For some reason, and I’m not exactly sure how, our summer visit with one side of the family resulted in parties from New York, Michigan, and Oklahoma converging on . . . South Carolina. I didn’t mind, of course: a week on a South Carolina beach is appealing to me at any time of year and under just about any condition. We ended up in lovely Isle of Palms, a barrier island just north of Charleston.
(not the place we rented, but gives you an idea of the area)
We enjoyed a week of sand and surf, seafood, and sightseeing. We toured a plantation, Fort Sumter, the I’on Swamp in the Francis Marion Forest, Caper’s Island, etc. We even took in a Carolina Riverdogs game. The highlight had to be, however, the sea turtles.
Loggerhead Sea Turtle
There’s not much room for beach-nesting birds on Isle of Palms, but there is enough of the dune system preserved and maintained that Loggerhead Sea Turtles still nest on that beach, often right in the sandy paths trodden by surfer dudes and kids with shovels and pails. I was quite impressed with the efforts of local volunteers to make this busy, developed tourist destination a place where young turtles are given a chance, and it does take some effort.
Volunteers monitor the beaches each night for nesting females and “false crawls”. New nests are mapped with a GPS and the information shared with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Nests established in high traffic areas are sometimes moved to more protected spots, in consultation with the DNR. As hatching becomes imminent after several weeks have elapsed, volunteers eavesdrop on nests, listening for the sound of dozens of turtle hatchlings scratching beneath the surface. When the nest hatches out, the youngsters head to the sea en masse, and the volunteers are there to count the number that emerge and protect and guide them on their journey.
Marked sea turtle nest location on Isle of Palms, SC. That’s a Ghost Crab burrow in the middle of the marked area.
Tourists are invited to witness these events too, and it’s a great wildlife spectacle, even for a hardened biologist. Landowners with beachfront property – and vacation renters – are instructed to turn outside lights off by 9 pm, so the lights don’t distract the young turtles and cause them to head away from the water instead of toward it. While there are still times that this system breaks down, it seems to usually work beautifully, and result in a high proportion of hatchlings from each nest making it to the surf unharmed. (That’s step one – the little ones are on their own as they begin their perilous journey to the Sargasso Sea.)
Invariably, there will be some eggs in each nest that don’t hatch, and some youngsters that hatch but don’t make it out of the nest. The volunteers play an important role here too. First, they collect data on hatching and emergence rates when they excavate used nests a few days after emergence. Second, and this is the fun public relations part, they collect any leftover hatchlings in a bucket and release them in the surf to the delight of the T-shirt-buying crowds that gather for these events.
We got to be in one of those crowds on our last full day in South Carolina, and the memory of that experience will stick with us for quite a long time to come. It easily makes my Top 10 Best Wildlife Moments list. If you ever get the chance to spend a few moments with some baby sea turtles, take it!
hatchlings that needed a little boost to emerge from their nest