070617 Sea turtles: With early nesting, volunteers prepare for first hatchings
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Nests begin hatching about 60 days after the eggs are laid.
Tanya Ackerman/Coastal Observer

Sea turtles: With early nesting, volunteers prepare for first hatchings

By Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

Turtle people. They get up early.

Often awake before dawn the elusive turtle people can be seen meandering the beaches in search of nests or tracks that almost lead to nests. The turtle people are better known as South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts and they’re busy this season.

“In our area, which is from North Myrtle Beach to North Inlet, there’s about 132 nests,” said Jeff McClary, co-founder of SCUTE. “We’re about 24 ahead of last year.” As of July 3, Hobcaw Barony and DeBordieu are leading the pack with 25 each.

Sea turtle nesting season runs from May through October. Nests normally contain more than 100 eggs. Gestation for loggerhead turtle eggs is an average of 60 days. The first nest of the year in South Carolina was reported at the Isle of Palms on April 30, but the first on the Waccamaw Neck was at North Litchfield on May 5. That puts the nest at 60 days today. “The first nests, they have the tendency to run like 65 days,” McClary said. That’s because of hatchlings’ temperature sensitivity. The warmer it is, the quicker they hatch. When it’s really hot they’ll end up hatching in less than 60 days, McClary said. But the nest laid at Litchfield by the Sea on Tuesday, “will probably go 65-66 days.” No nests had hatched as of July 5.

McClary is not a marine biologist, but he’s got years of experience dealing with the reptiles under his belt. He founded SCUTE with his friend Chris Marlow in 1990 and has learned more about sea turtles in the last 27 years than most people forget in a lifetime. SCUTE is a volunteer organization that works with state Department of Natural Resources to monitor sea turtle nesting activity and help them survive.

South Carolina is home to four sea turtle species: green, Kemp’s Ridley, leatherback and loggerhead. Loggerhead is the most common, but occasionally Georgetown County sees signs of leatherbacks and greens. They are all endangered.

One green has made Garden City Point her nesting ground of choice. McClary says he first saw evidence of her in 2010, again in 2012 and again in 2014. “It was supposed to come back last year, but it didn’t,” he said. “It arrived this year. So we handed off a DNA sample to see if in fact it was the same turtle from the previous years.” If it is her, she’s a prolific breeder. Three years ago, she laid six nests at Garden City in an area of about 100 yards at 11 day intervals, McClary said. “Matter of fact its third nest was laid 1-1/2 feet from its first,” he said. “These turtles are pretty amazing.”

There’s been two strandings on the Waccamaw Neck this year. In early May, McClary helped rescue Gary, a loggerhead. He was found by some kayakers, who noticed the turtle struggling alongside the road in the marsh. “I appreciated that call,” he said. “If you can get them before they really get bad then you have a better chance of treating them.” The 100 pound adolescent was lifted from his muddy confines and transported to the turtle hospital at the S.C. Aquarium in Charleston. As of Monday, he’s finished his antibiotics and is on a diet to help him gain weight. Gary is improving every week and is on track to find his way home.

This year’s other stranding also featured a trip to the turtle hospital, but it’s not a happy ending. That loggerhead was the victim of a boat strike in Marlin Quay Marina. “We got it down there and they were able to humanely euthanize it,” McClary said. “It got hit right in the head by a boat prop.”

Nests are buried deeply, there’s no need to worry about stepping on one. Loggerheads dig 20-24 inches to deposit eggs. Greens dig 36-48 inches. Sometimes nests have to be relocated for the safety of the eggs. “If they’re laid below the spring high tide line, they’re susceptible to being washed away,” McClary said. “A nest can stay in an over wash, but it can’t stand for water to sit on it. It’ll drown the nest.” Sea turtles are aquatic, but they aren’t ready to live in the water as eggs.

Turtle crawls look a little like mud tire tracks in the sand. Some of them lead to nests, others double back to the water. These are called false crawls there are two for every nest that’s laid on average.

There is one that defies the odds at Hobcaw Barony. “That thing false crawls 16 times before it actually makes a nest,” McClary said. “That’ll kind of skew your false crawl numbers when you’ve got one turtle that’s bound and determined to nest and crawls 16 times.”

This week has been slow for nests compared to last year, but McClary thinks it will still be a good year overall. “Last year was pretty good we ended up with 174,” he said. “I think we’ll probably do about the same this year, but 200 would be nice. A nice round number.”

How to help the turtles

If the turtle is nesting, stay back. Give it a wide berth, even when the turtle is digging its egg chamber. They scare easily and will go back to the water. Absolutely no flash photography.

Keep your lights off on the beach. Loggerheads are nocturnal nesters and artificial lights can confuse them about how to return to sea.

If you see a distressed, injured or dead sea turtle, call S.C. Department of Natural Resources at 1-800-922-5431.

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