Untamed Lowcountry

‘An abrupt end:’ What Tropical Storm Irma did to Hilton Head’s sea turtle nesting season

Hilton Head Island’s sea turtle nesting season came to an abrupt end Monday.

As Tropical Storm Irma ripped through the area, pushing tides up the beach and wiping out dunes, 54 nests were lost to the ocean.

“The assumption is that we have lost all the nests to the storm and tides,” said Amber Kuehn, manager of the Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project. “Even if some eggs are still on the beach, they’ve been inundated with water... . And when they’re inundated with water, they drown.”

Sea Turtle Protection Project volunteers mark each nest by placing three poles with orange tape around them. Then they place a fourth pole on the dune directly behind the nest, in case the volunteers can’t find the nest later.

“So much of the dunes were eroded that we can’t even find the poles on the dunes,” she said.

Dunes were breached across the island by storm , but a two-mile stretch on South Beach in Sea Pines was hit the hardest, Scott Liggett, town director of public projects and facilities, told The Island Packet on Wednesday.

Liggett previously said 20 to 30 feet of beach was wiped away along that stretch.

“It’s an abrupt end to the season because of Irma,” Kuehn said. “Irma wouldn’t have been so bad if we didn’t just have Matthew. If the dunes were in better shape, they would have done a better job of keeping the water back.”

Although it’s unfortunate that so many nests were lost, Kuehn said she is focusing on next year’s nesting season.

“We completely lost anything that resembled a dune. It’s just flat up to their doors,” she said of South Beach. “So I’m concerned about next year’s nesting habitat. I need some slope, some dunes, something that will keep the water away from the nests. If not, I’ll have to move nests next year.”

Last year, a record-setting 411 nests were laid on Hilton Head beaches.

This year, counting the nests that were lost, 326 were laid.

Tidal inundation, as well as rainwater inundation, made for a tough season this year, Kuehn said.

“We got a lot more rain, which didn’t help the nests either,” she said. “We lost some nests to heavy rain.”

Important information and DNA samples were still gathered from the nests after they were laid, Kuehn said. “We just won’t have a successful hatch from those.”

“It’s unfortunate, but I’m just striving for a more successful season next year,” she said.

Maggie Angst: 843-706-8137, @maggieangst

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