A crowd of volunteers and onlookers clustered around the small sea turtle freshly plucked from its nest in the dunes, helping guide the little guy to his new home in the ocean and wishing that he’ll make it despite the odds against him.
“Go, buddy, go!” six-year-old Katelyn Mount shouted, jumping up and down as the tiny turtle wobbled into the ocean for the first time.
Years of efforts protecting nests and other means aiming to improve the sea turtles’ chances of survival have helped South Carolina log a record 5,000-plus sea turtle nests so far this year, said Ann Wilson, interpretive ranger at Myrtle Beach State Park who tracks the turtles and organizes the state park’s roughly 60 “turtle patrol” volunteers.
The 5,145 nests logged so far is up from 4,623 in South Carolina last year, 4,022 in 2011 and 3,150 in 2010, according to seaturtle.org, which organizes information about sea turtles in South Carolina and worldwide.
“We are having a record-breaking year,” Wilson said after leading volunteers in checking three nests at the state park for live turtles on a recent evening. “It’s just been crazy.”
The season, which is winding down, had a slow start because of the rain and cooler temperatures, but picked up as the weather warmed, Wilson said.
Wilson credited the growing number of nests to the efforts of volunteers, who regularly pick up trash, fill in holes that can be traps for turtles making their way from their nests in the dunes to the ocean and encouraging beachgoers to stay off the dunes to protect the nests.
“We are talking about thousands of hours of volunteer manpower,” Wilson said. “There’s so many people working hard. Little actions really do make a difference.
“I think we are finally starting to see” results of those efforts, Wilson said.
Some nests found in more commercial areas such as the hotel district in Myrtle Beach – the more well-lit areas, which aren’t good for the turtles because the lights disorient them – are relocated to the state park. Beach cleanup crews in Myrtle Beach regularly alert the state park to nests in the commercial areas that need to be moved – another effort that is helping their chances for survival, Wilson said.
Each nest can contain a hundred or more eggs. Only a fraction of baby turtles make it to adulthood.
On a recent evening, about 40 volunteers and onlookers gathered on the beach at Myrtle Beach State Park to check three nests – two relocated from Myrtle Beach, one from Surfside Beach – for any remaining turtles, and help them make it to the ocean.
Trained volunteers plucked a number of turtles from the nests that evening – it’s better when you find fewer because that means most have already made the journey to the ocean. Some removed this night struggled in the surf, and chances for many of them to survive were low, as some were misshapen or were missing flippers.
“Nature can be harsh,” Wilson said.
The turtles attracted a crowd of folks wanting to witness the turtles’ trek, many of them snapping photos. Even members of a nearby beach wedding party came over after the ceremony to check it out.
“It’s amazing,” resident Bob Myles said. “It’s such an experience.”
Penny Jalosky of Surfside Beach remained positive that the turtles released this night would survive, despite the struggles.
“I’ve got to believe they all are going to make it,” she said. “I like to believe.”
Katelyn is one of the youngest – and possibly the most enthusiastic – of the sea turtle patrol volunteers out this evening, and one of the loudest cheerleaders as the turtles hit the surf.
“I really love sea turtles,” she said. “They are so stinking cute.”
About a half-dozen nests remain at the state park, which likely will all be hatched by October, Wilson said.
Though the nest numbers are rising, volunteer efforts can’t slack off, Wilson said.
“We’ve got to keep doing what we are doing,” she said.
Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at email@example.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.