Untamed Lowcountry

Turtle stranded off Hunting Island almost mistaken for kayak. Here’s what saved her

Types of sea turtles that nest in South Carolina

There are four types of sea turtles that are known to nest in our state: the loggerhead, the green, the leatherback and the Kemp's ridley.
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There are four types of sea turtles that are known to nest in our state: the loggerhead, the green, the leatherback and the Kemp's ridley.

That a 260-pound mama turtle is alive and preparing for another brood this week instead of becoming an overcooked shark meal is a credit to the owners of a local landmark restaurant.

The Godley family, whose members operate the Shrimp Shack on St. Helena, walked more than a mile down the beach at Hunting Island State Park in the midday heat Monday, park officials said. They could have turned back at any point or seen the loggerhead stranded on the sandbar off the southern end of the island and thought nothing of it.

But they waded out in the hip-deep water to check on the giant reptile and called for help. They found a depression holding water and splashed some on the turtle in an effort to keep it cool.

The turtle’s body temperature was elevated and its fins and neck showed evidence of the shark attack that likely drove her to the sandbar.

“There’s nobody else out here,” said park employee Buddy Lawrence, a volunteer with the park’s turtle program who holds a state permit to rescue stranded turtles. “They could have turned around at any time, and nobody else would have found her. The tide would have washed her somewhere else and, by that point, she would have been dead.”

Instead, Lawrence and the Godleys loaded the turtle on a tarp and waded the 70 yards or so back to shore. Hunting Island ranger Megan Stegmeir met the group with a Polaris ATV and navigated a trail back to the park’s nature center.

The turtle was rinsed off to cool down and driven by Friends of Hunting Island volunteers to the care of the Sea Turtle Hospital at South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston.

Megan Stegmeir, a ranger at Hunting Island State Park, poses with a loggerhead turtle after park officials rescued the animal after it became stranded on a sandbar Monday. The turtle was taken to the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston for treatment. Friends of Hunting Island Submitted

An ultrasound showed the turtle had developing eggs. Lawrence guessed that the mother had already nested either on Hunting, Fripp or Harbor islands and was resting before laying more eggs when she was attacked by sharks and sought shallow water.

When the tide went out, she was stuck and likely too weak from the heat and her injuries to return to water.

The turtle is at least 25 years old with a 90-centimeter-long shell and probably a native of the area, Stegmeir said. After being treated at the turtle hospital, she likely will be released at a Charleston-area beach and could nest again, park officials said.

The Godleys heard the hospital staff had named the turtle Bonzai, after one of the hyenas in the movie “Lion King.” Other turtles in the hospital’s care are named for characters from “Lion King” and Harry Potter.

Hunting Island volunteers have reported 37 turtle nests on park beaches as of Tuesday.

Loggerheads can be seen lifted their heads out of the water off the beach, and boaters are asked to be cautious this time of year. Lawrence said he’s only experienced one other stranded turtle in almost 20 years with the turtle program.

Members of the public shouldn’t try to help free stranded turtles on their own, Stegmeir said. In similar situations, people can call the Hunting Island’s nature center or state wildlife officials.

But if it weren’t for the efforts of the Godleys to help move the 260-pound animal, the rescue wouldn’t have happened.

“It was definitely a collaborative effort,” Stegmeir said. “The beachgoers that saw her saved her life.”

Hilda Godley, who runs the Shrimp Shack with her sister, made the long walk with her husband, Glenn, and daughter, Karen, from the South Beach parking lot to the southern end of the island facing Fripp Island. The St. Helena natives like to make the walk to see how the end of the island has changed since Hurricane Matthew and Karen wanted the stroll before returning to California the next day, Hilda said.

They first thought the orange-tinged object out on the sandbar was a kayak, Hilda said. They waded in to find out and found the turtle baked and bleeding and called the park.

“You could tell she was about gone,” Hilda said. “...It was like, wow, how could you walk off and leave her?”

Glenn Godley uses a hat to shield the sun from a loggerhead turtle stranded on a sandbar off Hunting Island on Monday. Godley and his family called the park staff for help, and the turtle was taken to Charleston for treatment. Hilda Godley Submitted