cape island nest wrack

Poles that marked loggerhead turtle nests on Cape Island lay in the wrack on the beach after Hurricane Dorian passed. Provided/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Workers on Cape Island are sifting through the debris and shoveling away the sand moved about by Hurricane Dorian, trying to save thousands of loggerhead sea turtle eggs that might still be alive in some 500 nests.

Near the island, nobody knows yet the fate of another 500 or so nests on the various Sea Islands in the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center, across the Santee Delta north of Charleston. State workers who are still repairing storm damage across the 24,000-acre preserve, can't yet get to the remote islands.

"We have no idea how many (nests) we've lost, how many are just covered over (and) can be cleared and still hatched," said Charlotte Hope, a S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist.

Dorian — which didn't do much environmental damage working its way up the South Carolina coast last week — tore into the North, South and Sand islands that are the heart of the acclaimed loggerhead turtle recovery effort in the Palmetto State and where the most nests are laid outside of Florida.

Those 1,000 unaccounted-for nests on Cape and the Yawkey islands are one-fourth of the nests in the state that hadn't hatched before the storm. 

The losses would be a bigger problem than just numbers. Because the nests were laid in the hotter summer months, the hatches would most likely be males — and most of the males to be produced in South Carolina this year.

That would be a particularly grueling legacy of the storm: adding to a new threat to reclaiming a species that is an emblem of the coast. 

For more than a decade, concern has grown that more loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings are born female than male as the sand temperature rises in a warming climate, disrupting the species balance needed to reproduce.

The research here is still underway but it appears South Carolina is producing 80 percent females to 20 percent males, he said. When studies began a few decades ago, the sex difference was about 50-50.

An adult loggerhead is normally a 300-pound, 3-foot-long mammoth that crawls into the dunes each spring to lay eggs in nests that will hatch over the summer. It's the species that lays nearly all the nests along South Carolina beaches and has become a beloved symbol of the natural coast.

The loggerhead is one of seven sea turtle species around the world and all of them are considered endangered or threatened.

The storm came closer to Cape Island near McCellanville than anywhere else, the slashing winds of its eyewall virtually on top of the beach, storm waves rolling in about 2 feet higher than high tide normally would — and enough to swamp the dunes where the nests lie.  

On top of the storm surge waves, a deluge of 7.6 inches of rain fell on Cape Island, said Sarah Dawsey, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who is the manager for the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge where the island is located. The rain and the wash almost certainly drowned nests.

"Surprisingly, we still have turtle nests on the beach," Dawsey said. "We are currently working on uncovering the remaining nests that got buried deep in sand."

Dorian apparently did little damage to nests on the beaches in the state more to the south. Only two of 25 unhatched nets were lost on Folly Beach, said Teresa Marshall, of the island's Turtle Watch group.

Mary Pringle, of the Island Turtle Team of Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island, said no nests were lost. In fact, a nest hatched the night before Dorian passed and another one Thursday night as the storm winds and rain settled.

Overall, nesting saw more damage from a run of king tides in August, Hope said. Now the concern is for the return of those higher-than-normal high tides, expected starting Sept. 25.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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