Single 1
Single 1
Single 1
Single 1

written by
Stephanie Hunt

Turtle Summer

photographs by
Olivia Rae James

Volume: 26

It makes you marvel at the sheer wonder of it all. They are so, so small.

They’re up earlier than some birds, rising before dawn, before the breeze, in the still-dark stillness of a slumbering island. In the parking lot of the Kiawah Island Community Center, four volunteers take last sips of coffee and gather notebooks, a daily log, a few tools—a rake, something that looks like a croquet mallet but is actually a probe, flags, plastic netting, water bottles, some bug spray—and pile into the truck. Everyone wears the requisite uniform: a Kiawah Turtle Patrol t-shirt. “We are the nesting patrol,” Dale Anderson explains. “Our job is to drive the entire length of the Island, from west to east, and to find and evaluate the crawl.”

As a twenty-year veteran of the Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol, Dale knows his crawl. He can read the telltale calligraphy of a mother loggerhead plodding up from the tide toward the dunes, the curiously etched track of her slow and steady path through sand on awkward flippers, a )) paired stagger-step with a ((, leaving a trail that forms a strangely graceful inverted “V”. The hieroglyphics of nature’s ancient and incessant drama: the story of survival, of struggle, of life and death, of fledging and return, and happily, of birth.

This is the story that Dale and his turtle team colleagues this morning, Carol and Ross Burgess and Peggy Kurzawinski, have risen early to give witness to. Dale, Carol, Ross, and Peggy are four stalwarts of the two hundred-plus volunteers who constitute the Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol. Many, including Dale, are Kiawah or Seabrook Island residents, others, like his crew this morning, live close by, and still others travel from afar, planning their annual Island vacations to coordinate with their Turtle Patrol rotation. Each volunteer typically pulls a four-day tour of duty, assigned to either the “nesting patrol”—the truck team who look for new nests, or the “hatching patrol”—a team of foot soldiers who walk their assigned one-mile zone (six zones total) at sunrise, checking for evidence that marked nests have “boiled” (i.e., hatched) and baby turtles have emerged under cloak of night.

Dale’s two decades of service give him patrol seniority, a.k.a. truck driver status; meanwhile, Carol, Ross (in their eighth year as turtle volunteers), and Peggy (in her fourth year) bump around in the backseat as the truck slowly cruises the beach. Peggy scans the sand toward the dunes, Ross checks the surf, and Carol surveys from the middle. “I don’t mind getting up so early,” confesses Dale, his voice spry and cheerful as the mango-hued sunlight begins to wash the sky. “It gives you a third more of the day, and you never meet a grumpy person on the beach at sunrise. The early risers are all so happy to be here. Also,” he adds, “I like feeling that in some small way we’re helping an endangered species.”

And helping they are. The loggerhead turtle was declared threatened and endangered along our coasts under the Federal Endangered Species Act in 1978, which means these 250- to 300-pound noble mariners are in danger of extinction. Before shrimp boats were mandated to use turtle excluder devices, much of the threat to loggerheads occurred in the marine environment. In the past, turtle strandings (when sea turtles wash up injured or dead on the beach) were most often the result of commercial fishing practices or boat strikes. Today the largest threat may well be the turtles’ nesting environment, a result of light pollution around coastal areas and erosion in the nesting habitat. Turtles need dry sand beaches to nest, and dune erosion and encroaching high tide lines mean less dry sand.

In 1977 former SC Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staffer Sally Murphy began monitoring the state’s beaches for sea turtle nests. Back then nests had only a 7 percent chance of hatching successfully. People were often the worst offenders. In addition to human poachers, natural predators like crabs and raccoons dug up nests, or nests flooded due to erosion. “Nest failure was normal, and it wasn’t good news,” says Sally, still a foremost sea turtle advocate.

Female loggerheads need twenty to thirty years to reach reproductive maturity. Given the enormous odds against the survival of a baby sea turtle (only one or two per thousand) and the fact that a fertile female only nests three to five times per season (laying some 120 eggs per clutch), it doesn’t require higher math to understand the threat. Yet by experimenting with different interventions (trapping raccoons, covering nests with screens, moving nests from below the tide line, curtailing poachers), Sally began to see improvement. In 1980 the South Carolina nest success rate rose from 7 to 80 percent. More than two decades later, Kiawah’s Turtle Patrol volunteers and their counterparts up and down the coast still use some of Sally’s early methods.

That’s why on this mid-August morning, at the end of newly found tracks up in the dunes, Dale is on his knees, bent over, like a kid looking for treasure. He smiles and lifts a sandy arm from the twenty-inch-deep hole he’s carefully dug to validate that, yes siree, this is the morning’s first verified nest. (One set of earlier track marks lead to no nest, making it a “false crawl”—the mama turtle possibly got scared off or otherwise changed her mind.) Carol and Ross bring plastic netting and stakes to Dale. The team takes a GPS finding, then logs this as nest #112 for Kiawah’s 2014 turtle season. It’s a lower number than on this date of the previous summer, but in line with the trends nearby and not too unusual given the record highs for several years in a row. “When you have a banner year like last year,” says Dale, “you don’t necessarily expect those high numbers to continue.”

Dale pulls on plastic gloves and delicately lifts out one sample egg—a perfect little sandy ping-pong ball—to be tagged and bagged. This specimen will contribute to a multistate genetics project that South Carolina’s DNR Marine Turtle Conservation Program (which licenses Kiawah’s Turtle Patrol) participates in. The study uses DNA from one egg of each monitored nest to identify individual loggerhead nesting females, and to eventually resolve lingering loggerhead mysteries. How many nests does each unique female lay? How long between nesting years, and does she actually return to the beach where she was born to lay her eggs? (Spoiler alert: No, that seems to be loggerhead myth, but the DNA test will give a better sense of geographic nesting reach.) Together this data will provide a more accurate census of the actual nesting population and a better projection for long-term species recovery and health.

The team finishes marking this nest, which they don’t need to move because it is sufficiently above the high tide line. Dale plants a stake with the nest number, then he and Ross lay the plastic netting over the nest area to keep critters out. “We do as little as possible to disturb the nest and try to let nature take its course,” Dale says. Peggy rakes over the turtle tracks so the next volunteers won’t stop again. They walk back to the truck, taking a moment to savor the sunrise now spilling over the water. Three shrimp boats dot the distant horizon. Seagulls stand at attention near the surf.

“Have you ever seen a baby sea turtle?” Carol asks. “It makes you marvel at the sheer wonder of it all. They are so, so small. How they survive in that big ocean I’ll never know.”

The recent upward trend of nest counts suggests that patrol efforts are making a difference and that loggerhead survival is looking more promising. For the 2012 and 2013 seasons, nesting numbers across South Carolina’s coast were higher than they’ve been since 1982. In 2012, 4596 loggerhead nests were laid on Palmetto State beaches. In 2013, the turtle nest count reached 403 on Kiawah, a record number since the Turtle Patrol began tracking statistics in 1999. The 2014 numbers (the season runs from mid-May—the year’s first Kiawah nest discovered, appropriately, on Mother’s Day—to the end of October) may be lower, but there’s still a full morning of work for this turtle team. Two more sets of last night’s turtle tracks are discovered as Dale drives further down the beach, though one of them turns out to be another false crawl.

The truck team meets up with other volunteers on foot, colleagues from the hatching patrols. “Nest number sixteen hatched!” announces a happy turtle patroller as she continues on. “Isn’t it a beautiful morning?” Then up walks “the Mayor,” as turtle team members have dubbed Marilyn Olson, a Kiawah resident and fellow Turtle Patrol volunteer, who arguably knows Kiawah’s beach better than anyone. “You’ll be probing [a new nest] again further up the beach,” the mayor proclaims, as she’s already discovered more tracks ahead.

“There’s no better place to be than on the beach at sunrise,” Marilyn says between heavy breaths. “Every day is different. Every morning is a new morning. I try to pay attention and catch the exact moment when the sky turns from darkness to daylight, but I can never exactly tell. It just happens.” And then off she goes.

It just happens, this new morning. Fresh new rays of sunlight cracking open the dark. New eggs buried beneath in the dunes. And thanks in part to the effort of Kiawah’s Turtle Patrol, new hopes for an ancient species, for majestic, mysterious sea turtles, mariners of the deep.

“the Mayor,” as turtle team members have dubbed Marilyn Olson, a Kiawah resident and fellow Turtle Patrol volunteer, who arguably knows Kiawah’s beach better than anyone. “You’ll be probing [a new nest] again further up the beach,” the mayor proclaims, as she’s already discovered more tracks ahead.

“There’s no better place to be than on the beach at sunrise,” Marilyn says between heavy breaths. “Every day is different. Every morning is a new morning. I try to pay attention and catch the exact moment when the sky turns from darkness to daylight, but I can never exactly tell. It just happens.” And then off she goes.

It just happens, this new morning. Fresh new rays of sunlight cracking open the dark. New eggs buried beneath in the dunes. And thanks in part to the effort of Kiawah’s Turtle Patrol, new hopes for an ancient species, for majestic, mysterious sea turtles, mariners of the deep.

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