Untamed Lowcountry

Lowcountry sea turtle nest numbers fall. Here's what experts say is behind the drop

The number of sea turtles nests in Beaufort County and South Carolina this year are less than half of what they were a year ago, state environmental officials said this week.

Turtle experts and volunteers predicted low numbers for this season after a harsh winter depleted the turtles' food supply of crustaceans and shellfish.

In Beaufort County this year, there are 116 sea turtle nests as of June 7. Last year on that date, there were were 283 nests.

Across South Carolina, there are 601 sea turtle nests this year. Last year at this time, there were 1,653.

"Sea turtle nesting is very cyclical ... in that nesting females don't come [to] shore to lay eggs every single year," said DNR representative Erin Weeks. "Laying eggs is a really energy intensive process for them, and so females will take a year off. They don't nest every year in a row."

Michelle Pate, the DNR's sea turtle program coordinator, said a month ago that officials were encouraged that this season's numbers would "likely surpass" those from last year. That prediction was based on reported loggerhead sightings in the water.

Pate and Weeks' perspective is not as optimistic today, but not discouraged either.

Weeks said it's possible that 2018 is simply an "off" year. She also said nesting numbers could be affected because foraging ares are mot producing as much food. That development could also be the result of colder winter.

Because the "peak" of nesting season is closer to late June or early July, Weeks says, it's still too early for the DNR to look at data and definitively say why nesting numbers are down.

The loggerhead sea turtle nest count rose slowly throughout May after the state's first nest of the year was found on Daufuskie Island on May 8. The state broke the 600 nest mark on Thursday.

Volunteers have been patrolling the Lowcountry's beaches to mark nesting locations, check for false crawls and collect other nesting data for DNR.

Tammy Helmuth, a Duafuskie Island volunteer, said she and other volunteers can be out in the morning "for hours" looking for eggs, which are vulnerable to predators such as armadillos, ghost crabs or humans.

Last year, some nests were lost due to human activity and poaching. Volunteers continue to patrol for houses with lights on after 10 p.m. to prevent turtle hatchlings from becoming disoriented.

Helmuth, who has volunteered for 13 years, said armadillos accounted for the loss of a number of nests last year.

This year, however, she said, armadillos haven't hit a single nest on the island.

To help keep such predators away, Helmuth and her team sometimes place wire cages into the sand that keep hungry animals out but still allow hatchlings to crawl through and make their way to the ocean.

There is also an education aspect to the season that applies to any beach shared by human and sea turtles.

"We just let everybody know what you can and can't do," Helmuth said, including not using flashlights at night and simply letting the nests be.

The DNR's sea turtle nest monitoring system shows the status of the state's nests and eggs as well as the false crawl proportion.

Almost all sea turtle nests recorded in the state are loggerhead nests. One green sea turtle nest was found on Hilton Head Island.

Isle of Palms and Lighthouse Island each have one leatherback nest.

It generally takes about 60 days for the eggs to hatch. That means South Carolina should start seeing hatchlings next month. Helmuth said Daufuskie's first nest is due to hatch around the Fourth of July.

Daufuskie has had "great success" with people and animals leaving the nests to hatch in peace, she said..

"There's just so much nature all around you," Helmuth said of life in the Lowcountry. "I think it just may be the environment that draws you in and kind of makes you aware of how you need to help."