David Lauderdale

Two Lowcountry sea turtle champions honored at international gathering

Sea turtles have a lot of friends these days, and it shows.

The number of loggerheads lumbering ashore in South Carolina to dig a hole in the sand and lay eggs has increased three years running. And already this year, earlier than normal, a high number of nests has been located for protection by an army of 1,100 volunteers and several public agencies.

The sea turtle has been the darling of the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston since it opened in 2000 and has starred in popular books by best-selling author Mary Alice Monroe of Isle of Palms.

It hasn't always been this way.

Two Beaufort County residents who helped turn the tide were honored last month at the International Sea Turtle Society conference in San Diego, which drew more than 1,000 people from 80 countries.

Sally Murphy of Sheldon earned its Lifetime Achievement Award for her impact on sea turtle biology and conservation. As a biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, Murphy worked with the endangered species for more than three decades. She started when little was known about the loggerhead population in South Carolina, much less how they could survive ravenous raccoons, ghost crabs, humans who liked to eat their leathery eggs, and commercial shrimp nets where adults drowned.

Also honored was the late Ed Drane of Hilton Head Island. The society named a new award for him -- appropriately the one to honor the world's best turtle volunteers.

Both Murphy and Drane helped the society evolve from its original workshop of about 50 people in 1980. Murphy served as host and president four times, and Drane was treasurer for almost two decades.

His wife, Betty Drane, and their daughter went to the symposium to receive the posthumous honor for Ed and a special gift from the Hilton Head Island turtle patrol. A sea turtle quilt Ed's mom made was again the auction highlight, bringing in $1,600 -- because at her age, it may be the last one she can make.

Murphy was among the first to document threats to the turtles in South Carolina, including shrimp nets. She successfully advocated mandatory turtle excluder devices that let turtles escape the nets. She monitored sea turtle population trends from a single-engine plane flying 200 feet above the lapping shore.

Murphy is retired now. She volunteers with Heroes on Horseback. She revels in the rising numbers of sea turtle nests as she recalls the first volunteers combing our beaches -- people like Norine Smoak on Fripp Island and Nanci Weckhorst and Sally Krebs on Hilton Head. And she well knows why the world has followed those tracks in the sand.

"If you ever see one of the hatchlings emerge from the sand and head to the ocean," she said, "you're hooked."