The Turtle Ladies: Six women bond on Isle of Palms to protect sea turtles

Photographer and Island Turtle Team member Barbara Bergwerf says this turtle came in to nest right by the pier on the Isle of Palms. After crawling around for a while, she went the wrong way and go herself stuck under the walkway to the beach at the Isle of Palms County Park. It gave her a rare opportunity to get some daylight photos as the turtle started heading in the right direction.

They are known, for better or worse, as “The Turtle Ladies” on the Isle of Palms. But the nickname doesn’t come close to describing the depth and breadth of the volunteer efforts that a half dozen women have done for sea turtles in the past 15 years.

Turtle nesting to date

On the beaches of South Carolina’s barrier islands, the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) sea turtle nesting season is May through October.

From May to mid-August, loggerheads come ashore to deposit approximately 120 eggs in a nest cavity in the dry sand dune system. About 60 days later, loggerhead hatchlings emerge from the nest at night and head to the ocean.

Nests hatch from July through the end of October. During the nesting season, loggerheads may be disoriented by artificial lights, such as street lights, exterior lights from homes and even city skyline glow.

As of Wednesday, here are counts of known loggerhead nests from local beaches:

Cape Island: 741 nests.

Lighthouse Island: 269 nests.

Kiawah Island: 265 nests.

Botany Bay: 126 nests.

Edisto Beach State Park: 107 nests.

Edisto Town Beach: 73 nests.

Folly Beach: 71 nests.

Bull’s Island: 50 nests.

Seabrook Island: 43 nests.

Isle of Palms: 26 nests.

Dewees Island: 12 nests.

Sullivan’s Island: 3 nests.

Capers Island: 3 nests.

SOURCES: S.C. Department of Natural Resources and www.seaturtle.org

The women of the Island Turtle Team, Mary Pringle, Yardwarune “Tee” Johannes, Barbara Bergwerf, Bev Ballow, Mary Alice Monroe and Barb Gobien, have brought an array of talents, skills and interests to improving the odds of survival for loggerhead sea turtles, not only on the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island but around the world.

While the number of annual nests on the two islands pales in comparison to undeveloped Cape Island, these ladies have made celebrities of the nesting turtles on the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island.

Turtle stars


In the Southeast, many know the women from a South Carolina Educational Television, “The Turtle Ladies of Charleston County” as part of the Carolina Stories series, originally produced in 2008 and frequently re-aired.

Farther afield, people know about turtle conservation efforts though Monroe’s books, notably “The Beach House” and “Turtle Summer,” an award-winning children’s book. Both have raised turtle-conservation awareness in the United States.

Monroe’s five team members all attest to people saying they came to the Isle of Palms to see the sea turtles after reading “The Beach House,” even when Monroe, unrecognized by the reader is among them working on a nest. They usually don’t blow her cover.

“On the beach, I’m not Mary Alice Monroe, I’m Mary Alice,” says the prolific author of more than a dozen books. “It’s not about me. It’s about the sea turtles.”

Bergwerf, a former professional photographer, collaborated with Monroe on “Turtle Summer” and documents nesting and hatching as well as turtle rehabilitation efforts of the South Carolina Aquarium, on her “Carolina Sea Turtles” website (www.bergwerfgraphics.com) and the “Island Turtle Team of IOP & SI, South Carolina” Facebook page.

Pringle describes herself as a data collection geek and probably is the closest to being a ringleader of the group.

Berfwerf, Ballow and Gobien also volunteer at the aquarium hospital and respond to emergency strandings.

Kelly Thorvalson, the aquarium’s sea turtle rescue program manager, says the aquarium has “hundreds of amazing volunteers” providing critical support to the program.

“Among the 24 Sea Turtle Rescue volunteers are several ‘turtle ladies’ that also protect sea turtle nests on the Isle of Palms,” she says.

“Day or night, weekend or holiday, near or far, these ladies will do just about anything on a moment’s notice to save these endangered species. We are incredibly fortunate to have them as part of our team.”

All six of the core Turtle Ladies on the Isle of Palms help coordinate 120 volunteer beach walkers and are public relation agents and lobbyists for a creature that is 175 million years old and fighting great odds, from overfishing, pollution and plastic in seas, to survive.

All those efforts are in addition to their main work of safeguarding nests, usually by relocating ones at risk of being engulfed at high tide, making sure hatchlings make it to the sea on moonless nights and collecting data, including GPS locations of nests and DNA samples.

Foundation laid


That flowering of efforts, however, is due partly to the seeds that were sewn by the original island turtle ladies, Marge Millman and Mary Ellen Rogers.

They started in the decade following 1989’s Hurricane Hugo when volunteer sea turtle efforts in South Carolina were in their infancy. Today, there are 22 different programs.

In the 1990s, Millman and Rogers both had experiences that made them realize that sea turtles laying eggs on islands inhabited by people needed help. Besides the volunteers who walked the beach during mornings looking for turtle tracks, they carried the load of a program.

Millman relocated many nests to the dunes in front of her beachfront house on the Isle of Palms so that she could keep a close eye on them and invited people to come to hatchings. Today’s practices have moved away from that.

“I really liked the educational aspect of it,” says Millman, who plans to move off the beachfront later this year but remain on the island.

Both Millman and Rogers, who retired to Oak Island, N.C., where she rehabilitates birds at her home, still feel like they have a part in today’s Island Turtle Team efforts and follow them.

“I’m so delighted that it has continued,” says Millman.

Rogers says she remains proud that she played a role in building the foundation of the Turtle Team.

“I don’t want to be remembered as someone’s mother, or someone’s grandmother, or for making a living in real estate. I want to be remembered for being a turtle lady and a bird lady.”

Sea turtle sisterhood


Of today’s core group of six turtle ladies, all got their feet wet, err sandy, with Millman and Rogers. While Gobien wasn’t part of the core until 2008, she volunteered with Millman in the 1990s.

Since 1998, the women also have formed a sisterhood that seems thicker than blood.

“We spend so much time together,” says Pringle. “We see each other every day because we have nests every day ... For the last 15 years, we’ve been together daily and nightly in the summer time every season.”

Even in the off-season, many of them travel to international and national sea turtle conferences.

Johannes, who is a native of Thailand and admittedly the most shy of the bunch, considers the women her sisters.

“My real sister is in Thailand, so these girls are my sisters,” says Johannes. “We have the same interests and that we just happen to get along and our husbands get along.”

The lure of turtles


The love of sea turtles, and wildlife in general, does bring together a common set of values of people, such as compassion for animals and a love and respect for diversity and beauty of the Earth.

Johannes recalls how her love of animals started with her upbringing.

“In the older days, Thai people used to eat freshwater turtles as normal food, but I didn’t grow up that way,” she recalls. “After work, I used to go to market, buy the whole basket load of turtles and then let them go. That was how I was taught to do things.”

All seem to trace their interest in turtles to their youth and, despite working with them for years, continue to be in awe of the creatures.

Bergwerf, who grew up in Chicago, developed her love of sea life by watching Jacques Cousteau on TV and taking dive trips with her family. “Turtles are enchanting, stoic, historic.”

“Turtles have a certain pull with people. Dolphins and whales have it, too, but turtles have the whole struggle. They struggle to get up the beach to lay their eggs, never to see their hatchlings, ever again. Sixty days later, a hundred of the little guys emerge and spend most of their early years trying to avoid predators.

“No one is protecting them. They are solitary. They make it to the Gulf Stream, to the North Atlantic gyre, around to Spain, off Africa, the Azores and then they swim back to South Carolina.

“That’s phenomenal. How can you not be attracted to a creature like that?”



Reach David Quick at 937-5516.

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