The morning breaks bright and hot - it’s only 7 a.m., but the sun comes out swinging. Despite the early hour, the early heat, and the night’s residual blanket of humidity, the gathering crowd is eager and energized. One by one they emerge from the beach access path and spill out onto the sand, then walk up toward the dunes until two dozen or so of us are circled around what looks like a nondescript bit of sand and smattering of sea oats. An orange, diamond-shaped Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sign and the palpable rising tide of anticipation is all that sets this spot apart from the vast stretch of Isle of Palms beach surrounding us. That and the fact that 20 inches below, a small miracle is buried.
A sea-turtle nest and its clutch of some 120 ping-pong ball-size eggs is truly one of nature’s marvels. The female loggerhead who laid this nest has defied mighty odds. She is one out of a thousand turtles who has journeyed from hatchling to adulthood, surviving a daunting middle-of-the-night scramble on newborn flippers from nest to ocean without getting eaten by a ghost crab, and then made it, somehow, someway, past the relentless crashing breakers and into the vast waters where predators abound and she is an easy snack. Then somehow, someway, she has managed not to get struck by a boat or caught by a fisherman or ingest plastic bags or become entangled amidst the tons of trash we dump into our oceans every year, for the 30 years it has taken her to reach reproductive age. Then somehow, someway, after circumnavigating the Western north Atlantic, she has made it back to this beach, emerged from the deep, and in the dark of night lumbered back up the sand on her awkward flippers, dug a nest, and here, right here where we walk dogs, chase kids, play volleyball, and doze on sunny afternoons, intrepid mama turtle, threatened species that she is, buried her treasure.
This morning’s congregation has gathered to witness and pay homage to this miracle of instinct and endurance and to help, in some small way, in solving that “somehow, someway” puzzle that marine biologists are finally piecing together. Scientists are beginning to aggregate enough data to start answering some of the enduring questions about sea turtles: Do they really, as loggerhead lore tells us, return to the very same beach where they were born to nest? What is the status and health of the current turtle population? How many nests does a female lay in a season, and at what intervals, in what geographic range? How long are they reproductive? And perhaps most intriguing, or troubling—what are the turtles telling us? What do their numbers and their health say about our stewardship of our oceans, our care or abuse of the marine environment, our policies, our protection of endangered and threatened species?
Volunteers such as noted author Mary Alice Monroe and Barbara Bergwerf—the pair leading the inventory this morning—are members of the Isle of Palms/Sullivan’s Island Turtle Team, which in turn is part of a growing network of thousands of trained and dedicated volunteers across South Carolina who help scout the beaches, monitor and protect sea-turtle nests, and gather and document data. Monroe became enchanted by “these ancient mariners” in 1999, while researching her novel The Beach House, about a “turtle lady” named Cara (after Caretta caretta, the Latin nomenclature for loggerheads). She’s since written two other novels in The Beach House trilogy and inspired legions of turtle lovers. On this morning, however, Monroe’s story line is more fact than fiction. She’s explaining nesting habits and DNR’s strict turtle watch protocol to interested onlookers.
Like two girls ready for building sand castles, Monroe and Bergwerf hold red buckets and small trowels. Both are wearing Turtle Team T-shirts. “This nest boiled three nights ago,” explains Monroe (that’s turtle-speak for “emerged”). “We are opening it to look for stragglers and to inventory the eggs that didn’t hatch.” They put on rubber gloves, kneel down in the sand, and dig in, and sure enough, four tiny turtles are recovered. Cameras click; onlookers ooh! and ahh! A short while later, the volunteers bring the baby turtles down toward the water’s edge and nudge them on their way. The little guys waddle-flop-crawl toward the ocean, leaving a wiggly calligraphy in the sand behind them, a scrawled prayer for the daunting journey ahead. Waves toss and tumble them back a few times, and then they paddle out of sight. Their odds seem more like 10,000 to one.
“Have you ever seen baby turtles enter the ocean? Everyone there is either cheering or crying, or both,” observes Sally Murphy, a 30-year veteran of DNR’s S.C. Marine Turtle Conservation Program, which she began in 1977, the year before the loggerhead was listed on the Federal Endangered Species list. In addition to the loggerhead, the DNR sea-turtle program protects the other Northern Atlantic brethren: the Kemp’s ridley, green, and leatherback turtles. As the grand dame of sea turtledom in South Carolina, Murphy knows how these stoic creatures can pull at the heartstrings, and she confesses to being “a softy, like everybody else” when observing a female nesting or a clutch of hatchlings. But Murphy was far from a softy when she began the statewide turtle research, monitoring, and volunteer program from scratch; and when she testified in a state court hearing to keep emergency DNR regulations mandating Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) for shrimping boats in 1988; or when she enlisted the help of conservation organizations to keep the Army Corps of Engineers from dredging the Charleston Harbor in the middle of turtle season.
During her first three years monitoring four of the state’s beaches (1977-1979), Murphy found that sea-turtle nests had an overall success rate of about seven percent. “Nest failure was due to a mix of human poaching, crabs, raccoons, and beach erosion. That was normal, and it wasn’t good news,” says Murphy. Over the next three years, she experimented with different methods to improve the successful hatching of nests—trapping raccoons, using screens to cover nests, moving nests when they were below the tide line, and encouraging law enforcement to curtail poachers. After Murphy’s interventions, the nest success rate skyrocketed from seven to more than 80 percent. More than 20 years later, these continue to be the methods that DNR’s turtle volunteers use on beaches today.
Fast forward to the summer of 2012, and the loggerhead landscape is vastly different, due in large part to the groundbreaking work of Murphy, who retired in 2006, and a stalwart cadre of volunteers, including team leaders such as the tireless Isle of Palms/Sullivan’s Island captain Mary Pringle. “People like Mary Pringle and Barbara Bergwerf are turtle zealots. And I mean that as an endearing term,” Murphy says.
Last season (2012), the zealous volunteers had much to celebrate and show for their hard work. Nesting numbers on the Isle of Palms and across South Carolina’s coast were higher than they’d been since 1982, with 4,604 nests laid on Palmetto State beaches—4,596 of them loggerhead nests. Last year topped 2011, which topped 2010, and this upward trend is particularly noteworthy since it’s the first time there has been an increase over three consecutive years. At Cape Island and Lighthouse Island in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge—the most concentrated nesting areas for loggerheads north of Florida—last season was robust as well, with 1,677 nests identified and monitored on those remote beaches, representing more than 35 percent of the state’s nests. All told, the numbers are still not as high as they were in 1975 (when Cape Island alone reported 2,654 estimated nests), but it would seem that population recovery is moving in the right direction.
But what do record nest numbers actually mean given this is a species that takes nearly 30 years to reach reproductive age and scientists are unclear about the span between a female’s nesting years? Is this simply a naturally occurring upswing in a normal cycle or a trend suggesting that nest management, TEDs, or protection by the Endangered Species Act is finally paying off? Or maybe all three? And what might these numbers project about the future health of sea turtles, especially in light of growing concerns about sea level rise, increases in ocean and sand temperatures, and increased beach erosion (which threatens nesting habitat, since nesting turtles need a dry sand beach) resulting from higher intensity storms and impacts of dredging and hard-built structures such as jetties and seawalls. (Note: As this story goes to press, the S.C. Legislature is considering reversing the 1988 Beachfront Management Act that outlaws construction of seawalls, a move that Murphy and others consider a major setback for sea turtles.)
Nesting numbers are only one component of an assessment of sea-turtle health. In addition to monitoring nests, turtle team volunteers also notify DNR of sea-turtle strandings—turtles that have washed up on the beach dead, injured, or sick. Stranding numbers have decreased significantly since turtle excluder devices have become de rigueur for shrimpers. Still, most strandings in the state today are unfortunately mortalities, many from boat strikes and other human-related causes, says Kelly Thorvalson, the Sea Turtle Rescue Program manager at the South Carolina Aquarium. Many live strandings occur further north in winter and are usually the result of cold stunning, when sudden drops in water temperature can result in lethargy and cause these cold-blooded animals to shut down digestion and movement. Turtles that wash up alive get transported by DNR to the aquarium’s sea-turtle hospital, where 12 circular tanks serve as aquatic beds for these reptilian patients.
“Their personalities begin to emerge when they start to feel better,” says Thorvalson, who has cared for the aquarium’s turtles for 12 years and has seen the hospital grow from a makeshift Kmart kiddie pool into a sophisticated tertiary care facility, the only one of its kind in the state. Last year the hospital had its highest patient census ever—36 turtles were admitted, 25 resulting from cold-stunning events, with 85 percent surviving. Since opening in 2006, the sea-turtle hospital has released 107 turtles back into the wild.
Back at DNR, biologist Michael Arendt augments information from the onshore nesting and stranding counts with an in-water trawl survey. He cruises the coastal waters from Winyah Bay to St. Augustine, Florida, taking random samples along the northern foraging grounds to get an assessment of the turtle population’s maturity status, gender, and health. “When we began surveying in 2000, only two percent of the catch were the largest class of juveniles. Now it’s 20 percent, suggesting there’s a good pipeline for reproduction and nesting,” Arendt says. The trawl sampling is monotonous and repetitive, but worth it, he believes. “All these hours, all these days on the boat, all this toil and effort—to get just one dot on a graph, but it’s an important dot,” he notes. “And when you get to see a really big old turtle, you can’t help but be impressed. These guys have seen a lot. It’s humbling.”
According to turtle experts, the most exciting and promising research involves a multi-state genetics project now in its fourth year. South Carolina’s DNR Marine Turtle Conservation Program has partnered with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the North Carolina Wildlife and Resources Commission, and the University of Georgia to answer several basic loggerhead nesting questions. The study uses DNA testing from one egg out of each monitored nest (basically CSI for sea turtles) to identify individual loggerhead nesting females, and over time will be able to give answers to such unknowns as: how many nests each female lays, how long between her nesting years, and her beach fidelity or geographic nesting range. This information will provide a much more accurate census of the actual nesting population. In 2010 and 2011, 1,751 and 1,966 unique females were identified across Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. To date, 1,415 unique females have been identified from the 2012 season.
Turtles are sentinel species, says David Owens, a professor at the College of Charleston who researches the reproductive biology of sea turtles. They live along our coasts, they feed in our estuaries, come ashore on our beaches—they share the same habitat we do and are long-lived like we are and so have the opportunity to bioaccumulate toxins. “They are a good indicator of the broader environmental picture,” notes Owens, and while population numbers and general health seems to be trending in the right direction, he sees “dark clouds” hovering. “Turtles have unusual reproductive biology. The temperature of the sand on the beach where the eggs incubate determines the sex of the hatchlings,” he explains. Thus a warming climate will mean more females, and less healthy ones (eggs incubated at 32 degrees Celsius were less healthy than those at 28 to 30 degrees Celsius). “More and more studies are showing more females. Will adaptation occur? I don’t know, but I am very concerned,” he adds.
Questions remain and concerns linger, even as progress is made in turtle research, rehabilitation, and population recovery. But one thing is certain: turtles capture the interest and imagination of the public. “They are engaging, especially baby turtles, and they make people want to learn more about conserving and protecting our shorelines,” says Judy Drew Fairchild, a S.C. Master Naturalist and Turtle Team volunteer on Dewees Island. “All citizen science projects are exciting because each participant is providing a small piece of data in a huge aggregate project. Over time and distance, scientists can gain more information and see more generalized patterns, and they couldn’t do that without trained volunteers providing meaningful data.”
“People respond to turtles, and we need them to respond to something,” adds Monroe. “For me, the bigger issue is ocean conservation, but sea turtles help make it tangible and accessible.”
As Jacques Cousteau once said, “What is science after all? It is a curious person looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what’s going on.” Sea turtles, then, are one of these keyholes—a mesmerizing, wizened creature of the deep and of the ages, whose message is one of perseverance and hope. Turtle research demands we take the long view, which can be challenging in our Google-fed instant-gratification age. If we’re patient, and lucky, these ancient, noble mariners may be our teachers yet.
When the South Carolina Aquarium opened in 2000, a sea-turtle hospital was not part of the plan. “But we were pressed into service soon after opening,” says aquarium CEO Kevin Mills. “There was no other place in the state for South Carolina’s sick turtles to go, and many that strand are in critical condition, too sick to survive transport to another state’s facility.” So the current hospital was created from scratch on the ground floor, in the bowels of the building. For the last few years, the makeshift hospital has operated at full capacity. In 2011-12, as staff began creating a master plan for aquarium expansion, a new and improved sea-turtle hospital was a priority.
The rendering (above) illustrates how the expanded hospital will be integrated into the general exhibition area, giving aquarium visitors more insight into sea-turtle conservation efforts. The existing downstairs unit will become a triage facility. “The new hospital will be state-of-the-art in terms of the medical care we will be able to offer and will allow us to better engage and inspire the public to care for these animals and the natural world,” says Mills.
The South Carolina Aquarium will likely launch a fundraising campaign in the near future to help finance the hospital expansion project. Currently, the sea turtle hospital costs approximately $300,000 a year to operate, all privately funded. For more information about the aquarium’s sea-turtle program, visit scaquarium.org.
■ Adult loggerheads weigh 300+ pounds, with some topping out at 1,000 pounds.
■ Adults have an estimated lifespan of 47 to 67 years; the actual lifespan is unknown.
■ Loggerheads have low reproductive rates, taking about 30 years to reach reproductive maturity. Females lay an average of four clutches a season, then become “quiescent” for an unknown period of time.
■ Loggerheads are listed as a “threatened” species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service and protected by the Endangered Species Act.
■ South Carolina has been a pioneer in turtle research and protection: The first sea-turtle research in North America was on Cape Island in 1939 by William Baldwin and John Lofton; S.C. was the first state to mandate TEDs for commercial shrimp boats in 1988.
■ The loggerhead was designated as South Carolina’s official state reptile in 1988.
Loggerhead Dos and Don'ts:
■ Do turn off beachfront lights. Hatchlings can mistake bright lights for the moon and crawl toward the dunes rather than the sea.
■ Do report any turtle strandings or nesting tracks to DNR’s hotline (1-800-922-5431).
■ Do stay off the dunes and away from marked nesting areas.
■ Do NOT monitor or guard marked nests at night unless accompanied by a licensed Turtle Watch team member.
■ Do NOT probe nest areas, handle or attempt to guide hatchlings, shine lights on hatchlings, or take flash photography.
For more info, visit www.dnr.sc.gov/seaturtle/.