Kelly Thorvalson was just about to turn out the lights for the night when Big Mama Pritchard became a mother this month. At last count, she was the mother of 88.
Big Mama Pritchard, the largest loggerhead turtle to be admitted to the South Carolina Aquarium sea turtle hospital, laid the first shiny, white fertilized egg ever dropped by a loggerhead being treated there. Since that one plopped out in early August, the turtle has continued to drop them, including nine on Friday.
Thorvalson, coordinator of the aquarium's turtle rescue program, and other staff are "nesting" the eggs in plastic buckets filled with sand. If they hatch, and the first clutch is due within a few weeks, it would be a capping moment in a surprising season of firsts for nesting sea turtles in the state.
"I'll never forget it," Thorvalson said of that first egg. "It looked like a little ping-pong ball with a dimple in it."
Aquarium staff members haven't researched it yet, but these eggs might become the first loggerheads to be incubated. The singular event is even more amazing when you realize that Big Mama is being treated for two deep boat-propeller wounds across her shell that nearly cut through her spine.
Nesting loggerheads stress easily and often will "false crawl," starting up a beach to nest, then turning back to the ocean when they don't like something. A loggerhead fertilizes her own eggs with semen she stores after mating. If stressed, the turtle will release the eggs without fertilizing them. And it usually lays eggs in a nest of dozens in a single night.
The loggerhead is a huge, long-lived sea turtle that crawls ashore in the spring and summer to lay eggs in the dunes. It grows to the size of a small kitchen table — Big Mama weighs nearly 327 pounds.
It's a threatened species; nest numbers appear to be declining across the Southeast. Concern over the decline has spurred a review that might upgrade its status to endangered.
"Even if five of the eggs hatch, it would be a success," aquarium veterinarian Shane Boylan said about the turtle's brood.
'Very, very rare'
Big Mama's eggs are being watched closely. When they show signs of hatching they will be rushed to Folly Beach so they can crawl in its sands into the ocean. It's thought that young turtles "imprint" a home beach in their memories and return to nest at a beach in the same region when they mature — 35 years and thousands of sea miles later.
Turtles are so particular about nesting beaches that the Kemps ridley, another sea turtle found in the Lowcountry, is thought to have only two home nesting beaches, one in Mexico and one at Padre Island, Texas. So turtle-watch groups were amazed this year when a Kemps ridley turtle laid a nest near Myrtle Beach.
"That's very, very rare," Charlotte Hope, an S.C. Natural Resources biologist, said.
The Kemps ridley nest joined more than 3,030 loggerhead nests in South Carolina this season, the largest number since 1999 and a sharp turnaround from last year, when few more than half that number were found. It's a heartening sign for turtle-watchers.
"I think we can be a little optimistic. We've been protecting nests here for 20 or 30 years, and we should be seeing the fruits of those labors," Hope said.
Astonishingly, watchers this year also found five nests of the rare, half-ton leatherback turtle, the much larger cousin of the loggerhead. It's unusual to find a leatherback nest, and two in a season is the most ever seen before. South Carolina is considered the far northern reach of its nesting.
The most immediate threat to the season's hatches arrived this week — high surf from Tropical Storm Fay overwashing nests, possibly drowning the eggs in the middle of hatching season. Some might be lost; some might survive.
"I've seen it when you're standing in knee deep water and you still get hatchlings (later)," Hope said.
Far from done
Biologists don't know enough about loggerhead egg-laying to know what to make of Big Mama Pritchard. But she's impressive. Even with the wounds, the hefty turtle is strong enough to do pushups with her flippers and stick her head up over the waist-high rim of her pool.
"She eats anything. She doesn't fuss when we have her out of the water to treat her. She just lets it happen," Thorvalson said. "She's pretty easygoing, but she's tenacious. The stress from her injuries would keep most females from producing (fertilized) eggs."
Despite the wounds, Big Mama is far from done.
After an ultrasound Thursday revealed a dozen or so more eggs still in her belly, she promptly laid another, stuck her head out of the water for a big breath, then laid three more.
"Wow," intern Kayla Spry said as she netted the eggs. "Awesome. I love this job."