Loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) nest on South Carolina beaches May through October. S.C.U.T.E., which stands for South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts, is one of 30 volunteer sea turtle protection projects along our coastline under the direction of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Nest protection began in the early 1980s in response to decline in the loggerhead population due to fishing/shrimping issues, loss of habitat and boat strikes. Nesting numbers in SC have been steadily increasing for the last 4 years indicating the loggerhead species could be in recovery and that the volunteer effort could be paying off. The 60 mile S.C.U.T.E. area stretches from North Inlet in Georgetown County to North Myrtle Beach in Horry County. DeBordieu and Hobcaw beaches typically account for 40-50% of the nests in this area. In 2013 we had a record-breaking 108 nests on our stretch of beach (75 nests in 1995 was previous record)!
Volunteers walk at sunrise during nesting season looking for the large turtle tracks leading from the ocean to the dunes and back. When tracks are found, clues are used to determine the nest area. Using pool cues, volunteers probe the sand to locate the soft area of the egg chamber. An average nest of 120 ping pong size eggs may need to be moved if the clutch is laid in an unsafe place such as below the spring tide line or in a high foot traffic area. Nests are protected with a plastic mesh, staked to protect it from predators and a sign is posted with the nesting date.
At about 50 days of incubation, volunteers begin to look for a depression in the nest indicating hatching activity beneath. When a nest hatches, usually at about 55-60 days, hatchlings make a mad dash to the ocean following the fluorescence of the waves as long as they are not lead astray by onshore lighting. After a hatch, SCDNR requires us to wait 3 nights before conducting the nest inventory so as to give all hatchlings a chance to exit the nest. Inventory date, time and location are posted on the website. At the inventory, a volunteer tells visitors about the procedure and printed information is handed out. The nest contents are dug out and data is recorded and sent to SCDNR. Sometimes live hatchlings are found in the nest that were not able to emerge on their own. Volunteers put the hatchlings on the beach, let them crawl to the ocean and ‘imprint’. At maturity, 25-30 years, female loggerheads will generally return to the beach of their birth to nest. However, recent DNAstudies show some turtles will nest many miles from where they hatched.
Fasten your seat belts for another exciting turtle season!