CAPE ROMAIN — On a cool night in April, a turtle the size of a table lumbered out of the surf on Kiawah Island and laid eggs in the dunes.
The arrival of the rare, massive leatherback — the first sea turtle to nest in the state this year — might as well have been a harbinger for what became an astounding season.
More loggerheads created nests than any time since 1982. For the first time in more than 30 years of record-keeping, overall sea turtle nest numbers increased for the third year in a row.
That might be one more sign of a sea change here when it comes to the endangered species. Nobody wants to say it yet, but the loggerhead appears to be making a comeback after years of a gradual decline in the average number of nests. The loggerhead is the predominant sea turtle species to nest here.
Loggerheads laid 4,596 nests this year, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources reported.
In 2004, the scariest year for sea turtle biologists, only 345 sea turtle nests overall were created.
In South Carolina, nest numbers spiked five years ago and have remained relatively high.
It just might be that these “new” arrivals are grownups of hatchlings that began emerging in the 1970s, after sea turtle excluder devices and other protections were put into place.
“That’s the hope, that the turtles have reached maturity and beyond that, and the conservation measures are paying off,” said Dan Ashworth, the biologist for Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, where a record 1,675 nests were laid.
Spikes in nesting occurred this year across the Southeast coast, even in Florida — the state with by far the most nesting, where the numbers had “crashed,” in the description of one wildlife biologist.
“At this point I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Sandy MacPherson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife national sea turtle program coordinator.
But it’s too soon to say. Nesting spikes could be related to something as simple as spikes in foraging food offshore.
“We’re still learning that we have a lot to learn about loggerheads. We know a lot more about what’s going on in the nesting beaches than we do about what’s going on in the water, and they spend most of their lives in the water,” she said.
All seven species of sea turtle are considered endangered. The leatherback is so rare here that the Kiawah nest in April was only the second nest of eggs laid on the island in more than 30 years.
The loggerhead, far more plentiful here, is considered a threatened species in the Southeast region.
The loggerhead is a long-lived sea turtle that grows to the size of a bistro table and crawls ashore in the spring and summer to lay eggs in the dunes. It has become one of those totems of the coast, each year drawing an army of watch volunteers and crowds of people when a turtle is spotted or a rehabilitated injured turtle is released.
Nobody really knows how many loggerheads are out there; they spend nearly all their lives in the sea. They are prolific enough that a few thousand females nest each summer in South Carolina alone, but nest numbers vary dramatically year to year.
In 1988, South Carolina became the first state to mandate turtle excluder devices on shrimp boat nets, amid a pitched fight between conservationists and shrimpers over their value, a fight that went all the way to the S.C. Supreme Court.
Protections now include dimming of beach lights at night during nesting season, so the hatchlings can find their way to sea by the ambient light off the ocean.
South Carolina also was a national leader in training volunteer groups to monitor nests and relocate threatened nests.
Just one of the heartening stories this year comes from Cape Island, maybe the most remote of Cape Romain’s out-there barrier islands.
Year to year, the sliver of island holds 1,000 or more sea turtle nests, one third of the total from North Carolina to Georgia. Last year, it was sliced in three and virtually overwashed by surge from Hurricane Irene. Hundreds of nests were lost. Biologists worried they might be closer than they thought to losing the invaluable nesting grounds and turtle hatchery.
But hundreds more nests were made this year than in each of the past two years. One of the breaches filled in over the winter. The turtles dug nests closer together, and biologists relocated the threatened ones more densely.
Meanwhile, more nests were laid on Lighthouse Island behind Cape, giving biologists the first suggestion that if Cape Island is lost, the turtles — which home in on their own hatching beaches — would move to nearby islands.
“That’s one of the biggest things that stuck out for me,” Ashworth said.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.