Untamed Lowcountry

‘It’s alarming’: Hilton Head baby sea turtles struggling with their hardest year yet. Here’s why

The process this sea turtle nesting season on Hilton Head Island is the same as every year:

1. During the night, an adult female loggerhead sea turtle makes her way out of the ocean and onto the beach to lay her nest.

2. The next morning, volunteers with the Hilton Head Island Turtle Protection Project mark the nest with orange tape and a sign that states that the hatchlings and turtles are “protected by federal and state laws.”

3. About two months later, hatchlings emerge from the nest and head into the ocean to begin their new life.

This year, however, an increasing number of hachlings are struggling to find their way back into the ocean.

So far this year, two nests have been poached and four nests have been tampered with due to human interaction.

Hatchlings from 36 nests have also been misoriented, most likely confusing artificial light for the moon, which guides them to the ocean.

In 2016, misorientation claimed just 7 nests.

This season, 319 nests were laid and about half of those have hatched.

But only halfway through the hatching season, the number of misorientations this year have already exceeded those recorded in the last three seasons combined.

“It’s alarming, because we’re coming across it way too much for our comfort,” said Amber Kuehn, manager of the Sea Turtle Protection Project. “I’m hoping it has to do with the typography of the beach more so than violations.”

The hatchlings navigate to the ocean by following the downward slope of the beach and moonlight reflected off the ocean's surface. But landward lights that are brighter than the moon can disorient the hatchlings and cause them to move in the opposite direction of the ocean.

Despite enforcement of a Hilton Head Island ordinance that states outside lights visible from the beach must remain off from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. May-October, tourists and residents still forget, Kuehn said.

“It’s a lack of education ... There’s a lot more people on the beach every year with flashlights and most don’t know that the red wavelength lights will help,” Kuehn said. “I understand that people want to feel safe with a light on the beach, just make it red.”

Kuehn believes a reduction of dunes due to Hurricane Matthew may also play a role in the increase of misorientations. “There’s not as much barrier between the lights and the hatchlings now,” she said.

Hilton Head Island is not the only beach town in South Carolina where hatchlings are having a hard time this year. Other beaches, including Edisto Beach, are experiencing an increase in misorientations as well.

Kuehn plans to include the steep increase in misorientations in her report to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources report at the end of the season.

“If they (DNR) feels like the lighting ordinance needs to be revisited, they’ll contact the town to find a solution,” she said. “It’s not a reprimand, it’s working to find a solution.”

As for the human interactions with nests, which include forced direction and ditches dug into the sand from the nest, Kuehn said it’s extremely harmful for the hatchlings.

“I think it’s curiosity and oblivion, because there’s a big ordinance sign that says federal law prohibits tampering,” she said. “I don’t want to think that these are intentional disturbances of nests. I just think people are curious, but what they don’t realize is that those hatchlings might not be ready to come out.”

Maggie Angst: 843-706-8137, @maggieangst

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