Slowly but surely, sea turtles are progressing in South Carolina.
The nesting season ended Oct. 31 and the state finished with 8,002 nests — its second-highest total on record.
Nest counts have averaged about 5,600 over the past two years, but SC’s Department of Natural Resources said it’s not usual for peak years to follow years of low nesting.
For example, the 8,795 nests counted in 2019 were more than triple the 2,766 reported in 2018.
While numbers in the southeast are trending up, biologists are optimistic the reptiles are starting to recover.
“The increase in nest numbers since the mid to late 2000s is promising for loggerheads,” said Michelle Pate, MNR’s nesting program manager. “We are seeing the continued benefits of conservation measured decades ago as well as management techniques still used today.”
Among the most interesting discoveries this season was the oddity of a leucistic sea turtle on Folly Beach. While most loggerhead sea turtles are dark, leucistic animals are white, pale, or patchy in color due to their reduced pigmentation.
Dave Miller, the Folly Beach Turtle team permit holder, found the special turtle in September.
“I saw these two turtles come out of the nest and they were covered in sand,” Miller said. “And then the wave took them and one of them was white. I didn’t realize it when it was covered in sand.
Leucism increases the chances of animals being captured by predators. And in areas like Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island, coyotes are among the top predators of sea turtles.
Turtle Patrol volunteers work to find sea turtle nests on beaches before coyotes do.
“What the coyotes at Wild Dunes have learned to do is ambush the turtle as it comes out of the water in the middle of the night and begins to lay its eggs,” said Chief Mary Pringle. project for the Island Turtle team at Palm Island and Sullivan’s Island.
The coyotes often eat the turtle’s eggs before the volunteers can reach them in the morning and place plastic screens over the nests. Animals cannot destroy nests once this happens. But the volunteers cannot predict when or where a turtle will choose to nest.
“When I started (volunteering), we didn’t have coyotes,” Pringle said. “We had raccoons and ghost crabs as predators, but no coyotes. And that’s just something that happens all over the coast.”
Foxes and the emergence of armadillos on beaches have also become a cause of nest loss in the state.
Pate said other concerns include artificial lighting on crowded beaches and people intercepting nesting females at night.
Even with predators like coyotes, the state’s sea turtle species have found a way to prevail. Many new turtles nested here for the first time this season.
“And they (scientists) are cautiously optimistic that this will continue through nest protection efforts – saving nests, making sure they hatch like we did and all the other people who are doing the same thing as us. let’s do for the DNR,” Pringle said.
The Pringle Island Turtle Team is one of about 30 groups along the coast that patrol beaches from May 1 to October 31 to count, monitor and protect nests. MNR said there were more than 1,500 volunteers along the coast.
A total of 57 nests have been spotted this year on Palm Island and Sullivan’s Island. And 4,602 turtles have hatched on these islands.
Most of the nests were in the Wild Dunes area.
Thirty-four nests were counted on Myrtle Beach; 99 on Madness Beach; 483 on Kiawah Island; 351 at Edisto Beach State Park; and 423 on Hilton Head Island, according to Data.
Loggerheads nest on the shores of the state more often than any other species, but greens, Kemp’s turtles, and leatherback turtles also occur here.
Each species is listed as either endangered or threatened and has protections under endangered species laws. Additional state protections are also in place.
This year, 7,974 nests were counted in the state, 21 green turtle nests and one Kemp’s turtle nest.
“I think in the history of Folly Beach Turtle Team, we had maybe two leatherback turtles,” Miller said. “And everything else was at loggerheads.”
Other species will appear on the beach, perhaps to feed, but choose to nest elsewhere.
The DNR said swimmers can help the state’s sea turtles by keeping beaches clean, giving animals and their nests space, and turning off beachfront lights to avoid disorienting them during the swim. nesting season.