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Hollis Hatfield an intern on loan from Dewees Sea Turtle Patrol collects sea turtle eggs with her mom Peyton Hatfield as a volunteer helping with the Fish and Wildlife Service and a small crew on Cape Island on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

CAPE ISLAND — Seven days a week, a team of interns and volunteers gears up in the pre-dawn darkness to launch for an eroding spit of island at the far reach of the coast.

Once there, they are confronted by both an awe-inspiring wonder and a big problem.

Nests of threatened loggerhead sea turtle — nearly 1,900 of them so far — have been laid in the bump of dunes along the narrow beach on 850-acre Cape Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

In spots, the nests are crammed so tightly that newly arriving females are digging into established nests to lay eggs.

The problem for the humans is trying to manage it all safely. As nest numbers boomed over the past 10 years, the staff at the budget-strapped refuge has been cut in half. 

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Chris Crolley with Coastal Expeditions docks his boat near Cape Island while a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service team handle sea turtle nests on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

"Nobody alive that I know has ever seen nesting this intense," said Chris Crolley, of the Coastal Expeditions Foundation, one of the private groups stepping in to help.

The painstaking, grueling job has fallen largely to a biologist, interns and volunteers paid by private groups. They locate and GPS-coordinate new nests, cull DNA samples and carefully move eggs to higher ground when nests are in danger of being overwashed.

The island, which year-to-year holds as many as one-third of all the nests laid in South Carolina, broke its all-time record for nests only halfway through the season this year. The hundreds of PVC pipes used to mark nests run so far down the dunes you lose sight of them. 

Recovery success

South Carolina has been a leader in the recovery of the threatened loggerhead sea turtle, the 300-pound, 3-foot-long mammoth that crawls into the dunes each spring to lay eggs in nests that will hatch over the summer. Cape Island has been a key component to the recovery.

But resources are limited. On a recent broiler of a day, those who could be spared to tend to the nests were Jerry Tupacz, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specialist, along with a first-time volunteer and two interns paid by private groups.

By mid-morning the thermometer pushed toward triple digits. The "real feel" heat index is worse. Tupacz concedes that every now and then on a long hot day on the beach he has to shake off mirages in the distance.

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Jerry Tupacz a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specialist drives an ATV with Belle Valiulis, Hollis Hatfield and Peyton Hatfield along the beach to move sea turtle eggs on Cape Island on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. The island holds about half the nests laid in South Carolina each year. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

It's officially a record-breaking year for sea turtle nests in South Carolina. More than 7,500 nests have been laid so far, a thousand more than the previous record year in 2016.

Nearly all of them are loggerheads. The federal benchmark for the species recovery in South Carolina has been set at 9,200 nests. The state and federal workers who manage the recovery are getting more optimistic it can be achieved.

Four of every nests laid have been in the refuge — more than 3,000 alone on Cape and Lighthouse Island behind it.

That's how vital these spits are to the recovery of the threatened species. But Cape is in danger of being lost.

The split-off south end of the island is disappearing. Loblolly pines drop one by one into the surf from what was high ground. The eroded sands are washing back and attaching to Lighthouse Island. Nobody knows if the nesting turtles will follow.

The refuge is a wide-open expanse of ocean, sand and marsh north of Charleston. It might well be the most vital trove of undeveloped coast in the Southeast — more than 50,000 acres of ocean girded with about 10,000 acres of islands.

The beauty is matchless, the value enormous. The seascape is elemental to the Lowcountry environs, wildlife and quality of life. But even as erosive barrier islands go, these exposed stretches of marsh and dunes are fragile.

They are out to sea farther than any part of the coast to their south, 30 miles farther out than Folly Beach. The erosion is so relentless that when a transport boat lands on a beach behind Cape, the beach doesn't exist on GPS tracking.

The isolation of Cape Island evidently makes it irresistible to the turtles — so remote it's relatively predator free.

The nesting act is so exhausting that the turtles rest in the sand afterward, tiredly flapping their flippers to push sand to cover the eggs as if they were fanning themselves in the heat. 

"This is such an incredibly key place for sea turtle nesting, and so far people do not fully realize it," said Grace Gasper, the director of Friends of Coastal Carolina, another of the funding groups.

Attrition

On remote state-owned beaches — the ones that take a boat to reach — much of the care for the nests is done by hard-pressed S.C. Department of Natural Resources teams and paid interns. But Cape Romain is a federal property and the job falls to Fish and Wildlife.

Tupacz is a specialist, a sort of technician for the refuge. There's no longer a Fish and Wildlife biologist in charge of managing the countless critters such as turtles, shorebirds, fish and shellfish where the Cape Romain islands are vital nesting and feeding grounds. The position has been lost to attrition.

The budget for Fish and Wildlife refuges has been cut annually for the past nine years, said Durwin Carter, project leader for the S.C. Lowcountry National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Across the Southeast states alone, about 100 positions have been lost, he said. 

At Cape Romain, the staff has been cut from eight to four. Local conservation nonprofits have stepped in to try to stem the bleeding. 

Tupacz is a paid Fish and Wildlife employee. But the biologist and predator trapper working on Lighthouse Island that recent day is paid jointly by Friends of Coastal Carolina and the Coastal Expeditions Foundation. Two of the four interns working on Cape and Lighthouse are paid by the Friends or the foundation. 

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Jerry Tupacz a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specialist dig holes for sea turtle eggs with Belle Valiulis, Hollis Hatfield and Peyton Hatfield on Cape Island on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. The island holds about half the nests laid in South Carolina each year. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The other two are essentially on loan from the Dewees Island Conservancy, which pays them. The volunteer, Peyton Hatfield, is the mom of one of the interns, Hollis Hatfield.

Of the three working on Cape with Tupacz, only Hollis Hatfield is experienced. Her mom and intern Belle Valiulis are first-time turtle workers.

The job is time, as well as labor, intensive. Newly hatched eggs can't sit too long if they need to be relocated. After any more than a half day or so in the nest, the hatchling fetuses will adhere to the shells. Handling the eggs then could tear that apart, killing them. 

The team has to keep moving, too. On the fragile island about one-third of the nests laid need to be relocated.

Tupacz ties ribbons to poles at nests they find hatched. The hatched eggs in those nests will be counted later — one more job added to workload as new nests keep coming in.

'Shell of Shame'

Hollis Hatfield, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., has worked turtle nests before in that state. For her, Cape Romain is a wake up call.

"This refuge has more turtles actively nesting than all of North Carolina combined," she said. "It's a shame it's so far out (that) most people don't see it and don't see how important it is and support the work."

At one site in the dunes, the team relocates six nests. They have culled the eggs from nests laid too close to water, spots where the turtles were too weary or the need too urgent to climb any farther. A moon tide, much less a storm tide, near hatching time could drown the baby turtles.

The job alternately takes muscle to pound a post hole digger and a delicate touch to keep the eggs upright as they are moved; that keeps fetuses intact.

All of the team wears sunglasses. Their shirts droop with sweat. But they work at a steady pace. They also keep their sense of humor.

The Shell of Shame — a large clam shell — gets passed from sand bucket to sand bucket used to carry relocated eggs. You get it in your bucket when you miscount the eggs from a nest and a third count must be made.

The shell gets used to scrape out a shallow bowl at the bottom of the relocation nest, to make it as much as possible like the nest the mother turtle dug.

Tupacz has that wizened look of a man who spends long hours in the sun. He's had some role in turtle nest handling since 2005. He was up at 4 a.m. The teams will be out until late afternoon, and the first crew finished has to check on the crew on the other island to see if they need help.

Then, it's back to the landing where Tupacz will wash down the boat, gas it up and load pipes and other gear for the next day's run while the intern and volunteers transfer field notes to spreadsheets.

And he won't be done for the day. He has three air quality sensors to maintain. If it weren't for the interns, he would be working until close to midnight. Then, it's up again at 4 a.m.

You'd think after two months of doing this, he'd be little more than a zombie, but his spirit keeps the rest of the team engaged.

"All right, let's go," Tupacz says brightly as they finish the last of six relocations. "We've got at least six more nests."

New nests could keep arriving for another month. The hatching could continue through October.

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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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