Beaufort News

More sea turtles are nesting on Beaufort Co. beaches than ever before, matching SC trend

A record year for sea turtle nesting on Beaufort County’s beaches mirrors a statewide trend.

Volunteers at Hunting Island State Park discovered the park’s 142nd nest Sunday morning. That surpasses the modern record of 141 set in 2016.

The spike follows a down year for nests in 2018.

“Usually when we have a down year, the next year or year after that you’ll have a big year,” said Buddy Lawrence, a park employee and specialist with the park’s volunteer sea turtle conservation group. “The turtles that should have nested last year will nest the following year.”

Nesting numbers statewide have shattered records.

On Hilton Head Island, turtles have laid a record 439 nests, up from 411 in 2016. A rare and endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nested on the island during the day to kick off the season.

Lawrence and other Hunting Island beachgoers were treated to a female turtle crawl during the daylight Sunday. The turtle had been tagged with a piece of metal bearing an identification number, which Lawrence noted and will use to find out where the turtle was tagged and by whom.

State biologists have received numerous reports of turtle sightings during the day this season. Turtles typically come ashore to nest in the dark.

“Day nesters tend to be pretty rare, isolated events,” S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist Michelle Pate said in a news release this month. “It’s not clear why so many females are nesting during daylight hours this year, but some possibilities include harassment during emergence at night and extremely dry sand conditions due to a lack of rain, which can hinder females from digging a nest cavity.”

More than 7,900 nests had been counted on the state’s beaches as of Monday morning, according to preliminary data from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. That’s up from a record 6,978 in 2016.

The improved numbers in recent years are attributed to improved conservation efforts and record-keeping.

Sea turtle record-keeping began in the early 1980s, after loggerhead sea turtles were listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Hunting Island recorded 157 nests in 1984, but that was before the process became more standardized and reliable in 2000, Lawrence said.

At the time the higher number was counted on Hunting Island, a few people divided responsibility of counting various parts of the beach. Accounting was more sloppy, and it’s possible some nests were counted twice, Lawrence said.

Hatching has started, and baby turtles are making their way to the ocean while nesting continues.

A small crowd on Hunting Island watched with volunteers as babies shuffled to the water Sunday evening. Another public nest inventory was planned Monday evening.

“It’s that time of year,” Lawrence said. “Everything’s popping.”

A volunteer with the Friends of Hunting Island Sea Turtle Conservation Project holds a baby turtle during a nest inventory on the beach Sunday evening . The state park recorded its 142nd nest Sunday, the highest number since record-keeping became standardized in 2000. Submitted Beth Lewis
Stephen Fastenau covers northern Beaufort County as a reporter for The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, where he has worked since 2010 and been recognized with state and national awards. He studied journalism and political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and lives in Beaufort.
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