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Empty nesters: A record-breaking season for sea turtles nears the finish line

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

It’s been a record for sea turtle nests on Pawleys Island. It was an even better year for Doug and Sandra Hooks.

The 24 nests laid on the island this year are the most since SCUTE, the volunteer monitoring group, started keeping records 33 years ago. It’s also a record year in South Carolina with 1,000 more nests than last year.

In the midst of Tropical Storm Hermine last Friday, Doug Hooks went out to check the nest laid next to the walkway of his house at 402 Myrtle Ave. The hatchlings were emerging from a hole in the sand. He called Mary Schneider, who heads the SCUTE team on the island, and he and Sandra started recording the event on their smartphones. It was 2:30 p.m.

Turtles are sensitive to the change in sand temperature, said Jeff McClary, co-founder of SCUTE. Usually that happens at night, but he’s seen two daytime hatchings, both in October. “They’re fortunate they got to see it.”

Doug said the strong wind sent some hatchlings tumbling as they crawled down the beach. Once they hit the water, their flippers shifted into high gear. He and Sandra also chased away birds that were draw to the bite-sized turtles.

Of 110 eggs in the nest, 91 hatched, Schneider said. SCUTE volunteers conducted an inventory Monday evening. Sandra Hooks watched from the walkway as the empty shells were counted and asked if there were any live hatchlings. No, said Kay Pulliam, one of the volunteers, they all got out. Most people come to an inventory in hope of seeing a live hatchling, but Sandra wasn’t disappointed. She had seen plenty.

Study measures how much light is too much for turtles

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Emily Asp and John Moore settled into their beach chairs just south of Walkway 62 at Litchfield. They had snacks and something to drink. From time to time they checked their smartphones. Passers-by barely noticed them.

They could have been just another pair of beachgoers if it hadn’t been 10 o’clock at night.

Asp is a graduate student at Coastal Carolina University leading a study on the effects of artificial light on sea turtle hatchlings. It’s well-established that lights distract nesting turtles as well as hatchlings that depend on natural light to lead them to the ocean. What the research is now focused on is the threshold level of artificial light.

“Is there a level that causes them to start to orient themselves away from the ocean?” Asp asked.

Litchfield Beach is considered to be on the low-end of the light-intensity spectrum. Yet the glow in the sky even an hour after the moon set was vivid. There was soft yellow light from the curtained windows of a beach house. Street lights reflected off low clouds. But mostly there was Myrtle Beach on the northern rim of the shoreline.

“We see the influence of Myrtle Beach,” Asp said. That’s true even at DeBordieu and Hobcaw, which are darker than Litchfield.

Eric Koepfler, a professor at Coastal Carolina, sought funds for infrared cameras to monitor the nests last year. He fell ill this summer following a trip to Costa Rica, so Asp has taken charge.

Moore is one of the undergraduate interns who have helped. Asp hopes to have data from 20 nests between Hobcaw and Waites Island in Horry County. The nest at Litchfield was No. 14.

Just before sunset, she and Moore set up a 10-foot high frame made from PVC pipe and painted black. It held the camera that sent video to their smartphones. Then they waited.

Asp has been out watching nests every night since mid-July. “I try to sleep during the day,” she said. A team tried using sound monitors last year, but they weren’t successful, Asp said. So she checks her phone every few minutes looking for the march of hatchlings across the screen. “It’s an amazing experience,” she said.

But the turtles are only data points, which she will measure against light readings that she uses as a baseline. Hatchlings that emerge during inventories are much cuter, she said.

So far only one group of hatchlings went astray. Their nest was near Garden City Pier. She has a red light to help her spot stragglers. When people stop to chat about her work, she makes sure to tell them the need to keep the beach dark.

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