Edisto Beach's sea turtle patrol said it found a loggerhead nest in disarray Thursday night, with evidence of human interference and disoriented hatchlings scurrying in every direction.
Patty Molnar, who works with the volunteer group that protects nests laid on the beach every summer, said she got a call at 10:30 p.m. that one had been disturbed.
When she arrived, there were piles of sand around the open nest and what looked like finger marks inside the egg chamber — indications, she said, that someone dug into the nest with their bare hands.
"The turtles came out of the nest and they went all over the place, everywhere," she said, adding that volunteers tried to round up the baby loggerhead turtles and orient then back to the water.
Edisto Beach Police Chief George Brothers said it's still unclear to authorities exactly what happened. As of Friday morning, he said he'd only seen a photo of the nest site taken in the morning after a significant rain washed away the finger marks that turtle patrol volunteers described, he said.
"I do have an officer checking into it and talking to people to see what's going on," Brothers said.
At least a few turtle nests per year get vandalized on South Carolina beaches or elsewhere along the Southeast coast. Sometimes it's just curiosity. Sometimes people wrongly want to help the hatching, which can expose the turtles to predation and other dangers.
Sometimes it's poaching; the eggs are a black market item, considered an aphrodisiac in some cultures.
Disturbing a protected sea turtle nest is a federal crime that carries fines in the tens of thousands of dollars. Digging into the loggerhead, leatherback or green turtle nests laid on South Carolina's beaches isn't the only kind of prohibited disruption, however.
Hatchlings follow the light of the moon as they make their way back to the ocean, so purposefully confusing them with a flashlight or another light source could also result in criminal charges.
Public awareness campaigns, often spearheaded by volunteer groups like the one on Edisto, have made significant strides in teaching beachgoers to give turtles their space. But the Thursday night incident is the third time this season that a nest on Edisto has been disrupted, Molnar said.
Earlier this year, the warning signs placed around one nest were removed overnight, and the sand on top of the nest was disturbed, Molnar said. It's unclear whether the eggs inside were affected.
In another incident, witnesses on the beach described a man digging into a nest with a shovel, in broad daylight.
The nest was already hatched and was no longer marked, Brothers said. But Molnar said some eggs remained inside, as well as shells.
"They were on the beach with shells all around them and also breaking open the unhatched eggs," Molnar said. "I don't know what their point was."