David Lauderdale

Meet Hilton Head’s first turtle volunteer: Why this year’s record 462 nests matter

Her hair was blond then, braided and hanging to her waist.

She was a lone figure, pedaling a clunky beach bike along the shores of Hilton Head Island, hunting for signs of the mysterious and timeless sea turtle.

That was the summer of 1981, and Nanci Polk-Weckhorst found almost as many dead adult turtles washed ashore (38) as live turtle nests (41).

Back at the house, she would pencil her discoveries on the edges of a large commercial map of Hilton Head.

This summer, almost like the turtles of the deep that grow up and return to lay eggs in the sand, Nanci Polk-Weckhorst is back out there at daybreak, looking for turtle nests.

The long braid is still there, but now her hair has some gray in it.

She has retired from sail-making, setting aside the skills that once had her handmade designs in canvas protecting expensive equipment on Jacques Cousteau’s world-famous research vessel, the Calypso.

She and her husband, Jerre, no longer live aboard a boat, like they did for more than a decade on Hilton Head.

She doesn’t teach marine biology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort any more. And the days are long gone when she would ride in her dinghy up the May River, to an island owned by Harry Cram, to teach ecology in the old monastery for Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Project Ocean Search.

She still surfs, but after breaking an ankle at age 65, it’s a lot harder to get up quickly the way she did at Huntington Beach, California, as a kid, when she represented the entire East Coast in the U.S. Surfing Championships.

Nanci and Jerre’s windsurfing gear is stashed in a shed. And her surf shop is gone, but kids like Byron Sewell and Jevon Daly, whose veins got soaked with saltwater there, still hold her in awe.

Welcome to the life of Nanci Polk-Weckhorst, Hilton Head Island’s first official turtle tracker. It dates to a time few people thought sea turtles needed any help. Kids rode on their backs, and men trotted on horses down the beach at night to poach fresh turtle eggs and sell them in bars as aphrodisiacs.

Today, Polk-Weckhorst calls herself a “peon” in the nonprofit organization whose trained volunteers, under the supervision of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, scour the beach at sunrise.

They mark new loggerhead turtle nests using an iPad and GPS technology. They move the buried eggs to safer ground if necessary. They collect one of the leathery eggs for DNA research that will identify the mother turtle and help track her — and now sometimes her daughters and granddaughters.

This year, the Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island volunteers marked 462 nests, smashing the previous record of 411. It’s been a banner year up and down the East Coast.

Year to year, those numbers ebb and flow.

But the banner year has a special meaning to the turtle-tracking pioneer.

“It means to me that the turtles that we saved in 1981 are now nesting,” she said. “What we did was worth it.”

Folly Beach

Nanci Polk was raised by the salty sea in the West Ashley section of Charleston.

She was surfing at Folly Beach as a first-grader.

“My first surf board was my grandmother’s ironing board,” she said. “She didn’t like that.”

As a teenager, she got into heavy competition. She even took time off from college to be the state’s first professional surfer.

Her father ran a Chevrolet dealership and got a new car each year. He didn’t want her surf boards to mess up the car, so Nanci created a canvas cover for the boards.

“I had always sewn,” she said.

Then everyone wanted surf board covers, and it helped shape her life.

“It just went gangbusters,” she said. “I had my own little logo.”

She started making “Hurricane baggies,” the surfing trunks for guys they called “jams.”

She made custom bikinis for girls that would stay on when they were surfing.

She sold her creations at Dewey’s Surf Shop on Center Street in Folly Beach.

Polk-Weckhorst went away to the University of South Carolina to study art, but it didn’t last.

“I just got fed up with being away from the ocean,” she said.

She got her degree in marine biology from the College of Charleston in 1974.

But not before she had come to Hilton Head to make some quick money waiting tables at the Calibogue Cafe, in the spot that is now the Crazy Crab restaurant in Harbour Town.

Later, she would come back to be with Jerre, and catch the waves.

She’s seen a lot of tides come and go since moving to the island in 1974.

But it was that one day, when a huge humpback whale came into Calibogue Sound, that changed everything.

‘Turning the Tide’

Humpback whale visits are rare.

“That sparked my interest,” Polk-Weckhorst said.

She went to the Charleston Museum, where natural history curator Al Sanders taught her to do necropsies.

She became a marine-mammal stranding agent covering Hilton Head and Daufuskie islands for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

And Sally Murphy of Sheldon, the retired SCDNR biologist who started South Carolina’s effort to protect the threatened sea turtles, recruited and trained Polk-Weckhorst and other volunteers along the coast to monitor and document sea turtle nesting and hatching.

“Turning the Tide,” Sally R. Murphy’s memoir and the bible of how sea turtles became protected, says that three of the first five turtle-monitoring projects in the state were in Beaufort County.

Polk-Weckhorst said she put a notice in The Packet asking for help, and the late Ed Drane responded immediately, followed closely by Sally Krebs.

“We were amazed at how many other folks were willing to help,” she said.

At the start of the 1983 season, Polk-Weckhorst listed a group of six young turtle-nest helpers: Louanne LaRoche, Cindy Hykes, Allison Reeds, Charles Wood, Kert Huggins and Jeff Rupert.

Murphy says that the volunteers did what the state could never have done alone. They established a baseline of data for both nesting and strandings. That provided the documentation needed for a long-sought law mandating escape hatches in the large shrimp nets pulled by trawlers, so that turtles wouldn’t drown in the nets.

In 1980, Murphy writes in her book, “Almost 600 dead sea turtles were recorded, and no one cared!”

People care today.

One indicator came at the 31st International Sea Turtle Society meeting in San Diego in 2011. Its Volunteerism Award was given posthumously to Ed Drane of Hilton Head, the society’s treasurer for more than two decades. Also, the award was thereafter known as the ISTS Ed Drane Award for Volunteerism.

Amber Kuehn, a marine biologist and fourth-generation Bluffton native now heads Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island with its 15 trained volunteers working under a SCDNR permit.

She said poaching is no longer the big threat, but people meddling with turtles, trying to touch them or leaving obstacles for them on the beach, remains a big challenge.

Nanci and Jerre Polk-Weckhorst have their home up for sale and plan to move to the quieter, more rural Sheldon area of the county.

I teased her that Sheldon is where all the old hippies go to retire.

But I didn’t have the nerve to remind her that she’ll get fed up with being away from the ocean.

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.
Support my work with a digital subscription