The look of Hunting Island may have changed a bit with last year’s hurricane, but a shore is apparently a shore to a nesting turtle.
The loggerheads that have made the island their birthing destination for years have once again found the beach suitable to their needs. Like locals and tourists in the midst of a once uncertain future at the beach, they have returned in droves.
The only effect Hurricane Matthew may have had on the turtles is where they have decided to nest this year. The beach is divided into six zones starting from the north beach and lighthouse area down to the south beach and Fripp Inlet.
For returning turtles, Zone 2, normally not a popular location because of the former campground located there, is this year’s hotspot. It could be that the lack of campers makes it more appealing.
At the midway point of their nesting season, female loggerheads have created 92 nests. Friends of Hunting Island President Denise Parsick, whose group oversees turtle conservation operations, describes that as a “strong number,” especially in light of years when it was less than half of that for a whole season.
“What we’re hoping we’re seeing, except for anomalies, is that conservation practices have worked,” said Parsick.
The group began earnest efforts to protect the turtles in the late 1980s and have learned a thing or two along the way.
Parsick points to the move from flat screens to cages to protect the nests as just one of many improvements aimed at keeping raccoons, ghost crabs and other wildlife away from the eggs. The group also hopes that, since loggerheads reach maturity and start having babies between 20-30 years of age, many of the hatchlings from the first years of the conservation effort are coming back to Hunting Island to start their own families.
While Parsick says that seeing baby turtle tracks in the tide line is an “awesome sight,” tracks of a different nature were also discovered for the first time this year.
While leatherback turtles have been spotted sporadically along South Carolina’s coast, the slightly smaller green turtle had rarely ventured much farther than Florida — until now. Green turtle tracks — distinguished by their symmetric crawl marks — were photographed on Hunting Island this year for the first time in memory. That either means our warm sand is just as inviting as Florida’s or they get a better hospitality rate.
The tracks were identified by conservation coordinator Buddy Lawrence, but a DNA sample should confirm the sighting in just a few weeks. In fact, DNA samples from all of the nesting sites, which the turtle volunteers help gather and submit every year, help inventory the hatched and unhatched eggs.
While the group’s work is a real contribution to science and nature, it’s not the only benefit to being a member of the Friends of Hunting Island’s turtle patrol.
A select number of volunteers also gets a chance to spend a night in the park to observe the proceedings. After all, the park is closed to the public at night, and that’s when the action takes place. Most volunteers spend their time in the waiting room of the maternity ward. This year, 20 over-nighters spotted two turtles on the shore. The over-nighters used infrared light to see the animals. It’s not something any of them will likely forget.
The loggerheads didn’t forget their way to Hunting Island. Maybe the lone green turtle is a sign of more to come.
What began over 30 years ago for Parsick as an “inexpensive vacation” for her family has turned into a devotion to ensuring the future of an endangered species right here on our coast. It remains a summer tradition for Parsick and many others here like her.
“Disney World, don’t look for us,” she said. “Our place is here.”
Ryan Copeland is a Beaufort native. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.