Every morning from May through October, the Sea Turtle Patrol HHI rides the entire length of Hilton Head Island’s 14 miles of beach.
Following is a snapshot of what happens on a typical day in June, when the turtles are nesting regularly, and the beach activity is in full swing.
At 5 a.m., six Sea Turtle Patrol members, from a staff of 18, meet at the patrol’s headquarters – a tent situated in the parking lot at Islanders Beach Club on Folly Field Road.
The team is on the beach by 5:15 a.m. One vehicle goes north and the other goes south. Communication between the teams is conducted via text messages as nests are discovered. The nest count is updated daily and can be found at SeaTurtlePatrolHHI.org.
Each team is looking for broad turtle tracks leading from the surf to the dune, where there will be evidence of either nesting or a false crawl.
We hope to find a body pit (fondly called a “loggerhead snow angel”) and an egg chamber. These will be marked with three poles and flagging tape.
All the information about the nest will be entered into a digital data collection program. A GPS point is essential, allowing me to track the patrol from my computer and to observe a virtual field map.
About 50% of the time, the sea turtle crawl does not result in a nest, and we call this a false crawl. The reason is usually unknown, but we do know that something went wrong.
We can safely assume that something – such as activity on the beach, flashlights or lights from beachfront structures, noises, or environmental obstacles – prompted this mama turtle to change her plans.
It is likely that she will try again the same night and eventually lay her clutch, usually about 120 eggs, deposited in a hole about 2 feet deep. The female turtle would not have emerged from the water if she did not have the intention of depositing eggs into the dry sand.
Our daily beach run can last three to five hours, depending upon how many nests we encounter and how many of them have to relocated to a higher, safer spot along the dune. About 60% of the nests will need to be relocated – and we have 24 hours from the time they are laid to move them.
To learn more, come to one of our Turtle Talks, offered free from 8 to 9 p.m. every Monday evening through the end of August at Celebration Park, 94 Pope Ave. Please join me to learn more about our nesting turtles and have all your questions answered. After all, it’s not every day you can encounter the nest of an endangered species!
Amber Kuehn is executive director of Sea Turtle Patrol HHI, and is the SCDNR permit holder for the island.