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SC finishes sea turtle nesting season with record-breaking inventory

Slowly but surely, sea turtles are making strides in South Carolina.

Nesting season wrapped up Oct. 31, and the state finished with 8,002 nests — its second-highest total on record.

Nest counts have averaged about 5,600 the past two years, but the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said it is not usual for record-breaking years to follow low nesting years. 

For example, the 8,795 nests counted in 2019 were more than triple the 2,766 reported in 2018. 

As numbers across the Southeast trend upward, biologists are optimistic the reptiles are beginning to recover.

"Increased nest counts since the mid- to late-2000s show promise for the loggerhead," said Michelle Pate, nesting program leader for DNR. "We're seeing the continued benefits of conservation measured enacted decades ago as well as those management techniques still used today."

Among the most interesting finds this season was the oddity of a leucistic sea turtle on Folly Beach. While most loggerhead turtles are dark, leucistic animals are white, pale or patchy in color because of their reduced pigmentation. 

Dave Miller, the permit holder for the Folly Beach Turtle Team, found the special turtle in September. 

“I saw these two turtles coming out of the nest and they were covered with sand,” Miller said. “And then the wave washed them over and one of them was white. I didn’t realize it when it was covered in sand.”

Leucism increases animals' chances of being taken by predators. And in areas like Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island, coyotes are among the top predators for sea turtles. 

Turtle patrol volunteers work to find sea turtle nests on beaches before coyotes do. 

"What the Wild Dunes coyotes have learned to do is ambush the turtle as she comes out of the water in the middle of the night and begins to lay her eggs," said Mary Pringle, a project leader for the Island Turtle Team in Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island.

The coyotes will often eat the turtle's eggs before volunteers can get to them in the morning and place plastic screens over the nests. The animals can't destroy the nests once that happens. But volunteers can't predict when and where a turtle will choose to nest.

"When I started (volunteering), we didn't have any coyotes," Pringle said. "We had raccoons and ghost crabs as predators, but not coyotes. And it's just something that's happening all over the coast."

Foxes and the emergence of armadillos on beaches have also become a reason for nest losses in the state.

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A loggerhead sea turtle wades out to sea after nesting on Lighthouse Island at Cape Romain on July 21, 2022. This turtle exhausted herself early that morning by walking down the beach towards the rising sun instead of going straight into the water. Cape Romain staff found her and helped clean off her shell, which had been caked with a thick layer of sand, before she made her way back to the ocean. Sand cliffs along the water’s edge stand as a physical representation of erosion’s effects on the island’s shoreline. File/Laura Bilson/Staff

Pate said other concerns include artificial lighting on heavily populated beaches, and people intercepting nesting females at night.  

Even with predators like coyotes, sea turtle species in the state have found a way to prevail. Many new turtles nested here for the first time this season.

"And they (scientists) are cautiously optimistic that it will continue because of nest protection efforts — saving nests, making sure they hatch like we did and all the other people who do the same thing that we do for DNR," Pringle said. 

Pringle's Island Turtle Team is one of about 30 groups along the coast that patrol beaches from May 1 to Oct. 31 to count, monitor and protect the nests. DNR said there are more than 1,500 volunteers coastwide.

Fifty-seven total nests were spotted this year on the Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island. And 4,602 turtles hatched on those islands.

Most of the nests there were in the Wild Dunes area. 

Thirty-four nests were were counted on Myrtle Beach; 99 on Folly Beach; 483 on Kiawah Island; 351 at Edisto Beach State Park; and 423 on Hilton Head Island, according to data

Loggerheads nest on the state's shores more often than any other species, but greens, Kemp's ridleys and leatherbacks also have a presence here.

Each species is classified as endangered or threatened and receive protections under the Endangered Species Acts. Extra state protections are also in place.

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Kathryn Motley, Evelyn Stephens, and Abbie “AK” King inspect a section of relocated loggerhead sea turtle nests that “boiled”, had hatchlings emerge from, overnight in front of the sand dunes of Lighthouse Island at Cape Romain on July 21, 2022. The flipper tracks from the hundreds of hatchlings are highlighted by the morning light. Over 2,000 nests reside on the islands at Cape Romain, and around 60 percent of them have been relocated. Nests are relocated when turtles lay their eggs too close to the water or in a location that could be washed over by breaking waves. Due to significant erosion of shorelines on these islands, many turtles lay eggs in locations that may have been safe 30 years ago but are now unsafe. File/Laura Bilson/Staff

This year, 7,974 nests were counted in the state, 21 green turtle nests and one Kemp's ridley nest. 

Green turtles and Kemp's ridleys are primarily found in other regions of North America, including Florida and the western Gulf of Mexico.

"I think in the history of Folly Beach Turtle Team, we've had maybe two leatherbacks," Miller said. "And everything else has been loggerheads."

Other species will pop up on the beach, maybe for food, but choose to nest in other locations.

DNR said beachgoers can help the state's sea turtles by keeping beaches clean, giving the animals and their nests space and turning beachfront lights out to avoid disorienting them during nesting season.

Follow Shamira McCray on Twitter @ShamiraTweets.

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