An already-delayed beach renourishment project – which will begin June 15, according to a Friday news release from the town of Hilton Head – could affect both the nesting and hatching processes of Hilton Head Island’s sea turtles.
“The issue is that the new time frame is right in the middle of nesting and hatching season,” said Amber Kuehn, manager of the Coastal Discovery Museum’s Sea Turtle Protection Project.
“So now we don’t have to just worry about nesting females, we have to worry about hatchlings, too.”
Nesting season officially begins in May and runs through October, according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ website. Hatchlings often begin appearing in early July, Kuehn said. She and her staff will be on patrol just like they are every year, ready to relocate nests to safer areas.
Experts say the first nests could appear earlier – and that there might be more of them – this year.
The $20.7 million renourishment project will place more than 2 million cubic yards of new sand on four segments of the island’s beaches to restore nearly a decade’s worth of natural erosion. It also will refill the additional 160,000 cubic yards of sand stripped off the beaches during last fall’s historic storms. The work, which is being done in sections, will last five months, running into October.
“The pro (of the renourishment project) is that we’ll have a bigger beach for more nesting area, a bigger nesting plaform,” Kuehn said. “Last year we lost 21 nests to the storms that took the dunes out. ... We need to replace the dunes for better nesting platforms.”
Kuehn documented 325 nests last year, up from 131 in 2014. Female turtles lay eggs every three years, Kuehn said, adding that there are a lot of females she hasn’t seen since 2013, when there was a record number of nests – 339.
“We think we could have a bigger year,” Kuehn said. “But you never know.”
The mild winter and recent summer-like weather means warmer water temperatures, said Michelle Pate, coordinator of the South Carolina Marine Turtle Conservation Program. And warmer waters could attract female turtles to Hilton Head’s shores earlier than normal, typically mid-May.
But Pate said noise from construction equipment on the beach could dissuade females from coming ashore.
Dredging along the shoreline could grind up the turtles’ food source, such as conchs and crabs, Kuehn said. Moreover, the changing composition of sand in areas that have been dredged could cause the nests’ tunnels – the hatchlings’ path to the sea – to collapse.
“The mother turtles are affected by the noise, the lights and equipment on the beach,” said Carlos Chacon, manager of natural history at the Coastal Discovery Museum.
“And the hatchlings go toward the ocean by following the reflection of light in the water,” Chacon said. “On a pristine beach with no (artificial) light, you do a 360, you’ll see ... something reflecting off the water. Every year we lose turtles to artificial lights.”
Sea turtles typically come ashore at night to lay their eggs.
Kuehn said she and her eight staffers would monitor renourishment worksites from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. when crews work after dark. And Kuehn and company will continue their annual early morning patrols, which begin at 5 a.m. every day from May 1 to October 31.
Beachgoers who encounter nesting turtles should “respect the animals and watch from afar,” Pate said. And they should avoid flash photography around the animals.
So, no selfies.
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Beach Park Closed
Portions of the Islanders’ Beach Park on Hilton Head Island are now closed to vehicular traffic and parking due to the upcoming beach renourishment project. They will remain closed until the end of the project in mid-October.
The public beach on Folly Field Road is the main construction access point for the project, scheduled to begin July 1. Public beach access and parking is available at nearby Folly Field and Driessen Beach parks.