What brought the world’s largest sea turtles to SC coast — and how to spot one
Leatherback sea turtles are endangered, but there's been a flurry of recent sightings — and a few near-fatal trappings — in the Lowcountry recently.
On Saturday, a leatherback sea turtle was seen tangled in the rope and buoy from a crab pot between the bridge to Fripp Island and the Hunting Island fishing pier, according to a Facebook post by Jessica Miller, the recreation director at Fripp Island Golf and Beach Resort.
Megan Stegmeir, the interpretive park ranger at Hunting Island State Park, said she got a call saying a sea turtle seemed to be struggling in the water around 1 p.m.
Stegmeir and Miller, who have special training to respond to sea turtle strandings, determined the rope was around the turtle's neck and left flipper and that the flipper was injured.
They knew an evaluation from a vet was needed, Stegmeir said.
She added that it is possible the turtle could have been tangled up for months, and that's why she was heading toward the shore.
"She was getting tired," Stegmeir said.
The turtle was 5-feet, 3-inches long and was estimated to be about 900 to 1,000 pounds, she said, adding that the turtle was at least 15-20 years old.
Staff members from Hunting Island State Park and S.C. Department of Natural Resources got the turtle onto a plywood board so it could be brought to shore, according to a post on the S.C. State Parks Facebook page. They kept the turtle hydrated and restrained for a couple hours until veterinarians from the South Carolina Aquarium could arrive to treat the turtle's wounds and give it antibiotics.
The leatherback, which had been tagged in Trinidad, was then released.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget," said Stegmeir, who added that she had never seen a leatherback in person before.
Typically 4 to 6 feet long and more than 1,000 pounds, leatherbacks are the largest of the sea turtles, according to the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
Wildlife officials had warned recently that the "gentle giants" were being spotted in Lowcountry waters because they were following their food sources, including cannonball jellyfish.
Leatherback sea turtles typically are not seen in South Carolina waters in large numbers, said David Lucas, regional public information coordinator for SCDNR.
"They are not super common," said Lucas said. "They migrate thorough South Carolina waters, but very few nest here."
Since 1996, only 21 leatherback nests have been documented in South Carolina, according to SCDNR data.
Last week, the Post and Courier newspaper reported about another leatherback rescued by a group of Lowcountry fishermen after being found with a crab pot and bouy wrapped around its neck about 50 miles offshore from Charleston.
In January, NOAA officials began reviewing a petition to remove East Coast leatherback sea turtles from the "endangered" list to the "threatened" list, the Associated Press reported. NOAA officials are looking at submitted evidence that might prove the reptiles population has stabilized.
Boaters recently were asked to be on the lookout for sea turtles in nearshore waters. Sightings may be reported to email@example.com.
Injured or dead sea turtles should be reported to the wildlife hotline at 1-800-922-5431.