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Record Nest Total For Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol

A sea turtle hatchling crawls to the sea from Kiawah Island.

The good vibrations coming from the dunes on Kiawah Island in 2019 were decades in the making. Loggerhead sea turtle conservation got going strong 25 to 30 years ago, and the record nesting activity in 2019 all along the South Carolina coast could be a direct result of those efforts. No matter what may happen next year, the fact is that the beach on Kiawah Island welcomed a new record of 575 sea turtle nests this year, keeping the 400 volunteers on the Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol happy in their work.
Lynne Sager of Kiawah is the island’s SCDNR permit holder for the sea turtle nesting program. Sager has many years of experience as a turtle lady, but in 2017 she assumed the top leadership role on Kiawah, and the record year in 2019 makes her glad. “It’s encouraging that we are doing the right thing by loggerhead sea turtles,” said Sager. “It takes them 25 to 30-years of life for a female to mature and begin nesting, and it was about that long ago when Turtle Excluder Devices became standard on shrimp boats, and barrier island turtle nesting teams got organized. We are hopeful that higher nest totals will be a trend in future years too.”
Over the Labor Day weekend I was able to visit the Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol in the field for several nest inventories. After a sea turtle nest hatches, the turtle patrol waits three days and then carefully digs out the nest to gather data. They are counting the number of eggshells that produces a hatchling, and also the number of eggs that did not incubate. More scientific information is recorded such as the number of days it took the nest to hatch, and just one eggshell can provide the DNA for any nesting turtle.
Jane Pannone and Lindy Michael are assigned to Zone Three of the beach on Kiawah, and I joined them at dawn for the nest inventory procedure. Walking down the beach I could not help but notice that another nearby sea turtle nest had hatched overnight, as evidenced by about one hundred baby sea turtle tracks leading to the ocean. When I met the turtle ladies at the first nest to be inventoried they shared that they also saw the same nesting activity and reported it to Sager.
The sea turtle nest is a cavity under the sand that was previously excavated by the nesting mother. The turtle ladies lay down on the beach and reach into the nest and bring up the contents. On this day, the inventory included thirteen active loggerhead hatchlings that were hung up inside the nest cavity. The hatchlings are allowed to crawl on the beach towards the ocean because it is believed they will imprint on the beach. A flock of seagulls trued to swarm these hatchlings and pick them up for food, but the turtle ladies waved and whooped, scaring off the birds. Getting those hatchlings out of that hole and into the ocean is a truly meaningful and positive experience for both turtle team and any onlookers.
Another sea turtle hatchling encounter took place later in the day while checking other nests that are nearing their expected hatch date. A lone loggerhead hatchling was floundering just below the surface of the sand and appeared to be laboring. Turtle Patrol’s Ally Frey donned a plastic glove and then picked up the baby turtle and escorted it to the water’s edge. She took a minute to educate a curious young girl about the physical features of the sea turtle, thus planting the seed for a future turtle volunteer.
Even during a record year like 2019, there is always room for improvement and Lynne Sager shares that removing white lights from the beach after dark remains their biggest challenge. “Kiawah Island is a tourist beach and a vacation destination, and we are raising awareness whenever possible that only red-filter flashlights are appropriate on the beach during sea turtle nesting season,” said Sager. “There is a misconception that using white lights is OK until 10 p.m., but the ordinance goes into effect at 9 p.m.”
“Our solution for this issue is to provide free red filters at the Kiawah Island Nature Center,” said Sager. “For example, those using white lights to play chase with the ghost crabs after dark, don’t realize that any nearby hatchlings are attracted to that light. We find hatchling turtle tracks that are circular, which indicates that they are using up valuable energy that is needed for their ocean trek. Other beaches have this same issue, and I discuss this topic with folks from Edisto and Seabrook when at the SCDNR turtle season wrap-up dinner in November.” Edisto recorded a record 351 sea turtle nests in 2019, and Seabrook Island nearly recorded 100 sea turtle nests.
Labor Day weekend weather included high tides, rough wave action and the impending effects from Hurricane Dorian. The majority of the 575 sea turtle nests on Kiawah have already hatched, and even if catastrophic beach erosion should occur, the 2019 nesting season will be considered a great success. One of the reasons why the sea turtles select the 10-mile beach on Kiawah for nesting is because it offers mature dunes that protect their nesting efforts. Another important layer of protection that exists here, that the sea turtles are unaware of, is the dedication of the Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol.

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native.
Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com
Jeff Dennis, Contributor (367 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com