Local Knowledge: Sea Turtle Guardians
North Myrtle Beach group is dedicated to protecting and preserving this endangered species
Some volunteers are drawn to being a part of the North Myrtle Beach Sea Turtle Patrol (NMBSTP) for the thrill of the hunt of a new sea turtle nest while walking our beautiful beaches at sunrise. For others, it’s the rare chance to see tiny baby sea turtles crawl out of a nest and march to the sea.
But for most, it is the passion to protect endangered loggerhead sea turtles, which are the official state reptile. For me, it is all of the above. And as a photographer, being a part of the NMBSTP has allowed me to capture some unforgettable moments as the baby sea turtles emerge from their nests and make their journey to the sea.
The NMBSTP is in full swing for its third season of protecting loggerhead sea turtle nests and assisting in successful hatchings. On May 1 volunteers began walking the beaches at sunrise in search of sea turtle tracks leading to a new nest of eggs laid by a mother during the night. North Myrtle Beach is divided into segments, and each segment is walked daily by volunteers until mid-August, which is typically when the turtles stop laying eggs for the season. A nesting sea turtle typically weighs 250 to 350 pounds and is approximately three feet in length. On average, she will deposit 100 eggs into a nest she digs with her back flippers. After her eggs are laid, the mother returns to the ocean and never sees the nest, eggs or hatchlings again. Females often nest two to five times a season. If volunteers are able to confirm a nest, it is marked and roped off for protection.
The eggs incubate in the sand for 45 to 60 days before the turtles hatch out of their shells and leave their nests. Much like human births, an exact date can’t be predicted for the turtles to make their exit. For that reason, volunteers often sit at the nests for several nights in anticipation of catching a glimpse of the hatchlings in action. The babies usually appear after the sun goes down, as they can sense a drop in sand temperature. It is to their advantage to begin their trek at night, lessening the chance they will be seen by predators like ghost crabs and birds.
Night-sitting can last for a week or more in duration, requiring volunteers to sit by the nests in shifts so someone is on hand to make sure the hatchlings are not disorientated by lights and mistakenly end up in dunes or parking areas.
Witnessing the turtles emerge is an experience not soon forgotten. An indication the turtles are trying to dig their way out is the sand on the surface of the nest appearing to bubble. Soon after, they come pouring out of the nest. Appropriately, this is referred to as a “boil.” Hatchlings—dark brown in color, about two inches long, and weighing mere ounces—instinctively use the moon as a reference point in order to stride toward the sea. However, they often get confused when they see bright lights shining from hotels or piers. If needed, volunteers unobtrusively give the turtles a little help by guiding them in the correct direction.
Once in the ocean, the baby sea turtles swim continuously for several days until they reach the Sargasso Sea, an area in the Atlantic Ocean. There, sargassum seaweed floats along with the current and is a natural nursery for baby crabs, shrimp, fish and other forms of sea life that the young turtles can feed on. It also offers protection for the turtles as they hide in the seaweed in order to avoid larger predators.
The males never return to land unless they are sick, injured or stranded. Female turtles return for these same reasons, and, more importantly, to nest once they reach maturity, which is about 20 to 25 years old. Sadly, only about 1 in 1,000 hatchlings will survive to grow to maturity.
In 2011, the NMBSTP located and protected 18 nests in the city limits, and three additional nests were found in Briarcliffe Acres. Despite Hurricane Irene threatening the nests, only one nest was lost when it was overwashed by a higher-than-usual tide caused by the storm. According to SeaTurtle.org, in the state of South Carolina there were 4,027 loggerhead sea turtle nests recorded in 2011, leaping up from just 3,150 in 2010.
All sea turtles in America are state and federally protected. It is against the law to harass or tamper with the turtles or their nests. You can do your part to help the sea turtles survive in a number of ways. If you dig in the sand, always refill your holes before leaving the beach. Female sea turtles can fall into these holes and become trapped when they come on shore in an attempt to lay a nest of eggs. The holes can also trap hatchlings trying to make their way to the ocean. Don’t leave any trash behind on the beach. Items such as plastic bags, balloons and firework paraphernalia can be mistaken for food by sea turtles. If turtles consume these trash items, they are at risk of becoming sick and may even die. If you come upon a mother sea turtle coming on shore to lay a nest of eggs, keep your distance and do not disturb her. If she feels threatened, she will return to the sea without laying her nest. Never shine a light on the turtles or use flash photography. Bright lights can intimidate and disorient the turtles.
In addition to protecting sea turtles on the beach, the NMBSTP also dedicates time to educating the public about their efforts. Volunteers give classroom presentations to students, speak to civic groups and participate in North Myrtle Beach street festivals by manning a booth offering up a wealth of sea turtle information.
For more information regarding the NMBSTP, visit them on Facebook or at www.nmbseaturtlepatrol.com. The patrol is a member of South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts (S.C.U.T.E.), a group dedicated to sea turtle conservation in Horry and Georgetown counties. The NMBSTP works under S.C.U.T.E.’s nesting and stranding permits from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
To report any sea turtle activity in the North Myrtle Beach area, call Linda Mataya at (843) 283-6670. Mataya and co-leader Rob Kayton head the NMBSTP.