Before there was jewelry shaped like a loggerhead sea turtle, or sea turtle chocolates or a sea turtle strip mall on Hilton Head Island, there was the Sea Turtle Queen.
Before there were legions, nay, predawn battalions, of volunteers marking and coddling each loggerhead turtle nest — all 2,762 of them last year on South Carolina beaches — there was the first Marine Turtle Recovery Team in the United States. Its co-leader was the Sea Turtle Queen.
Before best-selling Charleston author Mary Alice Monroe’s “Swimming Lessons” novel, and Carl Safina’s “Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth’s Last Dinosaur,” brought the turtle’s survival drama into our air-conditioned living rooms, a biologist working for the state of South Carolina filled pages with data — and hope.
She is Sally R. Murphy of Sheldon, the first sea turtle coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. She started working with turtles in 1976, and in retirement, I’m calling her the Sea Turtle Queen, although she says the endangered urchins of the deep are today’s poster child for conservation due to armies of people, worldwide.
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But it also proves, in the words of Coastal Conservation League founder Dana Beach, “that one person can change the course of history, and that there is hope for the future of the wildlife on our human-dominated planet.”
Threatened and endangered species
Sally Murphy was imprinted as a child by a sweeping vista of the Vernon River, where her family lived in the Rose Dhu hamlet outside Savannah.
“I sometimes pretended to be an otter,” she writes, “sliding on my belly down the pluff mud shore at low tide, or as I floated on a rubber raft along narrow creeks.”
As she excelled in biology at Jenkins High and Armstrong State, and later the University of South Carolina, something else was becoming imprinted on the American soul: the ecology. A river caught fire in Ohio. An oil spill coated birds in California.
In Beaufort County, the new ethic roared to life with the contentious fight to keep a massive petrochemical plant from the banks of the pristine Colleton River near the mouth of Port Royal Sound.
This in the same county where children rode the backs of the massive loggerhead turtles when they came ashore to lay eggs in the sand, cover them and leave. People ate the eggs like candy and no one thought anything of it. They were believed to be aphrodisiacs.
Wading into this turning tide was the Endangered Species Act of 1973. By 1978, it listed six species of sea turtles, including the threatened loggerheads, and the state needed a plan to protect them.
From that time forward, Murphy was a leader among federal, state and international entities documenting the problem and pushing solutions.
She observed the shoreline from helicopters and airplanes.
They tested ways to protect the turtle eggs from raccoons, a major predator. They worked on human poachers as well. Murphy tells the story of “Ronnie the Poacher” giving up the trade when the fine went from $25 to $5,000 when the loggerhead sea turtles were classified as “threatened.”
Volunteers began daily beach patrols, marking and protecting sea turtle nests, moving them to safer places if needed. Among the state’s first shore patrols were the ones on Hilton Head, Fripp Island and the Hunting Island State Park.
Another milestone was creation of Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, with volunteers again in the thick of it.
“By the summer of 1980, about half the coast was being monitored,” Murphy writes. “Almost 600 dead sea turtles were recorded, and no one cared!”
That led to a long and political fight to force shrimp nets dragged behind South Carolina’s large fleet of private trawlers to have “turtle excluder devices” that the could give the turtles an escape hatch. The shrimpers hated them.
But the scientific method that showed shrimp nets were indeed a problem also showed that turtle excluder devices designed by shrimpers were a lifesaver for sea turtles.
Murphy, often the only woman in the room, never blinked, even though she was once hung in effigy following a shrimpers’ meeting. South Carolina was the first state in the nation to have turtle excluder device regulations.
In good shrimping seasons, Murphy writes, the shrimpers called her “Miss Sally.” In bad seasons, she was the “Turtle B----.”
“Turtles don’t mind people, if they behave,” Murphy told me.
That means leaving the eggs alone, turning off lights on the oceanfront during nesting season, not confusing turtles with flashlights on the beach, not leaving deep holes on the beach, and keeping plastics out of the ocean.
Murphy has seen those human sensibilities rise in South Carolina.
She has seen the children of small Upstate town of Ninety Six spark legislation to make the loggerhead turtle the official state reptile.
And she has seen the South Carolina Aquarium come to life in the heart of Charleston, along with its hospital for injured sea turtles. The release of healed turtles draws huge crowds, a strong signal that the tide has turned for sea turtles.
But Murphy had other projects as well, and the salt marsh like the one imprinted in her heart as a child was a big part of it.
Her husband, Tom Murphy, also worked with DNR, and is perhaps best known for helping the eagles rebound.
They live on the marsh at the edge of the ACE Basin, the name for some 350,000 acres northward to Charleston that have been protected forever against development. The Murphys played a role in that as well.
Sally Murphy’s memoir shows how anyone who wants to make a difference is going to have to get educated, be tenacious, be factual, stay involved and collaborate with others.
She used those skills in retirement to fight a new commercial jellyball fishery in Beaufort County.
The hot topic of offshore drilling is not in her book, but she told me that sea turtles, like marine mammals, would be hurt by seismic blasting used to find oil and gas deposits. And as for drilling, she said, “Spills always occur, and once in our marshes, that contamination is here to stay.”
In her book, she says the greatest threat to the ACE Basin are the thousands of rhesus monkeys raised on Morgan Island and in facilities in Yemassee. She said a hurricane could turn those animals raised for use in research labs into the Lowcountry wild, and “no nesting bird would be safe.”
She said it’s not a matter of if this disaster happens, but when.
“It would be like having feral hogs that climb,” she writes.
She said sea level rise will reshape the waterfront.
And the flood of new environmental challenges on a crowded planet will never go away.
“I feel like I did what I could do,” she said. “I fought the good fight. Now it’s young people’s turn, and if this book can help them, it’s all been worth it.”