Tiny loggerhead turtle hatchlings make their way painstakingly toward the ocean COURTESY SEA TURTLE PATROL

With the weather cooling down, our loggerhead turtle incubation time is shorter, and hatchlings are appearing at a more rapid pace. The last of our nests will hatch by mid-October.

Turtling watching – especially hatchling watching – has become a popular activity for residents and visitors on Hilton Head Island beaches. 

We had 283 nests this season, with about 20 left to hatch as of Oct. 1. We estimate 20,000 hatchlings returned to the ocean.     

Hatchlings emerge at night when the sun goes down. It‘s not the darkness that cues them, but rather the drop in temperature as the sun sets. 

In order to help them on their way, be sure to take red lights for a safe beach walk if you are out at night. Although red lights evoke less reaction from hatchlings, they can still see them.

If you happen to see hatchlings, avoid shining any light, including red, directly on them. Use the light to take a look from behind the nest and then turn the light off. Your eyes will adjust. The hatchlings are the stars of the show – let them do their thing. 

You might be lucky enough to encounter the Sea Turtle Patrol doing nest inventories on the beach this month. Look for our vehicle up near the high-water mark. Through our permit with SCDNR, the Sea Turtle Patrol is authorized to open every nest for an inventory.

Three days after a natural hatching, we open the nest, remove the contents, study the results, and report data to South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. We count hatched eggs, unhatched eggs and any hatchlings that remain in the nest.  Recently, Sea Turtle Patrol performed 13 inventories on one day.

It is not unusual to find a few hatchlings in the nest who were not able to make it out with the others. We carefully remove and release them near the water to allow them to crawl into the ocean on their own.

In this way, hatchlings can orient themselves offshore. During a 70-mile swim to the Gulf Stream, which takes three days, they imprint on an isocline, which their built-in “compass” recognizes with the help of magnetite in their brains. This allows nesting females to return to their natal area when they are old enough – in about 30 years! The males return too, but never approach land. 

You can help more turtles survive. Remember to fill holes, level sand castles, and pick up litter on the beach. Flat, dark beaches, free of trash and debris, are the perfect habitat for nesting loggerheads. 

It’s almost time to get ready for the 2022 season. See you on the beach!    

Amber Kuehn is executive director of Sea Turtle Patrol HHI, and is the SCDNR permit holder for the island.