Just before dawn each summer morning, sea turtle patrollers scan local beaches for fan-shaped patterns in the sand -- tracks left by nesting turtles or their hatchlings.
At 5 a.m., the beaches are quiet, except for crashing waves, ghost crabs scurrying into their holes and the low hum of the all-terrain vehicles as patrollers travel along the mark of high tide.
Regardless of heat, humidity or rain, patrollers monitor the beaches daily for tracks from the official state reptile, a loggerhead sea turtle.
Loggerheads awe residents and tourists year after year, inspiring many to adopt local nests, which aid in funding conservation efforts. South Carolina nests account for more than half of those laid in the region between North Carolina and Georgia. The turtles have a distinct reputation as a Lowcountry species, and nests can be found on Hunting, Fripp, Harbor, Daufuskie and Hilton Head Islands.
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And most everywhere a nest springs up, so too does a group dedicated to helping hatchlings make it safely from shell to sea foam.
Protection projects began in South Carolina a year after the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network created in 1980.
"The volunteers said, 'Gosh, as long as we are walking the beach, we see these nests where raccoons and ghost crabs and people are stealing eggs, can't we do something to protect these nests?' said Sheldon resident Sally Murphy, a retired sea turtle coordinator with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, who helped start the state's network with a team of volunteers. "It was in 1981 the first protection projects began."
Among the first were projects on Hilton Head, Hunting, Fripp, Kiawah and Edisto islands.
Now there are about 30 such projects along the coast with nearly 800 volunteers, according to the state's nesting database at www.seaturtle.org.
Some projects, such as the one on Hunting Island, are completely volunteer run. Othersare government funded. The Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project is operated by the Coastal Discovery Museum and funded by the Town of Hilton Head, according to Amy Tressler, the museum's education curator.
Tressler also is one of the turtle trackers, who combs the beach for large tracks that lead to new nests adult females laid the night before. Tiny tracks -- similar to imprints left by bicycle tires -- that create a web of thin lines swerving toward the ocean indicate hatchlings have emerged.
"As rare as it is to see a female nester," Tressler said, "it's even rarer to see the hatchlings."
That's because it can take the adult turtle hours to find an appropriate nesting spot, lay her clutch of eggs and return to the water. Hatchlings, though, emerge from the nest and scurry to the ocean in about 15 minutes, she said.
"They scramble because they have to," Tressler said of the tiny turtles that need to find water quickly to avoid predators on land and so they don't tire and dry out from intense sun exposure. Most of the hatchlings emerge at night, when temperatures are cooler, she said, though some have been seen as late as 7 a.m.
It takes loggerheads about 25 years to reach sexual maturity, which means many of the first hatchlings helped by the early protection projects are now producing hatchlings themselves. That might also explain why trackers are starting to see an increase in the number of nests -- for example, the 200 nests on Hilton Head last year were the second-highest total since 1985, Tressler said. This year, patrollers have recorded 170 nests on Hilton Head. The nesting season lasts through mid-August and hatchlings will emerge through October.
Although local numbers are up, Tressler said statewide nesting numbers have declined about 3 percent. That could be the result of human pressures, such as development taking over nesting areas, natural mortality or light pollution.
Locally, lights on the beach are the biggest threat to the turtles, which use the reflection of the moonlight on the ocean to find their way back to sea. If porch or hotel lights are brighter than the moon, some turtles might go the wrong direction and die before they make it to water, Tressler said. That's why local ordinances require lights out from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Turtles incubate for about 50 days, then hatch. Patrollers, who are trained each year by DNR, mark the nests and watch it for three days. Then they help the turtles that didn't emerge by relocating them closer to the ocean. Patrollers watch them swim furiously to deeper water and hope they beat the odds of survival. Only about one in 10,000 is expected to make it to adulthood, Tressler said Friday as she carried a bucket of 12 of the tiny reptiles to the sun-glistening water.
Some of the turtles Tressler carried had shell or flipper deformities. Others didn't seem to know which direction to swim. "But perhaps these guys will save a healthy turtle from being eaten."
Just as she unloaded the bucket, a group of passers-by came to watch the turtles swim to their freedom. Just beyond the waves, some pelicans were hovering above the water, occasionally diving for food.
"I just tell myself they're eating fish," Tressler said, as she picked up her bucket and drove to the next nest.