David Lauderdale

Stop digging killer beach holes and leaving tents on Hilton Head Island beach | Opinion

Knock down those sandcastles! And other ways to help sea turtles this nesting season

Knocking down sandcastles — and filling in holes on the beach — are two little-known ways tourists and locals alike can help protect nesting sea turtles and their hatchlings. Nesting season runs May 1 through Oct. 31 in Florida and the Carolinas.
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Knocking down sandcastles — and filling in holes on the beach — are two little-known ways tourists and locals alike can help protect nesting sea turtles and their hatchlings. Nesting season runs May 1 through Oct. 31 in Florida and the Carolinas.

Just when you thought it was safe to go to the beach as long as you didn’t do something rash and actually go into the water, where those pesky sharks are knifing through the jellyfish tentacles in the rip tide, there’s this.

Killer holes.

Hilton Head Island has a holes-on-the-beach problem. People are digging holes, hundreds of holes, in the sand and leaving them there to kill baby sea turtles and break human ankles.

During a week in June, members of the advocacy group Turtle Trackers surveyed the Hilton Head beach and reported 389 big holes — and 54 beach chairs and tents — left overnight.

Three hundred and eighty nine large holes?

I took it as my duty to society to explain that behavior, but I’ve hit a dry hole. I think people are rather bored on the beach.

But I discovered that giant holes on the beach kill more than baby turtles trying to get to the ocean. They kill people.

An assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who was a lifeguard in his younger years took it upon himself to document the killer beach hole problem.

Dr. Bradley Maron wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 that he found “52 documented fatal and nonfatal cases, occurring primarily in the past 10 years, in which persons were submerged after the collapse of a dry-sand hole excavated for recreational purposes.”

When The Washington Post reported on it in 2014, he had documented 25 more killer-hole deaths, just from news reports.

“He was buried alive. He was buried alive in that hole that he dug,” the Post was told by a witness to a horrid death on the beach.


Why would so many people feel the urge to haul shovels to the beach and dig mammoth holes?

The only sensible answers I’ve found came in the comments posted on the Washington Post story:


“Some people are stupid. You could have a sign somewhere telling people not to dig a hole and they will do it anyway. Stupidity is everywhere.”

“You can’t cure stupid; when you are young you believe you are bullet proof and immune to the laws of physics and nature. He is not the first, nor will he be the last to ignore danger for who knows what reason. Wonder how many of his friends were standing around watching him?”

And, of course: “Outlaw sand! Sand doesn’t kill people, people digging holes in sand kill people. What are we to make of this?”

Hilton Head message

Well, here’s what we can make of it.

We don’t have to sit on our beach towels and watch this stupidity. Forget the concept that humankind will “dig responsibly.”

Outlaw garden shovels and Army-surplus shovels or whatever from the Hilton Head beach, as a Town Council committee approved last week. These are not the small beach shovels children use.

Limit the size of beach holes. Other beach towns have set it at 12 inches.

Other beach towns have required all beach sculptures and holes to be leveled by 30 minutes prior to dark.

And while they’re at it, Town Council should do as other beach towns in South Carolina have done: ban large tents.

The only thing an adult can expect to use for a “shading device” on the beach in much of South Carolina during peak season is an umbrella no wider than 7 feet, 6 inches. And then, in Myrtle Beach, it has to be behind something called the “umbrella line.”

This sounds so much like the typical Hilton Head response of “Get off my lawn.”

But it’s not.

Hilton Head adopted beach rules soon after incorporating in 1983, regulating dogs and fishing and, quite noticeably, solicitation, as in timeshares, on the beach.

Then in 1990, Town Council survived the human hurricane that erupted when it banned alcohol on the beach.

Feelings were hurt. “Rights” were violated. But Town Council did it to set a tone and send a message: Hilton Head is not a Spring Break Beach Town, so leave your beer funnels at home.

And as Town Council member David Ames said, the shovel ban would set a tone and send a message.

Hilton Head cares about protecting sea turtles and their babies. So leave your shovels and tents at home.

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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