When loggerhead sea turtles begin their annual nesting on the beaches of Horry and Georgetown counties, several sea turtle patrols of volunteers will be ready to help protect nests from Waites Island south along the coast and barrier islands.
“The turtles do what they’re going to do, and we have to follow suit. When they’re ready, we have to be ready,’’ says Ann Malys Wilson, ranger at Myrtle Beach State Park. Unless she is surprised by a nest sooner than expected, 55 to 60 volunteers will start daily patrols the second week of May. Linda Mataya, co-leader of the North Myrtle Beach patrol, plans to start the sunrise walks on nine miles of beach on May 15.
In 2013, Mataya recalls, the North Myrtle Beach patrol “had the first nest June 1; that was late.’’ The same sort of late spring weather this year, and colder ocean water, suggests another later start to sea turtle nesting.
“I don’t expect to see nesting until the water is 75 degrees,’’ says Jeff McClary of Pawleys Island, a founder, in 1983, of S.C. United Turtle Enthusiasts or SCUTE, the umbrella organization for area sea turtle patrols. The other day, Charleston harbor water was 62 degrees, so several days of higher temperatures will be needed before nesting begins. “They do like it warm,’’ McClary says.
Horry and Georgetown patrols last year identified a record 221 nests, including four by a green sea turtle. Most S.C. nests are made by loggerheads. The green’s nests on busy city beaches were moved to the state park, where volunteers had a total of 30 nests, 24 relocated from locations where a low hatching rate would be the norm.
“This is our fifth season,’’ Mataya says of the North Myrtle Beach patrol, which has grown to 136 volunteers including more children and teens. When the patrols begin, as many as 24 walkers will start at sunrise to look for signs of a nest. The turtles dig in the sand with their flippers, lay eggs, cover them and return to the ocean. They do not return to nests and the hatchlings are on their own.
Strandings are another aspect of the Marine Turtle Conservation Program of the Department of Natural Resources. During training in Charleston for patrol leaders such as Mataya and Wilson, a call was received at SCDNR about a leatherback stranding. Jenna Cormany of the DNR says the turtle was on Daufuskie Island. It had been tagged in Trinidad. Typically, stranded sea turtles are dead, but they sometimes are alive.
Barbara Gore of DNR reported on the leatherback: “The animal was huge, an estimated 900 pounds. While necropsying the animal, we found many large pieces of plastic in her intestines, perhaps causing some blockage and buildup.’’ Otherwise, “she was a very healthy turtle.’’
Leatherbacks eat jellies (jellyfish) and can easily mistake plastic bags for food. “This trash business is awful,’’ says Sue Habermeier, leader of the Garden City Beach patrol which covers about six miles of beach.
Beach erosion from the rough winter is another potential drawback to sea turtle nesting. Scarping creates sharp drop-offs in the sand. McClary speaks for all sea turtle fans when he says, “Hopefully, it will be a good year.’’