David Lauderdale

Fertile Myrtle the sea turtle honored with sculpture on Hilton Head beach

Myrtle as a piece of public art will stand temporarily near the Tiki Hut bar on the Hilton Head Island beach.
Myrtle as a piece of public art will stand temporarily near the Tiki Hut bar on the Hilton Head Island beach. Submitted

Fertile Myrtle the prolific sea turtle has put all her eggs in the Hilton Head Island basket.

Myrtle is the name given to a real loggerhead sea turtle who has laid more eggs in more nests in more years on Hilton Head than any other turtle. She’s called Myrtle because it rhymes with fertile.

And now, fertile Myrtle is being honored on Hilton Head with a piece of public art.

A life-size Fiberglass sculpture painted by island artist Mira Scott will be unveiled Saturday at her temporary home on the beach near the Tiki Hut at Coligny Circle.

A ceremony is scheduled for 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Tiki Hut. A highlight will be Jevon Daly singing his turtle song with the band Jo Jo Squirrel and the Home Pickles.

Myrtle’s statue and ceremony have been organized by Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island, the nonprofit organization whose trained volunteers monitor Hilton Head beaches for sea turtle nesting and hatching activity through a permit from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

They mark new nests — a record 462 this summer — and sometimes move them for protection.

They also take one egg from each nest to be sent away for testing. DNA is taken from the leathery shell by the University of Georgia, where researchers discovered they could “extract female DNA from the eggshells of sea turtles in order to track the mothers’ locations, the number of nests they lay each season and how long they have been reproducing — in essence, taking the turtle’s fingerprint,” according to the university’s Red & Black magazine.

Since 2010, every sea turtle that lumbers ashore Hilton Head in the dead of night to dig a hole in the sand, lay maybe 120 eggs, cover the nest with sand and then struggle back to the sea has been given a number.

A geneticist at the UGA Sea Turtle DNA Fingerprinting project noticed some phenomenal numbers with one of the numbered mama turtles of Hilton Head, said Amber Hester Kuehn, marine biologist and director of Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island.

In 2011, CC003061, now known as fertile Myrtle, laid one nest on Hilton Head and five on Bay Point, an unoccupied island across Port Royal Sound from Hilton Head.

But from then on, Myrtle became something of an Honorary Ohioan because she returned strictly to Hilton Head, summer after summer.

If you’re a turtle, but not fertile Myrtle, you generally lay eggs every three years, maybe four. You do about four nests per year. You bury about 120 eggs.

But if you’re fertile Myrtle, you leave 145, up to 150 eggs in your nests. And we know through genetic tagging that this is your pace of life:

2013: seven nests, all on Hilton Head.

2015: seven nests, all on Hilton Head.

2017: eight nests, all on Hilton Head. That’s as many nests as have ever been recorded in South Carolina for a single turtle in a single season, which runs from May through mid-August.

Myrtle was due on Hilton Head this summer, but so far there’s no sign of her, Kuehn said. UGA has now tested all the egg shells from Hilton Head. But, Kuehn said it may be that Myrtle is being more like a normal turtle and taking this year off.

Through the miracle of science, we know that Myrtle has daughters out there laying eggs, but not granddaughters.

“She’s between 60 to 90 years old,” Kuehn said. “She probably weighs 400 pounds and is at least 90 centimeters long.”

A plaque beneath the sculpture of fertile Myrtle will explain why she is a marvel, and why people should care about the threatened sea turtles.

The painted sculpture was revealed Friday evening at the BO ART gallery, with Laura Hill standing behind a curtain putting words in the mouth of Myrtle, who is apparently a Southern belle.

The sculpture came from Chicago, and the Town of Hilton Head Island gave permission for it to be installed temporarily on private property at the Beach House Resort, which includes the Tiki Hut bar.

“We want to help promote awareness about the habitat and the environment to our guests and anyone else who happens to come look at it,” said general manager Jeff Elseser. “We want to promote awareness of our environment and the fragility of it, and this particular turtle apparently has a great story.”

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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