Untamed Lowcountry

Rare leatherback turtle nests found in on Fripp Island

Cyndi White wasn't quite sure what she was seeing Tuesday morning when she and fellow volunteers looking for sea turtle nests came upon very large tracks on Fripp Island.

"The body pit was so big; we thought it was so unusual," she said of the hole the turtle had dug.

Two rare leatherback sea turtle nests -- the only ones so far in South Carolina this year -- have been discovered in northern Beaufort County.

The first was found June 14 on Pritchards Island, and the second on Tuesday morning on Fripp, one island over.

"It's not a normal occurrence to see these ladies up on our beaches, so it's amazing," said Janie Lackman of the Fripp Island Turtle Protection Program.

Both Lackman and Rob Morris of the Pritchards Island sea turtle nesting program said this was the first leatherback turtle on their islands on record.

The Pritchards Island nest was discovered on the south end of the beach. While it could not be moved, Morris said they were able to protect the nest from raccoons and other animals and will continue to monitor it.

Lackman said the leatherback nest found Tuesday is the first for that species ever recorded on Fripp, according to S.C. Department of Natural Resources records.

In 2012, a leatherback turtle made a false crawl -- arriving on the beach during nesting season but departing without laying eggs -- on Harbor Island, but not since 2011 have leatherbacks nested in Beaufort County.

Leatherbacks are more common south of South Carolina.

Hilton Head Island had three nests in 2011 and one in 2010, and Hunting Island had one each during those years, according to Seaturtle.org, which tracks nests.

Lackman believes the two nests this year could be from the same turtle, as they typically lay eggs about 10 days apart.

Lackman has looked for a leatherback turtle for years, but didn't know when or if Fripp would get a nest.

"I was extremely excited to see the eggs and see the hole she dug and the tracks and everything," she said. "Because we're basically talking about a dinosaur."

The nest was about 3 feet deep and had 77 billiard ball-sized eggs and 33 smaller spacer, or infertile, eggs. Loggerhead turtles typically lay about 120 pingpong ball-sized eggs and one or two spacers, she said.

The nest on Fripp Island had to be moved because it was below the high tide line, Lackman said.

Leatherbacks are usually between 4 and 6 feet long, but have been recorded as long as 10 feet. They can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, Lackman said.

Tuesday's discovery partially fulfilled a long-standing dream of Cyndi White's.

"I have been thinking about going to Trinidad to see a leatherback turtle, so I might have saved a lot of money," she joked. "But I still want to see a leatherback."

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.

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