A dead leatherback sea turtle was found about a half mile off the south end of Hilton Head Island on Monday, and state environmental officials are discussing whether equipment changes might prevent future deaths.
The endangered, massive turtle had a front flipper tangled in a buoy cable that was part of a dredging operation, according to Amber Kuehn, the manager of the Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project. Kuehn was with South Carolina Department of Natural Resources officials when they investigated the incident Monday afternoon. The turtle was southeast of channel marker six, Kuehn said.
Erin Weeks, a spokesperson for the SCDNR, said the turtle was about five feet long and was likely female. The animal was first reported to the SCDNR Sunday, but it's unclear how long it had been tangled, Weeks said. The turtle's weight will be available after a necropsy is completed. That procedure is planned for Tuesday to determine whether it was reproductively active, she said.
Leatherbacks are typically four to six feet long and weigh 660 to 1,100 pounds, according to the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
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Weeks said there has been one case of a turtle being entangled in a mooring buoy line, but never an instance associated with a submerged dredge pipe.
"The investigation as to how this occurred is ongoing," Weeks said in an email Tuesday. "But it will include discussion of whether gear modifications need to be made in order to prevent this from happening again."
Weeks said the cable had "one or more loops" that apparently hooked the turtle's flipper. Potential modifications could ensure buoy cables have no loops, she said.
Turtle rescues are common as the reptiles move closer to shore for nesting season, which begins Tuesday and lasts until mid- to late August, Kuehn said. They nest every two to three years.
No nests were found on the first day of the season, Kuehn said.
SCDNR data shows only 21 leatherback nests have been documented in South Carolina since 1996. Kuehn said that in 2015, there were two leatherback nests on Hilton Head.
On Saturday, another leatherback sea turtle was found tangled in a rope and buoy from a crab pot between Fripp Island and the Hunting Island fishing pier. The rope was wrapped around the turtle's neck and left flipper, which was injured. That animal survived and was released.
The Post and Courier reported a third leatherback was found tangled in a crab pot and buoy about 50 miles off the coast from Charleston last week. It also survived.
Scott Liggett, director of projects and facilities and chief engineer for the town, said there are currently no town dredging initiatives underway.
Sea Pines continues to dredge the South Beach area, Nancy Cappelmann, harbourmaster, said Tuesday.