A Fighting Chance
The life of a baby turtle is often short. These tiny, defenseless creatures face many dangers and giant obstacles on their precarious path to adulthood. Our dedicated Turtle Team on the islands works very hard to ensure the hatchlings emerge and make it to the ocean. Lori McGee discovers what the team gets up to on the beach before dawn. Photos by Barbara Bergwerf.
The first official “Island Turtle Team” gathering was in 1997.
Then, a handful of intrepid volunteers divided up the beaches of Sullivan’s and Isle of Palms into eight sections, setting out on foot every morning from May through September to track turtles. As the whole beach was not covered, many nests may have been missed. Today, there are 170 members of the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island Turtle Team, each of whom dedicates time and incredible eyesight to a task that has increased the success rate of hatched turtle eggs from a dismal 10 percent to up to 90 percent.
“We sometimes are tempted to feel that the turtles couldn’t get along without the Turtle Team,” Mary Pringle, head of the Islands Turtle Team, says with a smile. “Of course they have been successfully reproducing for over 100 million years.”
However, we’ve only been around for a couple thousand years, and the presence of humans has drastically altered the nesting habitat of turtles.
“On our highly developed beaches there are lights from houses, streetlights and even a glowing sky from the City of Charleston that confuse and disorient hatchlings and discourage nesting females from crawling ashore,” Pringle says. Sea turtles spend their entire lives in the ocean, with only the females ever coming ashore, doing so a few times every two or three years to nest. The infrequency of their land escapades has led to little adaptation by the species to the presence of humans. Not so long ago there was a strong possibility that sea turtles would become extinct. Thanks in part to the efforts of hundreds of turtle teams all along the coasts, the ancient reptiles now have a fighting chance.
There are a total of seven species of sea turtle, and every type that swims around North America is designated either endangered or threatened. South Carolina’s beaches most commonly host female Loggerhead turtles, whose distinctive tracks the Turtle Team seeks out and follows in order to locate the nest the morning after they’ve laid eggs. Thanks to training with South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the team is able to excavate and relocate eggs when needed, a procedure that can only be done in a 12-hour window after an egg deposit, and a rare authorization currently granted to seven volunteers.
From May to October, the Turtle Team patrols daily to protect the nests as the eggs incubate. The first half of the season they’re looking for the tracks of egg-laying moms, checking the safety of nest locations, noting the date and marking the nest for protection. During the latter half of the season it’s tinier tracks they’re trying to find—evidence that sixty or so days have passed and the hatchlings, often upwards of 100 per nest, are on their way out to sea. Three days after the nest first hatches, the team returns for an inventory procedure, which includes helping any struggling hatchlings, collecting maternal DNA samples from a single eggshell and calculating the final hatch count.
The hatch data and genetic material goes to a variety of organizations that track the health of the local population. An initiative at the University of Georgia identifies specific mothers, tallying whether she’s a return visitor or has nests across states. This research has led to the creation of a turtle family tree for some specimens, identifying connections between turtle sisters, daughters, mothers and even a famed turtle grandmother still laying eggs at around 90 years old.
Because turtles lay multiple nests in a season, the Turtle Team often recognizes a specific animal based on track or nest characteristics. Ten years ago there was a recurrence of nests with broken eggs on the surface rather than buried under the sand.
“At first we thought she was careless, but thirteen days later it happened again. When it came time for her to nest a third time, we found her trying to nest and saw that half of her left rear flipper had been bitten off, most likely by a shark attack,” Pringle says. “Since they use these for digging the egg chamber, she was unable to dig the usual depth of 24 inches for her nest.”
The team removed her eggs before she could crush them, buried them again in a proper hole and repeated the process for the remainder of her nests, nicknaming her Stumpy. Her hatchlings were healthy, and two even went to Riverbanks Zoo to be used for educational purposes before being released.
While encouraging female turtles’ reproductive efforts to ensure the long term survival of the species is its primary purpose, the Turtle Team also aids sick or injured turtles that wash up on its turf. Three members of the team hold “stranding permits” that allow them to transport live sick or injured turtles to the South Carolina Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital and to document dead sea turtles with online reports and photos. If and when a turtle is successfully rehabilitated, the team is able to be a part of its release back into the wild. These releases occur several times throughout the summer season, often at the Isle of Palms County Park, and are a wonderful moment for the team to reflect on the completion of the supported, successful life cycle of the sea turtles that they protect.