South Carolina's sea-turtle nesting season is off to an early, promising start.
As of Tuesday, 1,966 turtle nests had been reported on South Carolina beaches, as the nesting season nears the halfway mark.
"Because of the mild winter and the warm temperatures we've seen, we had a lot more nesting occurring in May than we normally see," said DuBose Griffin, sea turtle coordinator with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Griffin said the number of reported nests is encouraging, but he remains only "cautiously optimistic."
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"Similar to Georgia, South Carolina has had seasons that began with a strong nesting effort but trailed off earlier than expected," Griffin said.
Loggerhead nesting in South Carolina has averaged 3,378 nests per year over the past decade. Last year was a banner year with more than 4,000 nests, according to DNR.
Hilton Head had a record 324 loggerhead nests last year. This year, daily dawn patrols have tracked 175, according to Amy Tressler, project manager for the Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project.
That compares to 190 nests catalogued at this time last year, 137 by June 2010 and 80 by June 2009.
"We're still in really good shape compared to last year, which was a record-breaking year," Tressler said.
Fripp Island reported 27 nests and Harbor Island has 23 so far, compared to 68 and 69 nests all of last year, respectively.
Hunting Island State Park has recorded 70 nests, compared to 68 for all of last year and 111 in 2010.
A deluge of dead marsh grass and seaweed -- collectively known as wrack -- washing ashore has deterred some turtles from nesting. Volunteers are reporting more "false crawls," which occur when turtles come ashore but don't nest.
"We have some dainty divas who will run into the wrack and turn around," said Fran Nolan, nest protection project leader for Harbor Island. "They'd rather go out to sea than go over it to lay their eggs."
The first loggerhead nest of the season was reported April 30 by Nolan on Harbor Island. A nest was also found that same day on Cape Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, creating a tie for the earliest nest on record since the S.C. tracking program began in the late 1970s.
Loggerhead nesting in April is rare. The threatened sea turtles typically nest from May to August, coming ashore at night to lay their eggs.
Nests usually begin to hatch around mid- to late-July, and hatchlings continue to emerge through October. But with the early start to the nesting season, eggs will begin hatching sooner than usual.
People need to turn off oceanfront lights from dusk to dawn, which is required on all beaches in Beaufort County, Tressler said.
The lights disorient hatchlings, causing them to crawl away from the ocean, and prevent nesting turtles from coming ashore. Disorientation occurs when artificial beach lighting is brighter than the natural ocean horizon.
Shining flashlights or taking flash photographs of turtles at night is also a federal offense, Tressler said.