In the old days, Lowcountry boys had contests to see who could eat the most sea turtle eggs on the beaches down the river from Beaufort.
Their mothers might ride a giant loggerhead on its way back to the pounding sea.
That was long before the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which listed loggerhead turtles as threatened in 1978.
Today, people patrol those same beaches with equal zeal, this time helping the leathery eggs laid in the sand survive to produce baby turtles.
In fact, it was interest in the mystical ways of the sea turtles that spawned one of Beaufort County's most successful nature-oriented organizations.
Residents of Dataw Island who volunteered to help the park staff monitor and protect the turtle nests in the Hunting Island State Park formed the Friends of Hunting Island in 1993. The nonprofit organization will mark its 20th anniversary Thursday at the Beaufort History Museum at City Hall at the opening of an exhibit on the history of the park.
Two decades later, 10 to 15 volunteers show up every morning at 6 o'clock from May through October to mark turtle nests laid the night before on Hunting Island. Two nests were found Tuesday morning. Volunteers rarely get to see the mother turtles that come and go by the light of the moon, but last week they did. Just like the old days, it's still a thrill.
But the embrace of Friends of Hunting Island has gotten much broader as its membership has grown to more than 800 families from throughout the area.
Over the past five years, it has given more than $400,000 to the park, including a new all-terrain vehicle. Most of its money comes from $40 annual membership dues and the state specialty license tags featuring the park's 154-year-old lighthouse in artwork by Nancy Ricker Rhett of Beaufort.
Volunteers teach classes on nature, guide tours of the lighthouse, pick up trash, trim the trails, build oyster reefs, build and repair boardwalks and other structures, and work at events like the New Year's Day Pelican Plunge.
Friends of Hunting Island volunteers see the park as a jewel in their own backyard. They have learned about its special nature. They have tried to teach it to visitors, especially children. In the process, they have become environmental advocates.
May this species never become endangered.