One crawl at a time, sea turtles are nesting in record numbers this summer on Beaufort County beaches.
The numbers are encouraging to Amber Keuhn, manager of the Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project, and the turtle teams in northern Beaufort County, but their work is only half done. Their first hatchlings should emerge any day, and this year, there is an added challenge of construction on about eight miles of Hilton Head beaches.
UPDATE: The first sea turtle nest of the season hatched on Hilton Head on Thursday, July 14.
The protection project has relocated the island’s 300-plus nests to just two areas — near South Forest Beach and between the Folly and the Westin — to protect them from the renourishment work, which involves pumping millions of cubic yards of sand and smoothing it with bulldozers.
While clustering the nests in condensed areas doesn’t affect how they hatch, it could still have disastrous results. Hundreds of turtles could die at a time if people break town rules and leave lights on at beachfront homes past 10 p.m.
“This year, if a porch light is left on in those two areas, there could be 20 nests at a time that are attracted to it,” says Keuhn. “That’s the scary part about, I like to say, having all my eggs in two baskets.”
344Sea turtle nests counted on Hilton Head this summer, a record
127 Nests counted on Hunting Island, short of its record of 157 in 1984
98Nests counted on Fripp Island, a record
89Nests counted on Harbor Island, a record
Hilton Head, which has seen the most turtles, has counted 344 nests so far in 2016, beating its record of 339 for all of 2013.
Fripp Island, with 98 nests, also beat its record of 92 in 2013.
And Harbor Island has counted 89, up from its 2011 record of just 68 nests.
Hunting Island has not surpassed its record, 157 nests in 1984, but had counted a respectable 127.
“And we’re not even done yet,” Keuhn says. “We’re going to have a lot of nests.”
Last year, Hilton Head lost 21 nests to light violations, more than double what the island experienced in 2014, according to Keuhn.
When the team learns of a turtle casualty, they usually find little more than disoriented hatchlings’ tracks headed away from the ocean. But sometimes, Keuhn says, they find a dead turtle left behind by crabs, birds and other predators, or a live one circling a swimming pool.
Despite surviving their first night, those dazed, pool-bound hatchlings are too weak to be released to the ocean, where they would then face a grueling, 70-mile swim to the Gulf Stream.
“It takes everything they have to make that three-day swim,” Keuhn said. “It’s not good odds. Not good odds.”
Last year, Hilton Head lost hatchlings from 21 sea turtle nests to light violations, more than double what the island experienced in 2014.
The project has gone to great lengths to remind residents to turn off their lights for the turtles, from presentations and door hangers to newsletter notices and advertisements.
This year, they also spent about $3,000 on doormats emblazoned with the light ordinance rules, figuring the message would be impossible to miss. They also hoped the mats would get dirty, increasing the likelihood tourists would leave them behind for the next visitor rather than turning them into Hilton Head souvenirs.
So far, code enforcers have identified 19 light violations this year and provided those residents with educational brochures rather than citing them, according to town attorney Brian Hulbert.
For now, the protection project can focus on education. No nests had hatched as of Tuesday. But it won’t be long.
“Any day now,” Keuhn said. “If they don’t start popping tomorrow, I’ll be really surprised.”