From novelty to treasured coastal totem

A hatchling squirms to the ocean after being found in a hatched nest by volunteers at Isle of Palms.

They used to cook loggerhead eggs into pound cakes. Even researchers occasionally rode exhausted females back into the surf after eggs were laid. Little more than a generation ago, today’s threatened sea turtle was an exotic curiosity.

The loggerhead is on the verge of an extraordinary recovery along the Lowcountry coast, made possible by nation-leading regulations, such as mandating “excluder devices” on shrimp boats, and a virtual army of volunteer turtle watch groups.

But the tacit factor in the recovery is that people’s attitudes have changed.

So far, more than 5,700 sea turtle nests have been laid in South Carolina this summer — a record year surpassing the previous record by more than 400 with a few weeks still to go in the nesting season. Georgia also is reporting record numbers.

This season is the third straight year of 5,000 or more nests, continuing a trend nearly a decade long of numbers increasing as the generation of turtles born at the onset of protections now come in to nest. Biologists who have characterized their assessment of the loggerhead’s recovery trend as “cautiously optimistic” now say they are optimistic.

The loggerhead is a long-lived sea turtle that grows to the size of a bistro tabletop and crawls ashore in the spring and summer to lay eggs in the dunes. One of seven species of sea turtles — each threatened or endangered, loggerheads lay nearly all the nests in South Carolina.

They have become a pride of the natural coast, to the point where the prospects of seeing the release of rehabilitated turtle draws hundreds at a time to the beach. Nesting is protected by hands-off federal laws and monitored by a virtual army of volunteer turtle groups.

Not so long ago, that wasn’t so.

Mike Ketchum remembers the night as a young child a tour guide set him on top of a sea turtle as it lay eggs in the sand.

“To my way of thinking then it was like putting me on top of a Volkswagen,” said Ketchum, now 72, of Daniels Island.

It was during a family vacation to the Millionaires Club on Jekyll Island, Ga. His folks woke up him and his older sister, Peggy, toward midnight to take them on a mystery trip to the beach. The huge reptiles coming out of the surf were like nothing they had ever seen, said his sister, Peggy Matthews of Destin, Fla.

Nesting sea turtles were one of the more obscure coastal critters.

“Back when I started in 1998, there was no knowledge the turtles were even out there,” said Mary Pringle of Isle of Palms. She helped found the Island Turtle Team in 1998, the same year S.C. Department of Natural Resources staffers hammered the shrimper-opposed excluder device law into the books.

Pringle had grown up on Sullivan’s Island, came over as a baby in 1946 when the Ben Sawyer Bridge opened. A lifelong beachcomber, she collected shells and watched for dolphin. But until she was alerted to the newly forming group by her Audubon chapter, she had no idea that sea turtles nested here.

It didn’t take long to win over her and others on the coast. The turtle watch group encountered some resistance from a few beachfront residents. They didn’t want to change their way of doing things and felt they had every right to shine their lights on the night beach and sea, even though it disoriented hatchlings.

But “there’s something about sea turtles that fascinates people,” Pringle said.

Today the island group has a waiting list of people who want to join the crack-of-dawn effort to find and chronicle nesting.

She talks about her first encounters with loggerheads that were beach regulars, including “Stumpy,” her name for the turtle with a shark-severed back flipper who couldn’t dig a nest deep enough to protect her eggs. Pringle ended up lying behind her as she dropped eggs, pulling them aside, then burying them deeper after Stumpy crawled back to sea.

The eggs are leathery and oddly soft enough that if you press a finger it leaves a dimple. But they are so delicate that if an egg is turned too far too fast the amniotic sac splits, killing the fetus. Turtle watch members who handle eggs must be certified to do it.

Since the turtles were put on the federal endangered species list in the 1970s, the numbers of Atlantic nesting turtles generally have been thought to be in gradual decline in South Carolina. That appears to be changing; along with more nests, more turtles are being found in the water during surveys.

But the species’ recovery is far from complete. Despite fledgling efforts in Costa Rica, huevos de tortuga (turtle eggs) are still on the menu, and green turtle eggs are especially prized. The eggs are considered an aphrodisiac in some cultures, and swallowing one raw is a macho dare in some bars.

Meanwhile, raccoons and invasive coyotes are plundering nests and hatchlings. Along with natural predators, adult turtles now face man-made threats, such as eating plastic, which they mistake for their jellyfish prey.

In the United States, it’s now a crime to touch an egg without a permit — much less ride the nesting turtle — with fines as high as $1,000 per egg, and a nest can hold more than a hundred. But in 2012, a number of nests were looted for eggs in the Southeast, including on Folly Beach. In 2014, a few eggs were swiped from a hatching nest on Folly, apparently as a curiosity.

With the coast rapidly developing and continually eroding, providing enough open beach for nesting is becoming a challenge for restoring the species. Beachfront lighting continues to be a problem.

“The bad thing today down (in Destin) is when the little turtles hatch, all the condominium lights confuse them and they get lost,” Matthews said.

But the turtles now are considered a totem rather than a novelty.

“Think of that, an exhausted female getting ridden by a grown man. It’s almost as bad as getting the eggs and eating them,” Pringle said.

“Today you’d be put in jail if you did that,” Matthews said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.