ISLE OF PALMS -- The reek isn't pleasant when it hits the nose there in the dunes as the rising sun blazes through a line of clouds.

Mary Pringle just keeps digging, sinking her arm deep into the sand hole like she is helping birth a foal. Egg shells come out, mostly cracked apart. She holds up a whole one to the swarm of people around her. Out comes a handful of glop. Then another handful of shells. Behind the people, lines of curious peck-mark tracks loop down the empty stretch of beach into the sea.

"We had nine hatchling that didn't survive, and we had a bunch of eggs that didn't hatch," she announces. But all in all, this sea turtle nest was another good one. There were, after all, 126 eggs in the nest.

The loggerhead hatch inventory is the eighth of 24 that Pringle and the rest of the Island Turtle Team will make this summer, unremarkable except for a fresh set of mother turtle tracks that volunteer MacKenzie Robison found farther up the beach. The team doesn't usually see new eggs laid in August.

The real surprise, at the crack of dawn, is the 50 or so people who gathered to watch -- moms towing along kids, couples with babies in slings, a man in a golf shirt and a woman in a flowery summer dress, a man dripping wet in his swim suit.

The matter-of-fact inventory, the clean-up work of nursing loggerhead nests, has gotten so popular that people fuss if the team starts start digging before the announced 7 a.m. time.

They love their loggerheads. The mammoth, endangered turtle has become one of those totems of the coast. Its summertime crawl to lay eggs in the dunes has drawn an army of watch volunteers. People flock to see when one of the turtles is spotted, or a rehabilitated injured turtle is released.

That interest will determine the future of wildlife on the coast, conservators say. It might have to. At a critical point in development on the coast, environmental and wildlife agencies struggle with budget cuts and staffing. More and more, the efforts of regular people, rather than agencies, will make the difference, conservationists agree.

Losing experience

Handling a loggerhead turtle egg isn't husbandry, it's art. The egg orients itself in a certain compass direction. If it's turned away too far too fast, the amniotic sac splits, killing the fetus. A lot of turtle watch programs won't move a nest, even if the eggs are in jeopardy from storm tide or beach erosion.

In South Carolina, nest probing and relocation are part of the program and the volunteers have been meticulously trained to do it -- by people like Sally Murphy.

It's hard to say just how much of the relative success in South Carolina of the endangered loggerhead can be credited to Sally and Tom Murphy. The publicity-shy couple won't talk much about it. They and other S.C. Natural Resources wildlife officers know nobody does it alone.

But when Sally Murphy retired in 2007, then Tom the next year, DNR lost a combined 60-some years of hard-learned expertise, including untold hours in the field scouring remote barrier islands, or scanning beaches with binoculars from cramped putt-putt planes or helicopters. The department lost their internationally recognized prestige as conservationists.

"The TED wars," Dubose Griffin said simply, to point out how important Sally Murphy was. Griffin is the DNR wildlife biologist who has taken over Murphy's sea turtle nesting coordinator role.

TEDs are turtle excluder devices, used by shrimpers to keep their nets from inadvertently causing sea turtle deaths. More turtles die because of shrimping than all other human activities combined. Sally Murphy helped collect the data showing mortality rates and led a first-of-its-kind national recovery team. Tom Murphy, DNR's first non-game biologist, did groundbreaking work radio-tracking turtles to show they swim where shrimpers drop their nets.

In 1988, South Carolina became the first state to mandate TEDs, amid a pitched fight between conservationists and shrimpers over their value, a fight that went all the way to the S.C. Supreme Court. Sally Murphy went with it to testify.

"That was the biggest issue to deal with (at the time) and Sally got it done," Griffin said. How big are those shoes to fill? "Large," Griffin said.

The coast is losing other people like the Murphys, the generation that came on when DNR was formed. They did the work that became the programs that nurse the wildlife-rich, marshswept Lowcountry, and that help sustain threatened species such as sea turtles and restore species such as bald eagles, wood storks and prize game fish like red drum.

As they leave, budget cutbacks keep DNR from replacing many of them, or recruiting the talent to take advantage of their mentoring. The quandary comes at a critical point for the maritime environment that is the Lowcountry, with development swamping the coast. Federal agencies like U.S. Fish and Wildlife face the same dilemma.

DNR contracted one retired staffer just to comb through the file cabinets left behind, so institutional knowledge isn't lost on issues like why a certain law reads the way it does. But savvy can't be stored.

"It's the urbanization of everybody," said David Whitaker, who started in an entry level job working with crustaceans. "We grew up as kids out in the water. People don't do that now."

Filling the gaps

This summer is shaping up to be a good one for loggerheads. More than 4,000 nests are expected to be laid, more than half under the brood eyes of volunteer turtle watch groups.

Nobody really knows how many loggerheads are out there; they spend nearly all their lives at sea. A few thousand females nest each summer in South Carolina, but nest populations vary dramatically year to year.

Those numbers are "crashing" in Florida, where most of the turtles long have nested. The numbers in South Carolina have been in a long decline. But recent counts suggest the numbers here might be stabilizing, at least, right about when the first generations of hatchlings in the TED years should be coming of nesting age. Griffin is cautiously optimistic, she says. But she says it guardedly.

"I think we're right at that threshold. But I thought we'd be seeing some trickling (of increasing numbers)," she said. On Florida beaches where the loggerheads nest, their numbers are crashing, but green and leatherback turtle nests are increasing. "Something is happening to (loggerheads) out in the water."

The peck-marks left by the hatchling loggerheads literally draw circles down to the waves, creating a pattern that looks oddly like a totem drawing of turtles. It's a sign the hatchlings are struggling. They find their way to the ocean in the night because they're drawn to its light.

"We have a sky glow now," said Pringle, the turtle team maven who's been doing this for more than a decade. "The whole sky is lit up behind the island when there's no moon. It disorients the turtles."

A lot of people don't realize just how much of the reed-swept rivers are the remnants of ricefields or phosphate quarrying. More and more, the coast's future will depend on the people living there and the choices they make.

"I think we have the staff, for the most part, to handle problems," Whitaker said. But because more of the research must be paid for with grants, biologists are more restricted in what they can do. They are losing the flexibility that has allowed DNR to jump on and solve crises like the turn-of-the-century drop in population of the prize-catch red drum.

"We're not going to be able to branch out, address anything new, respond if anything new comes along," he said.

If DNR's founding generation leaves a legacy, it's the progress made getting the public and outdoors groups involved, said Mel Bell, fisheries management director. "A collective voice, that's probably the key to us executing our mission, to help the public make good decisions now."

On the beach during that recent turtle inventory was a small knot of longtime volunteers, a lot of them with gray hair. Then there was Mac- Kenzie Robison, 19, a Mount Pleasant resident and a University of Miami marine biology major who had found the fresh tracks. Pringle worries about the lights, the loss to development or erosion of the short, steep beaches nesting turtles love. But she doesn't worry for the future of the watch program.

"We're really grateful to people like Sally Murphy who started this," she said. "There are so many people involved in it now, I cannot ever imagine people not wanting to volunteer to help with sea turtles, I really can't. Something about sea turtles, everybody loves them."

Reach Bo Petersenat 937-5744 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.