World’s rarest species of sea turtle nested on Hilton Head for first time ever Friday

A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle came ashore on Hilton Head Island on Friday morning to create the first nest of the 2019 sea turtle nesting season on the island.

Her trip was well-documented.

She was the most popular one on the beach because there have only been four recorded nestings of a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle in South Carolina, according to marine biologist Amber Kuehn.

The turtle was photographed from nearly every angle — while gleeful tourists and beachgoers stayed at a safe distance — as she made her way from the water up toward the dunes and created her nest in broad daylight.

turtle 6.jpg
Melissa Krauss Released

The Kemp’s Ridley turtle is most endangered of the seven species of sea turtles, and usually weighs between 150 and 200 pounds, Kuehn said.

“We haven’t had this species ever on Hilton Head,” Kuehn said.

There are only about 7,000 to 9,000 nesting females worldwide, according to the Sea Turtle Conservancy.

The Kemp’s Ridley turtle is significantly smaller than the Loggerhead Sea Turtle, which is a regular on Hilton Head’s beaches and weighs about 350 pounds.

Onlookers cheered as the turtle, referred to as “Madame Kemp’s Ridley” by the Hilton Head Sea Turtle Patrol, made her way to the sea around 10:30 a.m.

Turtle patrol volunteer Jayme Lopko and Kuehn took measurements and samples of the keratin on the turtle’s shell to SCDNR to identify her.

turtle 2.jpg
Melissa Krauss Released

Per S.C. Department of Natural Resources guidelines, the location of the sighting of the turtle and her nest are not being released.

The turtle did not have a pit tag, Kuehn said, so “the chances that we’ve seen her before are rare.”

Hilton Head beach rules: should they be stricter?

The “first official nester” of 2019’s trip comes a few days after Turtle Trackers Association of Hilton Head asked town council to tighten beach ordinances to better protect turtles.

turtle 3.jpg
Melissa Krauss Released

The trackers want to see rules that require beachgoers to remove all litter and furniture before sundown so that turtles can’t get stuck in beach chairs or tents.

They also made the case for banning big shovels and the large, unfilled holes they create on Hilton Head’s shores. Baby sea turtles making their way to the ocean can fall inside of the holes and die unable to get out.

A hole on Hilton Head’s beach at sunrise. These types of large holes, if left unfilled, threaten sea turtles that are making their first journey to the ocean. Chris Rush Submitted

Finally, the trackers are again advocating for amber and red lighting only on beachfront properties so the fluorescent lights don’t compete with the moon and guide tiny turtles away from the water.

Sea turtle nesting season typically begins around May 1. Their eggs incubate for 60 days, and hatching season usually begins around July 1, Kuehn said.

Sea turtle nesting season reminders

In a Friday news release, SCDNR gave some recommendations for protecting sea turtles:

  • Report all sick, injured or dead sea turtles and nest disturbances to the SCDNR at 1-800-922-5431 so staff and volunteers can respond as soon as possible.
  • Respect boating laws especially in small tidal creeks where sea turtles like to feed. Boat strikes are the leading cause of death for sea turtles in South Carolina.
  • Keep artificial lights off the beach at night during nesting season. They can disorient nesting mothers and hatchlings.
  • Always respect sea turtles by observing them from a distance on the beach.
  • Keep beaches and the ocean clean. Plastic bags and balloons are among the most common trash items found on South Carolina beaches and can cause injury or death when sea turtles mistake them for food.
Related stories from Hilton Head Island Packet