Every year my family makes a pilgrimage to North Litchfield beach in Georgetown County, South Carolina. And every year, most of the two weeks we are blessed with this gorgeous stretch of the Palmetto State coastline are spent chasing my brood of seven misbehaving miscreants.
Admittedly, that’s nobody’s fault but mine – both the number of kids and their innate proclivity for naughtiness.
But yeah … “vacations” for me involve trading work stress for “counting heads so nobody drowns” stress. Which is not entirely relaxing.
Every once in awhile, though, my wife and I are able to steal away a few moments to stroll the shoreline at dusk. Most nights, we admire the three miles of pristine, undeveloped coast to the northeast of us at Huntington Beach State Park. Occasionally, though, we turn southwest and pass in front of the eclectic mix of beach shanties mingled with nouveaux riche oceanfront mansions dotting Litchfield’s landscape.
We were wrapping up one such stroll to the southwest last Wednesday evening when out of the water directly in front of us there emerged a sea turtle the size of a Volkswagen. Well, okay … it wasn’t actually the size of a Volkswagen. But this massive reptile would have definitely given a Yugo a run for its money.
The ginormous creature crawling from the surf in front of us was a mother Loggerhead come to lay her clutch of eggs in the North Litchfield sand dunes.
She was struggling mightily, too. As she made her way past the waves, she stopped repeatedly to rest. For awhile, we were afraid she wasn’t going to make it. Complicating things, she had come ashore at low tide – on a stretch of beach replete with tidal depressions. Also, a crowd had begun to gather around her as she moved up the sand – marveling at the massive endangered animal but also (potentially) inadvertently inhibiting her ability to successfully lay her eggs.
Admittedly, I didn’t know what to do at first. Aside from knowing sea turtle populations in the Palmetto State are managed by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), I wasn’t sure exactly what steps one should take in the event they actually saw a sea turtle on the beach.
So I called my sources at the agency. Their advice? Give momma Loggerhead a wide berth, stay quiet – and turn off any lights. Apparently, the presence of motion, sound or light – however slight – can distract a mother attempting to nest. This could cause her to turn back to the sea without laying her eggs (otherwise known as a “false crawl”).
We shared this advice with the growing crowd and, to its credit, everyone cooperated and let momma turtle do her thing. Eventually, she found a spot to nest in front of the sand dunes and began digging a two-foot deep, flask-shaped hole with her back flippers. Then she got to work depositing her clutch …
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Within half an hour of receiving my call, SCDNR had dispatched a volunteer from the Pawleys Island-based South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts (SCUTE) – a group which helps manage turtle nests along the coast in Georgetown County.
By the time the SCUTE volunteers arrived, the mother Loggerhead (referred to as a “gravid”) was deep into the laying process. Laying can take anywhere from one to three hours, he said, with the mother entering a “trance-like state” as they give birth. Female sea turtles lay anywhere from 100-150 eggs per clutch – and can lay up to six clutches each nesting season, which runs from May to mid-August.
Approximately sixty days after they are laid, these white, leathery eggs hatch at night in what is known as a “boiling” – with hatchlings beginning their arduous journey from the sand back to the sea. Hardly any of them survive, sadly. In fact, fewer than one in one thousand hatchlings reaches adulthood. The lucky few who do survive swim miles to find floating clumps of seaweed. These clumps enable them to hide from predators until they become sufficient large to fend for themselves.
Of interest? The few female hatchlings who do survive to adulthood will return to the exact same stretch of beach where they were hatched to lay their own eggs years later.
The Loggerhead – a.k.a. caretta caretta – is South Carolina’s official state reptile. It has been on the endangered species list since 1978.
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In addition to their efforts to facilitate nesting and hatching, SCUTE volunteers – and hundreds of other volunteers up and down the Palmetto Coast – take a single egg sample from every nest and send it to the Shamblin Lab for analysis.
“This analysis allows state and federal biologists to understand population and migration patterns of these endangered species,” SCUTE noted on its Facebook page. “We obviously support this project and would like to see it continue.”
As of this writing, volunteers have tracked more than 2,500 sea turtle nests in South Carolina so far this year. Last year, there were 8,004 total nests, according to SCDNR – the second-highest total on record. That’s good news, but the annual target is 9,200 nests – meaning there is more work to be done.
To track the current crop of turtle nests in South Carolina, click here.
“We’re excited to see another successful nesting year for sea turtles along the South Carolina coast,” Michelle Pate, leader of SCDNR’s marine turtle conservation efforts, said last fall. “Increased nest counts since the mid- to late 2000s show promise for the loggerhead; we’re seeing the continued benefits of conservation measures enacted decades ago as well as those management techniques still used today.”
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Helping the turtles has truly been an “all-hands-on-deck” effort – driven by numerous public-private collaborations. In 2021, for example, Dominion Energy joined the town of Edisto Beach to install amber-hued streetlights in an effort to prevent hatchling disorientation. The result? A noticeable uptick in hatchlings reaching the sea.
So … what should you do if you see a sea turtle?
As mentioned above, give her space, stay quiet and don’t shine your lights at her. If you think the animal is in need of assistance call 1-800-922-5431. That number is staffed twenty-four hours a day. Also, before you leave the beach each afternoon be sure to fill in any holes, clean up any trash and – if you are staying on the front row of beach houses – remember to turn your lights off at night.
You can also fill out this form online to give the agency more information if you spot a sea turtle.
What to chip in and help the conservation efforts? SCDNR offers this specialty license plate for $30.00 every two years with all proceeds going to support its efforts to protect endangered and threatened species.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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