Local turtle patrollers meet few bad eggs Most people curious, cooperative, they say

Ramona Farish (left) and Staci Sarkowski, volunteers for Island Turtle Team, walk the beaches of Isle of Palms in July looking for sea turtle nests.

FOLLY BEACH — The people renting the beach house grabbed their patio furniture, dragged it across the recently renourished dunes and set it nearly on top of a sea turtle nest, so they could lounge on the sand. They ignored the public access alongside.

When that happened recently at Folly Beach, neighbor Minde Herbert tried a friendly approach, she said. She told them politely they can’t do that and why. They told her off. The next thing she knew, they had dragged down another piece of furniture.

The Lowcountry hasn’t seen harassment of turtle nests or patrol volunteers like south Florida beach groups are seeing. But the rudeness that organizers say spawned those incidents is no longer so strange at beaches here. So far, most people are curious and cooperative about the nesting, turtle patrol volunteers say. But there are exceptions.

Turtle nesting, mostly by loggerheads, is still on track to be a banner if not record year in South Carolina, where the most loggerhead nests are laid outside of Florida. So far, about 5,000 nests have been laid in the state, continuing a trend of more nests in recent years.

Biologists are now cautiously optimistic the threatened loggerhead species has turned a corner here in its recovery.

In Florida in July, a man attacked a sea turtle nest, got into a wrestling match with a turtle watch volunteer trying to stop him and the volunteer ended up getting shot and slightly wounded. That was just an extreme example of what’s become a daily gantlet, said Richard Whitecloud, of Sea Turtle Oversight Protection, a Broward County, Fla., group.

His volunteers have been mouthed off to, called “Turtle Nazis,” and told they had no right to tell beachgoers what to do. Patrolling volunteers have had hecklers follow them down the beach. At a nest hatching last week, people refused to quit shooting flash photographs even after being told the lights disorient hatchlings.

“I think it’s gotten more intense over the years. People are getting more and more arrogant, I guess you’d say, spoiled,” Whitecloud said. The beach for them “is just another place to go, shop and consume, for their own ego. It’s no longer a special place to go be inspired.”

The Lowcountry has seen more of that lately. Beach residents and officials talked this spring about the summer weekend onslaught of people partying loudly and disruptively, strewing beer cans and other litter, occasionally fighting, as well as tearing up, trespassing and urinating on private property.

Turtle patrol groups, though, largely have been treated appreciatively by beachgoers and vacation renters. The Island Turtle Patrol on Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island gets occasional lip, and small problems like people setting up umbrellas and chairs around turtle tracks.

But even when knocking on doors at night when a nest is due to hatch, to get people to turn their lights out, “most of the people we approach get excited and comply,” said Mary Pringle, of the group.

There’s been trouble. In 2012, two nests on Folly Beach were poached after they were laid, among a string of nest poaching along the Southeast coast; the eggs are a black market item, considered an aphrodisiac in some cultures. The Folly nest thieves were never caught.

In 2014, someone dug into a Folly nest apparently trying to help hatching turtles. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers resolved the matter and no one was charged, a service spokeswoman said.

But that’s really been the worst of it for the group, said Shannon Howard, of the Folly Beach Turtle Watch..

“Every once in a while you’ll get someone who’s annoyed,” she said, when asked to turn off lights, move beach equipment or fill in holes dug in the sand. But mostly, people are like the small group that collected around her Monday, as she did an emergency nest relocation against an incoming high tide.

“They were excited and wanting to learn,” she said. “Usually we have really good experiences like that.”

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