Curiosity, animals threaten Hilton Head turtle nests

mmcnab@beaufortgazette.comSeptember 2, 2013 

Small animals and curious beachgoers are two of the biggest threats to turtle nests on Hilton Head Island like this one, which was found damaged by a dog last week.

PHOTO COURTESY OF AMBER KUEHN — Photo courtesy of Amber Kuehn.

Last week, four nests for federally protected loggerhead sea turtles on Hilton Head Island were found damaged by the Coastal Discovery Museum's turtle protection patrol.

Initially believed to have been the product of vandalism, a smaller threat was identified as the culprit: dogs.

Animals and curious humans are two of the biggest threats to the turtle nests on Hilton Head's beaches, says Amber Kuehn, the museum's sea turtle protection project manager.

Hilton Head is one of the largest areas in the state for the federally protected sea turtles to nest, second only to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near Charleston. Kuehn and the museum's turtle patrol watch over 335 nests.

About 47 percent of the nests on the island have hatched, so far, Kuehn said.

Beaufort County beaches are home to more than 600 turtle nests in all.

Loggerhead turtles nest between May and July and hatch through the end of October.

Kuehn says the patrol checks the nests every day once they reach 45 days of incubation. Turtles hatch at about 60 days' incubation, on average.

Kuehn and the turtle patrol mark the nests with poles and signs warning people not to touch them. It is illegal to tamper with them.

However, many people will try to watch the baby turtles hatch or help them reach the water.

"It's not worth it to wait by the poles, because you probably aren't going to see anything," she said. "The hatching process only happens in the middle of the night."

Only turtle staff are allowed to handle the turtles, and they are trained and permitted by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to intervene if needed, usually to help live hatchlings that are stuck on the bottom.

Kuehn said she has fielded several calls from people finding hatchlings on the beach and asking what to do.

In one case, Kuehn had to pick up a hatchling from a Bluffton veterinary clinic a few weeks ago, after a concerned beachgoer brought the turtle there.

"People don't like to hear it because it's sad, but it's survival of the fittest for the turtles," she said.

Hatchlings found on the beach during the day usually mean something unnatural, like an intrusive light, has altered the process.

Beaufort County has an ordinance that limits beachfront lighting during the nesting season, so hatchlings will find their way to the ocean and not be disoriented by the lights.

Dogs and other animals also pose a risk to the nests. Four nests were found dug up by an animal, including one that just passed the 45-day incubation mark.

"That nest was nowhere near ready to hatch, so those eggs were losses," she said. "I can't say for sure it wasn't a wild dog or animal, but there's so many more dogs and off-leash pets than coyotes on the beach."

The smell of turtle eggs can attract dogs, so Kuehn said dog owners should be aware of where their pets dig and keep them away from the nests.

Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

Related content:

Loggerheads could see critical habitat designation in SC, Aug. 18, 2013

Hilton Head firefighters rescue sea turtle lost in the dunes

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