The record-breaking year for loggerhead sea turtle nests is a bright spot in our environmental picture and one worth celebrating.
As of Tuesday, the state Department of Natural Resources reports 240 nests have been found on Hilton Head Island, beating last year's record of 239 nests and far outpacing 2009's 180 nests. And the nesting season isn't over yet.
The reports are good from other oceanfront islands in Beaufort County.
On Harbor Island, 59 nests have been located as of this week, up from 30 in 2010 and 25 in 2009. On Fripp Island, 59 nests have been found through Thursday, up from 25 in 2010 and 27 in 2009.
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News was more mixed on Hunting Island, where 50 nests have been found. In 2010, 111 were found, and in 2009, 80 nests were reported. On Daufuskie Island, 49 nests have been located so far. In 2010, 65 nests were found; in 2009, 31 nests were reported. We'll keep our fingers crossed that the pace picks up through the rest of the nesting season. Turtles lay their eggs from May to mid-August. The eggs hatch from July to October.
Statewide, 2,937 nests had been reported as of Friday.
To what do we owe this banner year? It represents 30 years of hard work by state wildlife employees and thousands of volunteers. Beaufort County's own Sally Murphy, a retired biologist with the Department of Natural Resources who helped launch the state's efforts to save the sea turtles in 1977, points to three key factors:
Volunteer programs, such as Hilton Head's Sea Turtle Protection Program, have been instrumental in this. Volunteers spot and mark nests, moving them above the high tide when necessary. They are out there every day during nesting season.
It's no small task. Last year, the state asked volunteers to log their miles and hours at the job. Statewide, volunteers logged more than 90,000 miles and more than 25,000 hours. In Beaufort County, volunteers logged more than 30,000 miles and more than 5,000 hours.
But you don't have to roust yourself from bed in the dark of the night to help the cause. People who live, vacation or work along the beach can make sure lights are out from 10 p.m. to dawn so that mother turtles and the hatchlings aren't disoriented by artificial light. When hatchlings emerge from the nest they are attracted to the blue and green wavelengths of light reflected off the ocean through celestial light. It guides them to the sea. Lights on land lead them away from that natural light and often to their doom.
On Hilton Head and in Beaufort County, lights that can be seen from the beach must be shielded or turned off after 10 p.m. during the nesting season. That includes interior lights. But not everyone is getting the message. Last year, the town issued 357 warnings and one citation. So far this year, the town has issued 188 warnings.
Turning off your distracting lights is a small way to make a big difference for the threatened turtles.