Record year for sea turtle nests, hatching underway

Sea turtle hatchlings are making their way to the ocean across the South Carolina coast.

About midnight under a waxing moon, turtle hatchlings began to squirm their way out of a dune at Dewees Inlet and wriggle their way to the surf.

The emergence from an Isle of Palms loggerhead nest Thursday night was one more sign that another prime year of sea turtle nesting is well underway. The state on Friday surpassed the record number for nests with at least 5,200 laid, according to the marine turtle conservation site at S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Loggerheads are keeping up what appears more and more to be a remarkable recovery.

Turtles are emerging now all along the coast, marking the turning point in the season when turtle watchers’ emphasis starts to shift from finding and safeguarding nests to keeping tabs on the hatches and emerging turtles.

The record had been 5,198, set in 2013. This season is the third straight year of 5,000 or more nests. It includes an unprecedented 69 nests laid in one day in Cape Romain.

“These are impressive nest counts,” said Michelle Pate, S.C. Department of Natural Resources. “Many projects are reporting breaking their previous annual total nest count records.”

The Cape Romain nesting also included 131 “false crawls,” or attempts to nest, she said. To put it in perspective, the second-largest number of nests in a day so far this year is 13, on Hilton Head Island, she said.

The numbers bolster the cautious optimism among wildlife biologists that the South Carolina nesting population is showing signs of making a comeback after years of decline. There are seven species of sea turtles found across the world, and all of them are considered endangered or threatened.

Meanwhile, Georgia also is reporting a record number of nests, 2,890, surpassing a goal set to reach by 2028, according to The Associated Press.

The turtles remain among the most mysterious of sea creatures. They spend nearly all their life in the ocean and nobody really knows how many are out there.

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 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.

Nearly all the nests laid here this year have been loggerheads, the 300-pound mammoth that is one of the beloved creatures of the Lowcountry coast. But a species hasn’t been determined yet for 14 of the nests. Green sea turtles also are found here, occasionally the huge leatherback and the Kemp’s ridley, the rarest species.

It’s not all happy news. Not long after the Isle of Palms nest hatched, a crew from the South Carolina Aquarium was on its way to Myrtle Beach, to transport an adult loggerhead to the Ripley’s Aquarium to continue treatment. Again the treatment facility at the South Carolina Aquarium finds itself with more turtles that it can hold.

Along with the increase in nests, the number of strandings, or turtles found sick or dead, also is up this year, with at least 140 reported so far. That surpasses the 20-year average of 138, Pate said.

“We’ve had some odd strandings with both leatherbacks and loggerheads that appear to have been associated with the king tides this year as these animals have been found wandering in the marshes,” she said. When they could be helped, the first facility people have turned to has been the S.C. Aquarium.

That facility by Friday had taken in 20 loggerheads, seven Kemp’s ridley, seven green and a leatherback from South Carolina alone so far this year.

“We’ve admitted more live South Carolina strandings in the first six months this year than in all of last year,” said Kelly Thorvalson, the facility manager. The aquarium breaks ground in September on a larger facility and “it can’t happen soon enough. We’re just really, really struggling with the number of turtles that need rehabilitative care,” she said.

Turtles admitted to the facility this year have had a variety of troubles: fish hooks, boat strikes or dredging injuries, shark attack. But far more than half have been severely debilitated.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries scientists have been documenting the turtles’ exposure to man-made contaminants that research is suggesting is tied to at least some of the debilitating diseases. Research has shown contaminant releases, particularly in rain runoff, are a problem in the Lowcountry, where they are suspected to cause or contribute to health problems with other sea creatures.

In 2015 nearly 315,000 eggs hatched in South Carolina. But only a few hatchlings survive to adults; both face natural predators as well as manmade threats.

South Carolina led the nation in efforts to bring back the turtles that have included the turtle watch groups as well as mandating “excluder devices” on shrimp boat nets. But with the coast rapidly developing and continually eroding, providing enough open beach for nesting is becoming a challenge for restoring the species.

The Isle of Palms nest was laid by a loggerhead that crawled across the fairway of the signature 18th hole of the Wild Dunes Resort to deposit the eggs in a hazard area. Turtle watchers moved the nest to a more protected spot along the inlet, said Barb Bergwerf, of the Island Turtle Team.

Biologists encouraged beach residents to keep lights dimmed during the hatching season. Hatchlings find their way to sea by the ambient light off the ocean can become disoriented by other lights. The eggs usually finish hatching by October.

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