A big turtle season may be emerging

Newly hatched loggerheads scramble to the ocean on Isle of Palms last year. Experts think 2015 may be a good year for sea turtles.

Sometime in the next few weeks, a gargantuan will paddle out of the surf, dig out a hole in the sand, and lay the first of thousands and thousands of sea turtle eggs in the Lowcountry dunes this season. This could be another big nesting year in an apparent recent trend that was interrupted in 2014.

“Producing the large number of eggs that loggerheads do takes a lot of energy, so females usually skip years in between nesting,”said Brian Shamblin, a University of Georgia assistant research scientist who has been studying DNA from nests in the Carolinas and Georgia to identify individual females and trace genetic lines.

“The percentage of turtles that returned last year from the 2011 and 2012 nesting seasons was much lower than previous cycles. We hope that means it’s just taken a little longer for them to build up their energy reserves and that they’ll be back in force this summer,” he said.

And it could start a bit sooner than the usual early to mid-May. The first nesting turtle of the year, a leatherback, crawled out of the sea at Pompano Beach, Fla., on March 10. It’s now been followed by loggerhead and green turtles. South Carolina nesting usually begins a couple weeks after Florida, said Michelle Pate, S.C. Department of Natural Resources marine turtle conservation program coordinator.

“Water temperatures are up and turtles have been sighted offshore,” she said. DNR biologists, too, were not surprised at last year’s drop and anticipate numbers will go back up, she said.

The loggerhead is the primary South Carolina nester among at least four of the seven sea turtle species that come in on Lowcountry beaches. All seven species are considered endangered or threatened.

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 in a more gradual decline in South Carolina, where the most nests outside Florida are laid.

Last year saw a drop in nest numbers to a few more than 2,000 nests in South Carolina, the lowest since 2009 and a reversal of four years of steady increases that have biologists cautiously optimistic the threatened loggerhead species might have turned a corner in its recovery.

The first turtle to lay a nest is most likely to be a loggerhead sea turtle, but it could be a massive leatherback, like the one that crawled onto Kiawah Island in mid-April in 2012, a green or Kemp’s ridley. More than 100 hatchlings could emerge two months later, but each hatchling’s chance of surviving to adulthood is the same as or worse than the chance of a tsunami hitting the East Coast this year — one in 1,000.

The hatchlings face a gantlet of predators that includes ants, sharks, ghost crabs, raccoons and man.

Artificial lights can disorient them. The egg-laden females get struck by boats. They get tangled in lines. And, because they eat jellyfish, they choke on plastic litter.

But South Carolina was an early leader in protections such as turtle-excluder net devices, dimming coastal lights and the formation of resident turtle watch groups. Because of the awareness spread largely by those efforts, more people are becoming more conscious of the nesting and precautions.

Among other efforts, an Isle of Palms grass-roots campaign to discontinue single-use plastic bags is asking City Council to ban them on the island. Councilman Jim Carroll has asked the mayor to put the item on the April 28 agenda, Carroll said. The Ban the Bags IOP Facebook page has attracted more than 600 “likes.”

Kathy Kent started the group with three other concerned “moms” after her 5-year-old daughter became interested in helping sea turtles. “As we talked to neighbors, friends and other community members we saw the same thing,” she said. “That tiny bit of convenience isn’t worth killing a species.”

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