Loggerhead sea turtles are quickly making their way onto the sandy beaches of Beaufort County -- possibly on record pace -- to fill their nests with hundreds of golf-ball-like eggs.
Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project manager Amber Kuehn said that the loggerheads are on record pace for the most nests to date on the island. That follows a 62 percent decrease in nests in 2014 from 2013.
"Although there are theories, no one understands why there was such a decrease last year," she said. "So if this year is record-breaking, it will help us understand better and definitely calm some nerves."
In 2013, Hilton Head beaches experienced a record amount of turtle nests, with a total of 339, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
The number of nests 16 days into the 2013 season was 45. This year, the nesting numbers are on a similar track, with 43 reported as of Thursday.
NORTHERN BEAUFORT COUNTY BEACHES UP, TOO
In 2013, northern Beaufort County beaches also had a high turnout of nesting turtles, and is seeing a lot of activity this year.
Hunting Island reported 123, Fripp Island reported 92, and Harbor Island Beach reported 57 nests in 2013.
This year, so far, Hunting Island has reported 17, Fripp Island has reported 12, and Harbor Island has reported 10 nests.
Although the numbers show that multiple records may be in the making, Hunting Island sea turtle project volunteer Hilary Gay said there is no exact way to predict how the year will stack up with previous nesting seasons.
"We are constantly learning new things about loggerheads," she said. "It is nearly impossible to predict what the numbers will be because turtles are so unique and unpredictable."
Despite their unpredictability, Gay said, a big turnout for turtle nests is expected this season on Fripp Island. That's because sea turtles only nest every other year, which will most likely result in more nesting after only 37 nests in all of 2014.
Statewide, there have already been 561 nests reported, as of Friday morning. There were 2,096 nests reported in 2014 and 5,198 in 2013, according to the DNR website.
ODDS AGAINST TURTLES
Loggerhead turtles are listed as a threatened species, which means they are likely to be endangered within the foreseeable future, according to seaturtle.org, which supports turtle research and conservation efforts.
Kuehn said that only 1 in 10,000 of Hilton Head's loggerhead hatchlings make it to adulthood -- age 25 to 30.
"So when a mother loggerhead returns to the beach to lay her eggs, she has statistically beat the 9,999 other turtles that left the beach alongside her," she said.
With such a high mortality rate, Kuehn said, the conservation project dedicates its time to providing an environment that is hospitable for the mother turtles and eggs.
"We want to give them the best start we can possibly do for them," Kuehn said.
This includes relocating nests that are too close to the ocean, ensuring there is no standing water in the nests and protecting the nests from predators.
The turtle patrol is also licensed to record information about turtles that wash ashore. The staff measures and photographs the turtles to determine whether they were nesters. That occurred Thursday, after a dead sea turtle was spotted on a Hilton Head beach. In this case, the turtle was encrusted in barnacles and died from illness before it washed up on the beach, Kuehn said.