Hilton Head Island’s 14 miles of beach are privileged to welcome endangered loggerhead sea turtles who nest and hatch here every year from May through October.
The Sea Turtle Patrol HHI has been monitoring and protecting nests with a permit issued by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) since 1985. The organization was formed as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2018.
This year, our first nest was spotted May 10. This was also the first nest to hatch, on July 14. Nesting stops in mid-August and hatching will continue into October. We expect to have around 280 nests this year, with an average of 120 eggs in each. That’s more than 33,000 hatchlings! A conservative estimate is that just one in 1,000 will survive to be an adult.
Male loggerheads never come up on the beach after hatching. Mother turtles return, generally to the same beach where they were hatched, when they are about 30 years old. They lay several clutches per season, not necessarily just on our island.
The beaches along North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia are considered the “same” beach. From DNA collected at each nest site, we have found that some Loggerheads nest in all three states in the same season.
Volunteers from Sea Turtle Patrol drive the beaches every morning at 5 a.m. beginning May 1 until the last nest has hatched. The state-certified patrol marks each nest location using GPS and enters the information into the SCDNR database.
Poles and tape are placed around the nest. If a nest is in a vulnerable location, it is moved to a safer area of the beach within 24 hours. Nests are monitored during the 60- to 80-day incubation. Although most of our turtles are loggerheads, we have had leatherbacks, green turtles, and one Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle to nest on Hilton Head beaches.
A collaborative organization, Turtle Trackers, was formed in 2016 to help create a turtle-safe beach. Volunteer Turtle Trackers walk the beach every day to ensure that debris is collected, that abandoned items are removed, and that the beach is flattened and safe for nesting sea turtles. They are ambassadors, educating the public and answering questions.
Since sea turtles come up to nest above the high-water mark after dark, homes along the beach are required to turn off outside beachside lights from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., a regulation that is required by the Town of Hilton Head.
This ordinance is particularly important when hatchlings emerge from their nests after sunset when the heat of the day has subsided. Nighttime beach goers are instructed through signs and educational materials to use red lights or red filters on their flashlights to minimize confusion for nesting loggerheads and their hatchlings.
An important part of our effort to save the sea turtles is through education. Throughout the summer, volunteers from both organizations provide information and learning centers, nightly presentations to visitors in a variety of locations, and make every effort to create awareness of the exciting environmental phenomena of which they are a part on Hilton Head Island.
At present, Sea Turtle Patrol is an all-volunteer organization, funded through private donations. Visit SeaTurtlePatrolHHI.org for more information.
Amber Kuehn is executive director of Sea Turtle Patrol HHI, and is the SCDNR permit holder for the island.