The tracks on the beach led away from the ocean – the wrong way.
It was around 7 a.m. on a summer morning last year when Amber Kuehn inspected the sea turtle nest. The baby turtles had hatched overnight. Kuehn, manager of the Coastal Discovery Museum’s Sea Turtle Protection Project, saw the hatchlings’ tracks pointed toward the oceanfront homes along Hilton Head Island’s South Forest Beach.
She knew what had gone wrong: The night before, someone in a beach house had failed to lower the shades or turn off an exterior light.
The hatchlings had confused the artificial light for the moon. Which meant, most likely, they were dead.
Kuehn followed the tracks. She expected to find dead baby turtles close by – usually the birds get them. But the tracks kept going.
A woman, crying, ran up to Kuehn.
“There are sea turtles in my pool,” Kuehn remembers the woman saying.
Twenty-one nests were lost in 2015 to hatchling misorientation – when approximately 2,500 baby sea turtles confused artificial light for the moon and failed to reach the ocean – Kuehn said Monday morning.
In 2014 misorientation claimed just four nests.
There were more than twice as many total documented nests in 2015 (325) compared to 2014 (131).
Still, Kuehn was alarmed by the spike of losses.
She worries island residents and tourists aren’t getting the message to draw their shades and cut off their exterior lights after 10 p.m. from May to October. And she fears what could happen this summer, when the beach renourishment project will mean more nests on smaller stretches of sand – where just one light from a beach house could have deadly consequences.
The twice-delayed renourishment project is still scheduled to begin June 15, according to Scott Liggett, Hilton Head Island’s director of public projects and facilities. That’s a month and a half into sea turtle nesting season, which runs from May 1 to October 31. The turtles are usually able to nest along a 14-mile area of beach, Kuehn said, but the renourishment project will, in effect, shrink that area to just five miles.
Some turtles might naturally nest in areas – Tower Beach to South Forest Beach (beach markers 22-52), and Folly Beach to the Westin Resort (98-116) – unaffected by renourishment. Others might come ashore and lay their eggs in the construction zone, which means Kuehn and her staffers will have to relocate the nests to unaffected areas.
“One missed night with lights on can be a disaster for a whole slew of little turtles,” Sea Pines resident Jackie Rosswurm said.
Rosswurm is a member of Turtle Tracks, a brand new organization of Sea Pines women founded by Karen Kindermann.
Turtle Tracks will help distribute materials – door-hanger signs and door mats, among other things – that remind people to abide by a town ordinance that states: “Lights illuminating buildings or associated structures and grounds for decorative or recreational purposes shall be shielded or screened such that they are not visible from the beach, or turned off after 10:00 p.m. during the period of May 1 to October 31 of each year.”
Kindermann also said the organization would have a presence on the beach this summer – volunteers will hand out information and talk to visitors.
Brian Hulbert, Hilton Head’s staff attorney, wrote in an email that the town has “issued no violations in the past 2 turtle seasons, but we average between 180-210 notices of violation (warnings) per year.”
“We strive to enforce the ordinance through education and voluntary compliance,” he wrote.
The fact that tourists often occupy beachfront homes during the summer is another challenge. They might not know as much about the island – and the turtles – Kuehn said.
And, as Rosswurm said, vacationers add another layer of communication, from homeowner to renter, where information can get lost.
“There’s no malicious intent,” Kuehn said about island vacationers. “They care, they just don’t know.”
A year ago, around 7 a.m. on that summer morning, Kuehn followed the woman to the pool that held the baby turtles.
There were 10 or so hatchlings still alive. Kuehn picked them up and took them to the water’s edge.
“They made it, but they’re not gonna make it in the long run,” Kuehn said Monday, remembering her thoughts that morning.
If everything works out right, baby turtles have just enough energy to make it to the water and swim for three days to the Gulf Stream. The hatchlings in the woman’s pool had already used a lot of their energy. And now, in the daylight, they were exposed to predators.
Kuehn sent the turtles on their way knowing they would likely die.
The woman cried, her vacation, Kuehn said, likely ruined.