A leatherback sea turtle nest was found on Isle of Palms — a first for the island.
The nest was located in an area where beach restoration work was being done. It was moved to a safer location, according to Mary Pringle of the Island Turtle Team.
Volunteers with the team found the nest Tuesday morning, but the mother was long gone, having left 6-foot-wide tracks behind her.
Tee Johannes, a 21-year member of the turtle team, didn't come upon the tracks in the morning but did find the egg chamber with a metal probe, carefully testing the sand for soft spots.
"It's fantastic," Johannes said of the discovery. "My heart is still racing, (just) talking about it."
The leatherback nest is only the second found on South Carolina's shores this year, a relatively rare occurrence.
On May 24, the first was found on a beach in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. That was the first clutch of leatherback eggs laid in South Carolina since 2015.
Loggerhead sea turtles, a smaller species, account for the vast majority of nests laid in the state every year, with 5,233 recorded in 2017. Their eggs are about the size of pingpong balls and they leave tracks only 2 feet wide.
Leatherbacks, by contrast, can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds and have eggs the size of cue balls. They typically pass by South Carolina in the spring as they are following their main food source: jellyfish.
The turtles usually nest in the Atlantic from South America to the Caribbean, and it's uncommon that they stop to lay a nest in the Palmetto State as they move north, according to DNR.
The Island Turtle Team is an all-volunteer group that searches for turtle nests on the beach in Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island. They also look for stranded turtles, and have found 13 of various species so far this year, Pringle said. They have previously recorded a leatherback sighting on IOP, though it did not lay a nest.
"We had one come ashore several years ago, but it was the very worst place at the worst time, 11 p.m., in front of all of the bars with people all over the beach," Pringle said. "They saw this giant turtle come out of the water, and she got all freaked out and went back in the water."
Volunteers from the group moved the leatherback nest Wednesday. Pringle said the nest was originally laid in an area where it could have easily been washed over by the ocean, which would cut the eggs off from oxygen and suffocate them.
Only specially trained volunteers certified by DNR can transfer the eggs or handle the nests. For other beach-goers, disturbing sea turtle eggs or hatchlings carries federal penalties, including fines up to $15,000.
"We move about half of our nests every year, and those nests do very well because we put them in ideal spots," Pringle said.