FOLLY BEACH - The loggerhead nest had been dug out, fragments of shells lying around it. It was easy to think the worst: The endangered species hatch had been vandalized.
Turtle nesting laws
Loggerheads are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The turtles and their habitats are protected by federal and state laws. Federal law stipulates anyone violating the act can be assessed a maximum $25,000 civil penalty or a maximum $50,000 fine with up to one year imprisonment for a criminal violation.
If a sea turtle hatchling is disoriented by artificial light, the maximum federal fine for harming a threatened species is $25,000.
County penalties vary and fines can be up to $500.
Sources: The Endangered Species Act, S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Only two summers before, two sea turtle nests had been poached on Folly Beach, at a time when a string of thefts was taking place along the Southeast coast; the eggs are a black market item, considered an aphrodisiac in some cultures. The Folly nest thieves were never caught.
But when investigators arrived at the scene last weekend, there were signs the turtle hatchlings had scrambled to the sea, and there was a note written in the sand: "They all made it." The turtles apparently already had hatched when the nest was opened.
Someone apparently dug it up in an effort to free the last of the turtles or to make sure they all had hatched, said Sean McBride, Army Corps of Engineers public affairs specialist in the Charleston district. But not all the eggs and hatchlings are accounted for, and the incident is being investigated. Even if it were the best of intentions, that doesn't change things.
Disturbing the nest still is a federal crime and subject to fines up to $50,000 and possible jail time, he said. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are conducting a joint investigation.
"Luckily in this instance, the nest already had hatched. If it hadn't, probably we would have lost the nest," said Shannon Howard, of the Folly Beach Turtle Watch Program. "It's a reminder, a good reminder to everyone that the nests are federally protected. It's against the law to disturb the nest, the eggs, live or even dead sea turtles."
The watch group was able to partly inventory the nest and has at least a partial count because the nest had to be relocated earlier and the eggs were counted at the time, Howard said. "They are protected for a reason, and only people who are permitted to handle the nests are allowed. Our inventories are open to the public (to view). We want people to be educated and to spread the word to protect these animals. They are a key species in our environment," she said.
All seven sea turtle species are considered endangered or threatened; at least four nest in South Carolina - the green, leatherback and Kemp's ridley along with the loggerhead.
Since the turtles were put on the federal endangered species list in the 1970s, the numbers of Atlantic nesting loggerhead turtles generally have been 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 loggerheads, which lay the overwhelming bulk of the nests. The threats include relentless beach development, fishing nets, nesting beach erosion and predation - including human predation.
More recently, biologists are seeing signs that the corner might be turned in restoring the loggerhead in South Carolina, where the ponderous reptile has become a beloved totem of the coast, and 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.
From May to mid-August, loggerheads lay about 120 eggs in a nest cavity in the dry sand dune system of the shore. They hatch about 60 days later at night and head into the ocean.
In addition to federal law, several counties, including Charleston County, have ordinances in place restricting artificial lighting on the beach, which can distract the hatched turtles and interfere with their navigation into the ocean.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife would not comment on the Folly Beach incident because it is an open investigation, said spokeswoman Jennifer Koches.
The Army Corps Charleston District has oversight of the disturbed nest this year because it is on the grounds of the recently completed the Folly Beach renourishment. If a suspect is apprehended and convicted, "it would be unlikely that any fines of this ($50,000) nature would be placed upon the person who did this since we no longer believe there was malicious intent behind it," said McBride of the Army Corps.
In maybe the best thing to come out of the incident, the Army Corps Charleston District posted on Facebook a notice of the vandalism and a photo of the excavated nest. The posting has been viewed by nearly 6,000 people by Friday, McBride said. That's why the Corps did it. "To spread the word that people need to leave the nests alone."
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A loggerhead turtle hatchling flippers its way through the sand at Isle of Palms.×
Sea turtle eggs are burried on the Isle of Palms Saturday in June.×
Sea turtle nests run along the South Carolina coast including a handful at Folly Beach last month.×