Bo Petersen // The Post and Courier

Volunteer Branwen Stenger of Mount Pleasant helps clear sand from buried sea turtle nests Thursday on Cape Island.

CAPE ISLAND -- Sarah Dawsey has not smiled all week. Not since Hurricane Irene on Aug. 26 tore to pieces the critical island for sea turtle nesting just as the season's eggs were hatching.

She pivots an ATV around the shreds of a maritime forest on Cape Island, across a thin strip of remaining beach that was secondary dunes before Irene. She is headed to the dune hatchery where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relocates sea turtle nests that are in jeopardy of being swamped by tides. She and a crew of three, two of them volunteers, are on their way to dig out those nests and wild nests nearby.

The nests were buried under a welt of storm-washed sand so thick and deep it would smother the hatchlings as they struggled their way free.

It's Thursday, the fourth day in a row of hot, strenuous shovel work and delicate hand-over-hand clearing. The work has been rushed like triage to clean each nest in the order its eggs are expected to hatch, before the hatchlings "pip," or break open the eggs.

For a lot of people, the worst damage Irene did in South Carolina was to tear up the Charleston County park on Folly Beach. For Dawsey, the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge manager, there's no comparison. Irene did her worst on Cape, "by far the most important island for sea turtles," she said.

Year-in and year-out, the six-mile-long strip of sand holds more than 1,000 sea turtle nests -- one-third of all the sea turtle nests from North Carolina to Georgia. Some 200 to 300 of the island's nests have been washed away. Even worse, a mile of beach has been lost to nesting, and long stretches of remaining nesting dunes have been flattened. The dock pier is collapsed. Tide swallows the ATV path from that sole usable landing.

As Dawsey turns onto the beach, you can look to the south and see the first of three new breach inlets, which cut apart the island even at low tide. It really isn't one island anymore. The ATV can't cross the inlets. The crew already tried to earlier this week. Only the last of those three isolated strands can be reached now, by beaching the johnboat behind the island.

As the ATV rumbles along, Shannon Teders, a marine biologist for the S.C. Aquarium who is volunteering to help, gasps in dismay at lost dunes.

"Oh, wow. It's gone. It looks like a completely different island," she said.

Keeping it productive

Dawsey grew up in McClellanville and knew where she wanted to be from the first day she set foot on Cape Island, about five miles out to sea from the town, the far edge of the refuge. For 25 years, she has been responsible for the place.

She started as a Fish and Wildlife bio-technician. She became the biologist for the maze of salt marsh and remote barrier islands of the refuge that makes up more than 20 miles of the coast north of Charleston. Even now, as manager, she remains the refuge's sole biologist by default: A federal hiring freeze has stymied hiring a new one.

"She's softspoken. She's stoic. She's one of the hardest workers I've ever seen," Teders said.

This place is Dawsey's watch. The nesting beach is now strewn with "wrack" -- shanks of wood pieces, straw and debris covering the sandlike mulch. It's up to her, the few staffers and a rotating cadre of volunteers to clean what they can from the nests and keep it going.

She drives mostly without speaking. She pauses to eye the points where the tide broke through what is left of the dunes to wash into the marsh on the back side. She has long known Cape is slipping away to the inevitable creep of sea water. But, as she would say later, she didn't expect it to happen all at once.

Nobody knows what losing the island would do to the recovering population of the beloved loggerhead species and other sea turtles. Fish and Wildlife and volunteer crews work throughout the spring-to-fall season to protect nests, moving the ones they have to, wire caging all of them to protect them from raccoons and minks whose paw prints routinely track by.

The sands shift on barrier islands, that's a given. A stretch of what was Cape Island is now Lighthouse Island behind it, washed across by Hurricane Bertha in 1996.

The hope is the turtles migrate with the sands. But not enough research has been done to know how well they do. Sea turtles have an uncanny homing instinct; they will lay their eggs on or near the beaches where they hatched, a quarter-century and more later.

And at least for the immediate future, it's more likely they will nest closer and closer on the remaining Cape Island beach, crowding more hatches at more risk to predators or overwash. That's not going to help a species now thought to be on the brink of recovery.

"The habitat will certainly shift, and the turtles will adapt," Dawsey said. "Our job is to keep up the immediate productivity."

Squiggles in the sand

The hatchery is a series of workman's piping and wire mesh cages set among the highest, surest dunes on the island's north end. This season it has held some 375 relocated nests.

With the overwash from Irene, the hatchery is now in jeopardy with no other good place to locate it. There's simply no sand dune left on much of the strip beach that rises more than a man's height. Turtles and hatchlings tend to follow the slope of the beach to lay nests or work their way to the ocean on hatching. Without dune slope, they don't always know which way to go. They can get stranded in the marsh just behind.

Earlier in the ride, there was a whoop from the ATV. Fish and Wildlife bio-technician Jerry Tupacz, a Georgetown retailer who works seasonally during turtle nesting, spotted the track of a single hatchling, a pattern of squiggles down a channel opened in the sand by thrashing flippers. It was the first he had seen all week, from a nest he cleared a few days earlier.

When they reach the hatchery, Tupacz is yelling, "Tracks! Tracks! Whoooooooo!" A wide swath of beach is crinkled with the herringbone patterns of tiny thrashing turtles and flippers, from nests already cleaned after the storm.

The crew will dig in and sweat for hours. They will free a loggerhead hatchling struggling in the sand, crawling in circles with a lame back flipper, a gouge from a crab bite in its head. There won't be much hope, but they will carry it to the tide wash. Branwen Stenger, a Mount Pleasant mom on her first trip as a volunteer, will get one of those lifetime thrills -- a chance to hold a baby sea turtle.

But for this moment, the stoic Dawsey stands on the beach looking at that pattern of tracks and does something she hasn't done all week. She smiles.