Two years ago a rarely seen, massive leatherback sea turtle crawled ashore on Kiawah Island and laid the first nest of the season.
May 1-Oct. 31 is considered sea turtle nesting season in South Carolina. Egg-laying females will be in coastal waters and hundreds if not thousands of nests will be laid on beaches.
Among the precautions people can take:
Cut off lights near the beach or turn them landward. Close blinds for indoor lighting.
Don't use flashlights or lanterns on the beach.
Remove items from the beach at night.
Don't build beach campfires.
Don't approach a sea turtle encountered on the beach. Keep away and keep pets away from nests. Don't shoot photographs.
Don't disturb turtle tracks.
Don't litter. Don't release balloons.
Avoid beach vegetation.
In boats, stay in the channels, slow down in shallow water and keep watch.
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
This year is a little different.
A dead leatherback was found recently in nearby Bohicket Creek. It died from eating plastic it mistook for jellyfish.
Sea turtles will be swimming ashore to lay nests across the Lowcountry by the hundreds if not thousands over the next six months. While the season officially runs May-October, none were listed as arrived as of Friday. The ceremonial start, though, is more auspicious.
"Normally, it's Mother's Day weekend," said Elisabeth King, Kiawah Island Nature Program outdoor program director.
But the turtles' tale isn't all smiles. Predators include everything from sharks to ants. Artificial lights can disorient hatchlings. The egg-laden females get struck by boats. They get tangled in lines. And, because they eat jellyfish, they choke on litter.
The sea turtle rescue program at the South Carolina Aquarium sees a spike in injured turtle admissions each spring and summer. The most recent patient is a debilitated loggerhead found at Huntington Beach State Park, admitted Thursday night. Boat strikes and line tanglements are common among admissions, and a handful of turtles have come in sick from eating plastic.
"What I'm seeing in rehab is that (plastic ingestion) is a big part of the picture," said Kelly Thorvalson, rescue program manager. Overall, only about 10 percent of turtles that strand are found alive. "I'm assuming there are a lot more out there that strand," she said.
Nearly all the turtles hatched in the Lowcountry are loggerheads, the beloved creature of the coast, a long-lived turtle that grows to the size of a small kitchen table. Because of conservation efforts led by the state, and a virtual army of volunteers that monitors nests, its numbers are showing signs of recovering from a long decline.
All seven species of sea turtles are considered endangered or threatened, and at least four have been found to nest here. The leatherback is so rarely seen that the Kiawah nest in 2013 was only the second on the island in more than 20 years. When it's seen, there's no mistake. The turtle can reach 8 feet long and a ton in weight - more than twice the size of a loggerhead.
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