of time, energy and passion to the conservation of sea turtles. Those honored do not seek academic or monetary credit for their efforts, but they make a significant contribution to the study and conservation of sea turtles.

The international organization connects sea turtle enthusiasts. There were 140 oral presentations in Baltimore last weekend along with 248 posters entered in competition. Scientists discussed migrating habits, lighting, beach renourishment’s impact and sex ratios. Eggs become males if they are incubated above 29 degrees Celsius and females below 29 degrees Celsius. “The way we remember,” Betsy said, “is hot chicks, cool dudes.”

She said much of the scientific discussion was over their heads, but they were impressed with the passion.

Betsy was nominated for the award by former Pawleys Island resident DuBose Griffin, sea turtle coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

McClary said he has known Betsy and Bill for over 23 years as volunteers. “It seems like just yesterday that Chris and I bumped into them on DeBordieu Beach,” he said. “Betsy would be the first to say that she could not have done it without Bill’s support. They make a good team. Her dedication for SCUTE and the sea turtles is amazing.”

One example of the dedication of sea turtle volunteers came when a big loggerhead became stranded on DeBordieu Beach and had to be taken to the hospital at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston for treatment. The turtle was named DeBordieu, Deb for short, and ran up a bill of over $22,000 in two years.

“We felt obliged to try and offset that,” Bill said, “and asked what we could do.”

The hospital needed a radiograph for imaging.

“Imagine transporting a 300-pound turtle,” Betsy said. “And it’s stressful on the turtle.”

A joint DeBordieu-Hobcaw fundraiser brought in almost enough to buy a new $30,000 state-of-the-art radiograph.

“We were hoping to raise $6,000,” Betsy said. “Once again it just shows this enormous passion for sea turtles. People had been doing inventories and had been asking what they could do to help. Finally they had something they could help with. We are a very low-budget organization, funded the last two years by DeBordieu Real Estate Company.”

Betsy’s work to help eradicate the invasive beach vitex plant actually led to an important discovery for turtle preservation at North Island.

“Beach vitex directly impacts turtle nesting habitat,” Betsy said. “It’s under control, but we are always finding new sites. That’s why we can never turn our back on it. It’s an aggressive plant without predators. Its seeds are viable for four years. Luckily, we got on it soon enough that something could be done.”

Funding to eradicate beach vitex called for volunteers to walk the state’s entire coast, even the barrier islands, and report its presence.

That led turtle enthusiasts to begin walking North Island, and they were shocked at what they found. Wild hogs had destroyed every nest on the 8.5-mile beach and eaten the turtle eggs.

“The DNR website calls North Island the crown jewel of nesting beaches in South Carolina,” Betsy said. “Yet every nest was being destroyed.”

Betsy called on her friend Griffin at DNR about her discovery. A pilot study was undertaken in 2010 on a one-mile section of beach. Volunteers with boats went to the island for 15 straight days and found nests depredated on the night eggs were laid. A few would survive a day or two, but all were eventually looted by wild hogs. They tried putting cages over the nests for protection. Near the turtle nests, they dropped human hair, Habanero pepper, anything to try and ward the hogs off. “It looked like a science project,” Bill said.

“We tried everything,” Betsy said, “but the hogs would win.”

She carried her evidence of sea turtle nesting to the Department of Natural Resources, and officers there teamed up with employees at Yawkey Wildlife Center on South Island to begin eradicating hogs.

The next year there were 158 turtle nests counted on North Island. Hogs got all but 20.

North Island was then opened for public hog hunting by DNR.

In 2012, turtle volunteers began moving nests inside an electrified fence for protection.

“We started bringing back one nest each time,” Betsy said, “and started noticing that the nests on the beach weren’t being depredated any more. We asked ourselves, ‘Why are we going to all this trouble to lug them back to a hatchery when it looks like they might incubate OK on the beach?’ Last year there were 226 nests and hogs got two.

“We believe it’s because hunting turtle eggs is a learned behavior, and the mother was not there to teach the piglets.”

Hog tracks would be visible crossing an incoming turtle track on the beach. The hogs didn’t realize a turtle nest was nearby. They had walked by and not even slowed down. The two nests lost last year, Besty said, were because the sand was washed away and the eggs exposed.

There is a new threat on North Island: coyotes.

“They eat the eggs while the mother is laying them,” Bill said.

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