After 23 years as a park ranger at Myrtle Beach State Park, Ann Wilson has gotten used to early morning phone calls during sea turtle season. They’re typically good calls, reporting that another turtle has nested.
This year the calls have been coming in more frequently than in years past.
“We’ve been busier this season than the last three,” Wilson said. “The whole state has been crazy. If the turtles keep doing what they’re doing, I’ll be shocked if we don’t break a record.”
Last year more than 5,000 turtles nested in South Carolina with 29 of them in Horry County. The numbers of nests are already higher earlier in the season, up and down the coast. (Seaturtle.org lists more than 4,200 reported for the state so far.)
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From May to mid-August, sea turtles — mostly loggerheads in this area — come ashore to lay eggs. A female loggerhead, weighing 200 to 300 pounds, comes onto the beach at night, digs a nest, lays an average of 117 eggs, fills in and often camouflages the nest as best she can before returning to the water. Each trip out of the water takes a tremendous amount of energy and she’ll do it multiple times during the same season. Wilson says the record in South Carolina is eight.
All along the coast, dedicated volunteers with local sea turtle groups take turns walking the beach at sunrise looking for signs of a “crawl.” Turtles leave marks in the sand similar to tire tracks. Once a crawl is spotted, calls are made, and other members of the group head to the site.
29 documented number of sea turtles that nested in Horry County in 2015
Wilson oversees Myrtle Beach State Park, Surfside, and the city of Myrtle Beach. Two nests, so far, have been inside the park with others to the north and south. Once a potential nest is located, a trained volunteer uses a probing tool to see if there are eggs inside.
Wilson described the process at the site of a recent crawl.
“He’s going to press it for soft spots. He’s not feeling for eggs, he’s feeling the soft spot where she just dug.”
Once it’s a confirmed nest, a single egg is extracted for a DNA test.
“We just want the shell, because the shell gives us information about the mother,” explained Paul Keane, a volunteer for the past five years. “We get rid of the yolk which contains information about the father. They’re not interested in that. By doing a study on the females it tells us how many females are out there and how many are nesting.
The shell is sent to the University of Georgia in Athens, which tracks nests along the North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia coasts.
The testing has led to some interesting discoveries. For example, they’ve found one turtle approximately 75 years old and still laying eggs, has 10 daughters and two granddaughters, all nesting on beaches in South Carolina and Georgia.
“How cool is that?” asked Wilson.
Once the DNA test is done, the nest is covered, secured with netting and marked. It’s left alone until the eggs hatch anywhere from 50 to 75 days later. Wilson says that range depending on temperatures.
The process for handling a sea turtle nest is different when it’s discovered in a busier, more populated area like downtown Myrtle Beach. Nests there are moved for their own protection.
“Almost all of the turtles in the city of Myrtle Beach this year have nested in the hotel district,” said Wilson. I’ve been called out two or three times near the SkyWheel.
Those nests were relocated to Myrtle Beach State Park, where it’s quieter, darker, and much safer for the turtles.
“When the babies hatch they’re attracted to light. It can be the light of the moon, although the moon’s not up every night, so it’s also the white waves, the ocean, and the stars,” Wilson said. “The ocean horizon is lighter and sand dunes act as a dark backdrop. But when you have big hotels (with lots of light) that overrides that.”
The lights confuse the turtles causing them to head in the wrong direction, which can prove fatal.
Relocating a nest involves digging it up, removing the eggs, and paying close attention to the original dimensions to duplicate it at the new site. The mother creates a specific shape for the nest and packs the walls tight to create the right conditions. Volunteer Scott Hartley, a retired North Carolina State Park Superintendent, recently moved a nest containing 131 eggs from the city to the park.
“When she (the mother turtle) makes the nest, it’s like an inverted light bulb, wide at the bottom and narrow at the top,” Hartley explained. “When the turtles hatch and start bustling around in there and moving their flippers, that causes the sand to fall from the sides and it filters down to this moving mass of turtles. Slowly that sand builds up and raises them a little bit at a time closer to the surface.”
Wilson described the hatching process as incredible to watch and something similar to a “sand elevator.”
When it happens, they’re bubbling up like a volcano of sea turtles because the ones below are pushing up. It’s amazing.
Ann Wilson, park ranger at Myrtle Beach State Park
“When it happens, they’re bubbling up like a volcano of sea turtles because the ones below are pushing up. It’s amazing. They’re like little wind-up toys and if they hatched on this beach at this tide” she said glancing around, “in 10 minutes they’d be gone!”
Three days after the turtles hatch, volunteers go back to the nest and do an inventory. They count the eggs and sometimes find stragglers that didn’t make it out. Those tiny turtles are released in the direction of the water.
Overall, the odds are very high against most hatchlings surviving due to a number of both natural and man-made factors. If the eggs aren’t tampered with or eaten by animals, the journey once the babies hatch isn’t as simple as it sounds. Even if they hatch in the dark with no distracting lights.
“You could have birds, raccoons, foxes, ghost crabs, holes in the sand, beach chairs, lights, vehicles, or people,” listed Wilson. “Then they get to the water, now there are sharks, fish, birds, fishing practices, shrimping practices, and boat strikes which is becoming huge.”
She says there are several ways people can help minimize the risk to both hatchlings and mother turtles. At the end of the day, fill in any holes in the sand created by castles, digging, etc. Those holes can catch and trap turtles. Clear away any trash, especially plastic. Hatchlings can get caught and suffocate in plastic bags, and bigger turtles might eat plastic which resembles jellyfish, one of their normal food sources.
And when it comes to lights – keep them off at night near the water, whether its porch lights, flashlights, the flash of a camera, or light from a cellphone.
In June, a loggerhead came ashore early one night to lay eggs in a busy section of the city. As people gathered to watch they could have easily scared her back into the water by making noise or taking cellphone pictures, as is so often the case. Wilson said close to 100 people stayed back, remained quiet, and refrained from taking photos, and – as a result - witnessed something special that most people rarely get to see.
“We were two blocks from the SkyWheel and I was telling people how lucky they were to be in Horry County and see a turtle that nested. And because they did all the right things and they listened, they enjoyed the moment. They were an awesome crowd.”
Anyone who spots a turtle nesting in Myrtle Beach can call City Beach Patrol at (843) 918-1382 or the Myrtle Beach State Park Nature Center at (843) 238-0874.
And just a reminder that sea turtles are threatened and protected under the Endangered Species Act. Civil penalties for harming them can range as high as $25,000.