As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, one of the high points of my summer each year is visiting the beaches of South Carolina and watching the baby loggerhead turtles head for life in the ocean. This year was no different! It’s been a great year for loggerheads in SC; both Bull Island and the Edisto Beach State Park reported their second highest number of nests (last year was number 1). One of the naturalists speculated that since the turtle protection project is in its 30th year, and it takes roughly 30 years for loggerhead turtles to reach sexual maturity, the program is just now beginning to show the product of all the hard work. Turtle project managers hope that this is just the beginning of many more successful nesting years for these endangered turtles.
Loggerhead turtles are truly impressive creatures. They start off small, but grow to a whopping 200-300 lbs! Following a harrowing run to the ocean, avoiding hungry seagulls, the baby turtles hitch a ride on an ocean current and make their way to the Sargasso Sea. There they float in the sargassum until they grow large enough to continue their 30 year journey north through the Atlantic Ocean and then down to the Caribbean. Only about 1 in 1000 eggs laid reaches sexual maturity!
Here’s a myth-buster! Have you heard that sea turtles always return to the same beach to nest? Well, recent DNA research is showing that this isn’t always the case. One female turtle this year laid eggs in three states!
So what is this turtle protection program I keep mentioning? Many naturalists, turtle researchers, and volunteers deserve credit for this successful program. Tiny turtles hatch from the soft eggs , which the females lay in deep holes above the high tide line in the middle of the night. Early each morning, researchers and volunteers head to the beach to mark the location of new nests and protect the nests with flags and fencing. If staff believe that the nests are below the high tide line, they may decide to move the nest further toward the dunes to avoid flooding of the nest. After the expected date of nest hatching, staff again spring into action. This volunteer is digging up a nest which has already hatched, to see if there are any hatchlings alive but trapped in the nest (they didn’t make it out with the rest of the baby turtles). After digging up the hatched nests, volunteers and program staff log the number of eggs hatched and the number of unhatched eggs: . The nest in the previous picture had many unhatched eggs; staff hypothesized that the nest was laid below the high tide line. After the volunteers find any turtles still trapped in the nest, they set the tiny creatures free to begin their ocean adventure.
Sea turtles have been on Earth for millions of years and are currently threatened by human activities including entrapment in fishing gear, boat strikes, and pollution which turtles can mistake for food. You can help these incredible creatures and the programs designed to protect them:
- Never litter on the beach. Pick up any litter you see (cups, plastic bags, bottles) to protect turtles from accidental ingestion
- Only buy shrimp from fleets that use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) on their fishing gear (it’s a law for U.S. fleets)
- You can adopt a turtle or adopt a nest – what a great way to help protect these magnificent creatures!