The first sea turtle nests of the year have been spotted on Beaufort County beaches within the last week.
In all, 13 of the 17 nests found across the state were local ones.
The first loggerhead nest was found May 6 on Hunting Island, according to a post on the Hunting Island Sea Turtle Conservation Project's Facebook page.
The first nest on Hilton Head Island was found May 8 -- a rare leatherback turtle nest, said Amber Kuehn, Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project manager. A loggerhead nest was also found that day, and in total, six nests have been found on Hilton Head beaches.
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Two nests were found Monday on Fripp Island, and a third on Tuesday, according to Janie Lackman, leader of the Fripp Island Turtle Team. Volunteers with that group started morning beach patrols Monday, a few days earlier than their typical start date of May 15, because turtle tracks had already been spotted on the beach.
They didn't have to wait long for the thrill of finding a nest.
"It's like finding buried treasure," Lackman said. "It's always an exciting thing."
Harbour Island also has a nest, according to data submitted to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Volunteers walk local beaches early each morning in search of nests. Kuehn said the walks on Hilton Head typically begin at 5 a.m.
When a nest is found, it is reported to DNR and staked off so it is not accidentally disturbed. Nests typically have about 120 eggs; one is typically used for a DNA research project to help track female turtles' nesting habits each year, Lackman said.
If needed, as was the case with the one found Tuesday on Fripp Island, nests are moved to safer locations above high-tide lines.
Loggerhead turtles are an endangered species, so protecting their eggs is vital. When nests are relocated, the number of eggs is counted -- there were 127 eggs in the Fripp Island one.
Loggerhead eggs incubate for about 60 days. Kuehn said hatchlings are expected in July, and nesting season typically ends in October.
During that season, it's important that lights are turned off at night and in the early morning inside and outside houses along the beach, so turtles won't be confused as they make their way to the ocean.
Hilton Head has the only leatherback turtle nest in the state so far, according to data submitted to DNR. Last year, two leatherback turtle nests were found in Beaufort County -- one on Fripp Island and one on Pritchards Island.
They were the first leatherback nests in the county since 2011 and the only leatherback nests found last year in the state.
The species is more common south of South Carolina, S.C. DNR sea turtle program coordinator Michelle Pate said. Those nests don't normally do very well on South Carolina beaches.
"Sometimes they (produce hatchlings), and sometimes they don't," she said. That could be because it is toward the end of the leatherbacks' nesting season, and since the state is on the edge of the species' typical range, the turtles have already nested before landing here.
Last year just 2,080 turtle nests were found across the state, down from the 2013 total of 5,195. A record number, 339, turned up on Hilton Head's beaches that year.
The 2014 dip wasn't unexpected, Pate said.
"It's cyclical in nature; not all turtles nest every year," she said.
Higher numbers are expected this year, which Kuehn said she is looking forward to.
"If we have a bounce back year, then we're OK. We're expecting a banner year."
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- Fripp Island Turtle Team's Facebook page
- Hunting Island Sea Turtle Conservation Project's Facebook page
- Coastal Discovery Museum's Facebook page
- Rare leatherback turtle nests found in on Fripp Island, June 24, 2014
- 1st sea turtle nest of 2014 found on Harbor Island, May 20, 2014
- First sea turtle nests of the season appear on Hilton Head, Fripp islands, May 22, 2013