090717 Pawleys Island: Top citizen never misses an opportunity to teach about sea turtles
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Mary Schneider talks to spectators at a sea turtle nest inventory.

Pawleys Island: Top citizen never misses an opportunity to teach about sea turtles

By Charles Swenson

Mary Schneider still remembers the first nest.

“That was at the north end, and that was such a thrill. So exciting,” she said. In the 22 years since, she has trained others to find and protect the nests that sea turtles lay on Pawleys Island each summer. Her efforts led the Pawleys Island Civic Association to name her their Citizen of the Year.

“This plaque represents more than just one person,” Schneider said. “There are about 50 names that should be here, too, because it’s a group effort.”

That would include her husband Phil, who shares the work of coordinating those volunteers, all members of S.C. United Turtle Enthusiasts, or SCUTE. “It’s a responsibility that we take seriously,” she said. “He does most of the computer work. There’s a lot of reporting back to the Department of Natural Resources and seaturtle.org.”

There were 24 nests laid on Pawleys Island this year, the same as in 2016. The number of nests has climbed steadily this century, from an average of six a year to 13 a year during the period from 2007 through 2014. “Why? I have to give that credit to SCUTE,” Schneider said.

The group was started in 1983 by Jeff McClary and the late Chris Marlow. The turtles reach maturity after 25 or 30 years, so the female hatchlings the group first saw make their way to the ocean are now returning to lay their own nests. This summer, two green sea turtles nested on Pawleys Island. They are larger than the more common loggerhead sea turtles. Only 14 of the 5,175 nests reported in the state this year are green sea turtles.

Schneider grew up in Tennessee and began coming to Pawleys Island as a child when her oldest sister married into a family that owned the house north of the Sea View Inn. “As a young child, I watched people walking the beach in the morning looking for turtle eggs, not to protect them but to dig them up,” she said.

Her father eventually bought a house on Atlantic Avenue. “I was the last of four girls to marry, last of four girls to educate. When I married, Dad said ‘done with all these expenses’ and bought a house on the north end of Pawleys,” Schneider said. She and Phil live at the River Club, but the beach house is still in the family.

They spent their summers at Pawleys Island while Phil was working for the federal government in Washington, D.C., and Mary was a preschool teacher. He retired in 1994 and began teaching at Coastal Carolina University. They went to their first civic association meeting, where Rose Norseth, a SCUTE volunteer, gave island property owners an update on sea turtle nesting. “I said, ‘Do you need any help?’” Mary recalled. “She trained me and when she left, I took over. That was only a couple of years later.”

Schneider was one of about five volunteers. The growth in the number of volunteers who walk the beach early in the morning for signs of nesting activity and protect the nests from predators while the eggs incubate is something the couple encouraged. “If you want to learn about turtles, you can join us,” Mary said. “We’ve got volunteers. We can always use more.”

Once the nests hatch, the volunteers excavate the nests to count the eggs and look for hatchlings that haven’t emerged. “We use this as an opportunity to teach, particularly to teach children because they’re the next generation to protect the turtles,” she said.

The volunteers also work closely with the town. It adopted a system of red tags that volunteers can attach to chairs, tent frames and other items left on the beach overnight. Those items can cause turtles to leave the beach without laying eggs. “Through the efforts of the town, we have been able to tag those things,” Schneider said.

Plastic trash has become an increasing problem since she first became a turtle watcher. The plastic removed from the intestines of a turtle that Schneider helped rescue when it washed up in Midway Inlet in 2015 filled two Mason jars. “Two big Mason jars,” she said. “Balloons, shopping bags, plastic bags.” That’s a problem the volunteers try to address through education at the nest inventories.

“I don’t see a challenge for us in the future as long as we have a beach on Pawleys Island,” Schneider said. “Turtles nest in soft sand. When I first started walking Pawleys Island, the majority of our nests were south of Hazard Street. This year, none. Why? They don’t have dry sand.”

Hurricanes in 2015 and 2016 eroded sand from the beachfront. Some was scraped up from the tidal zone to create a berm, but the town is planning a major beach nourishment project using offshore sand. More turtles are now nesting on the island’s north end, where the beach is growing. And they aren’t deterred by the dune pushed up in the middle of the island. “That is the challenge, but this year they climbed those dunes, those man-made dunes,” Schneider said.

The couple organizes and trains volunteers, but doesn’t search for new nests any more. “Now we step aside and let the ones that we’re training do the work,” she said. “That’s rewarding because we can see the excitement in their eyes that we felt.”

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