2014 sea turtle nesting

Number of turtle nests through July 23

Loggerhead: 1,724

Leatherback: 2

Green: 2

Source: S.C. Department of Natural Resources

It's not the year of the turtle. Only half as many sea turtle nests as usual have been laid at Cape Island, which usually holds one-third of the nests laid from North Carolina through Georgia. The rest of the coast is no better. But wildlife biologists say an "off" year was expected.

Few more than 1,720 nests have been laid in South Carolina - about one-third the number as last year - and the nesting frequency has dropped off drastically in the past two weeks, a sign that the mysterious reptiles are winding up nesting for the year. Nearly all are loggerhead turtle nests, as usual.

Nearly 5,200 nests were laid in 2013, a banner year for the state that followed a previous "record" year in 2012 and continued a five-year trend of more nests showing up. Biologists have been cautiously optimistic the corner has been turned in the state for the endangered and threatened species, that the "new" arrivals include grown-ups of hatchlings that began emerging in the 1970s, after sea turtle excluder devices and other protections were put into place.

This year's downturn says more about the caution than dampening the optimism. Historically, nest numbers have varied widely - literally by the thousands - year to year. Sea turtles don't lay nests every year, so the nest-laying of their offspring varies.

"It's cyclical," said Michelle Pate, S.C. Department of Natural Resources marine turtle conservation program coordinator. "We were expecting a low year. It just looks striking compared to the last few years. The numbers are similar to low years in the best."

Cape Island is ground zero for the 40-year effort to restore the loggerhead and other declining turtle species in the state and region. Most years, the six-mile-long strip of sand holds more than 1,000 sea turtle nests. It's the heart of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, where some years nearly half the nests in the state are laid.

But it's not alone in seeing fewer turtles. Botany Bay Plantation, where nearly 500 nests were laid last year, has only about one-third its usual numbers. By this time last year, Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island had more than 50 turtle nests. This year it's 15. With few more nests expected, if any, that's the worst year in a decade.

"The turtles just don't seem to be here," said Mary Pringle, of the Island Turtle Team for Isle for the two islands. "We've had five high years in a row now. The experts were expecting a break. We'll just have to wait and see next year."

Still, 1,700 nests add up to a lot of turtle hatchlings. The Island team had its first hatch this week, with as many as 128 live turtles, some of which volunteers freed from the remains of shells or from being wedged in the sand and then watched crawl to the sea.

And according to DNA testing, the first hatch is from a female that laid another nest farther up the beach a few weeks later, Pringle said. Hatching is expected to continue across the coast into October.

Since the turtles were put on the federal endangered species list in the 1970s, the numbers of Atlantic nesting turtles generally were thought to be in severe decline in Florida, where the overwhelming bulk of nests are laid, and a more gradual decline in South Carolina, where the most nests outside Florida are laid.

The states are the two largest-by-numbers nesting grounds in the world for loggerhead turtles, which lay the overwhelming bulk of the nests. The threats include relentless beach development, fishing nets, nesting beach erosion and predation.

The ponderous loggerhead has become a beloved totem of the South Carolina coast, its summer nesting watched over by a virtual army of volunteer groups. The state led the nation in efforts such as forming the groups and requiring turtle excluder devices on shrimping nets.

Earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated critical habitat for the turtle out of some 700 miles of beaches and nearly 300,000 miles of ocean along the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico, including more than 79 miles of shoreline in South Carolina.

That means federal regulators must determine what long-term impacts a beach or ocean project might have on turtle nesting, breeding and migrating.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.