Isle of Palms Sea Turtles: Magnificent and Mysterious

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Isle of Palms Sea Turtles: Magnificent and Mysterious

Along the shores of Isle of Palms, an annual ceremony unfolds—a migration of sea turtles returning to the very beaches where their lives began. Nesting season is one of the most mysterious and sacred cycles of nature, inviting both locals and visitors to witness these awe-inspiring and magnificent creatures.

A Sea Turtle’s Annual Pilgrimage

As the warmth of late spring reaches the South Carolina shores, sea turtles begin to emerge onto the beaches of Isle of Palms and neighboring Sullivan’s Island. These turtles travel thousands of miles back to the very beaches where they hatched. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) keeps records of about 30 to 50 nests that form on these beaches every year, typically from May to October, with peaks in June and July.
There are seven species of sea turtles, but Loggerheads primarily choose this area for nesting.  Occasionally, a green turtle or leatherback will make its way to shore.  All seven species are listed as threatened or endangered and therefore are protected by Federal and local laws. 

The Homing Instinct of Sea Turtles

Despite journeys that span oceans, these sea creatures successfully return to their birthplace - within a few kilometers - to continue the cycle of life.  Their memory spans decades.  Researchers are continuously studying and attempting to unravel this natural phenomenon.  This allegiance to specific nesting grounds emphasizes the critical importance of conserving and protecting these sites. 
Loggerhead turtles meticulously carve out nests and delicately bury their eggs - each nest can contain up to 120 round, white eggs - similar in size and shape to a ping-pong ball - before gently patting the sand and returning to sea.  Loggerheads may nest as many as six times during a single season!
Mother / daughter relationships have even been discovered between close proximity nesting turtles.  In Isle of Palms, DNA research has led to the discovery that one turtle mother has six daughters, all from the same father.  The mother has been nesting on the north end of Isle of Palms for decades, and her daughters since 2018.

Threats to Nests

Turtle nests face various risks and threats throughout their incubation period. Human activity along the coast, artificial lighting, and beachgoers inadvertently disturbing nests or hatchlings, pose a significant danger. Predators like raccoons and ghost crabs often target the nests, preying on eggs or hatchlings. Additionally, natural events like storms and high tides can damage or wash away nests, jeopardizing the survival of the eggs.
Loggerhead eggs need 45-65 days to hatch, with most hatchlings emerging simultaneously.  This event is called a “boil!”

Guardians of the Future: Conservation Efforts and Challenges

Dedicated organizations and volunteers in Isle of Palms work tirelessly to safeguard these nesting sites to protect these gentle giants and their vulnerable hatchlings.  Volunteer organizations such as the Island Turtle Team, a permitted organization from the SC Department of Natural Resources, and the South Carolina Aquarium actively engage in protecting these nesting grounds. 
Island Turtle Team was founded by passionate individuals who are deeply committed to the welfare of these gentle oceanic travelers.  Through collaborative engagement with the local community, educational initiatives, and tireless fieldwork, this organization plays a pivotal role in protecting the nesting sites and supporting the sea turtles.
Island Turtle Team relies on various methods to locate newly laid nests overnight. Some common techniques include:
  • Beach Patrols: Volunteers conduct sunrise beach patrols, systematically scouring the coastline for signs of turtle tracks leading from the water to potential nesting sites. These tracks are distinct and recognizable, allowing volunteers to identify the location of new nests.These vigilant patrols help ensure that the nesting process remains undisturbed and that the nesting sites can be appropriately marked and protected.
  • Marking and Monitoring: Once a nest is located, it's marked with stakes or flags, often accompanied by GPS coordinates or specific location details. This marking allows for ongoing monitoring throughout the nesting season.
  • Nest Inventories: Maintaining nest inventories involves meticulously combing the beach to locate and document new nests, ensuring no nests are overlooked.If a turtle has laid a nest below the high tide line, the nest will be relocated to a more suitable spot where the eggs can safely incubate. 
  • Reporting Systems: Volunteers and beachgoers are encouraged to report any sightings of nesting turtles or freshly laid nests to local organizations. These reports help in directing volunteers to potential nest sites for monitoring and protection.

Education and Community Engagement

Beyond fieldwork, the organization prioritizes community education. They conduct outreach programs, workshops, and awareness campaigns aimed at fostering a deeper understanding of the importance of sea turtle conservation. Engaging residents and visitors alike instills a sense of responsibility and reverence for these majestic creatures.  A list of current events hosted by the Turtle Team can be found on their Facebook page.

The Role of Temperature in Determining Hatchlings' Gender

The temperature of the nest plays a pivotal role in determining the gender of sea turtle hatchlings. Warmer temperatures within the nest tend to produce more female hatchlings, while cooler temperatures result in a higher proportion of males. This fascinating aspect of their biology underscores the vulnerability of these creatures to climate change, as rising temperatures could potentially skew gender ratios and impact population dynamics.


A Sea Turtle’s Diet

Sea turtles have a diverse diet, with preferences varying by species. For instance, loggerheads primarily feed on crustaceans and mollusks, while green turtles favor seagrasses and algae.

Embracing Coexistence: Community Involvement and Education

Locals and visitors can partake in this noble cause by joining volunteer programs, participating in guided turtle walks, or supporting awareness campaigns. The South Carolina Aquarium's Sea Turtle Care Center not only rehabilitates injured sea turtles but also champions educational outreach, fostering a deeper understanding of these revered creatures.
While enjoying the beach, you can help save and protect Sea Turtles by looking for turtle tracks, reporting sightings of Sea Turtles, and always replacing holes from digging sand castles and moats.  Both hatchlings and adult Sea Turtles can become trapped in beach holes.  Staying away from nests also increases the hatchlings likelihood of surviving.

A Journey to the Sea: Hatchings and Survival

Once the eggs are incubated, a miracle unfolds—tiny hatchlings emerge and are driven by an innate compass that guides them to the ocean. Hatchlings are drawn to refracted moonlight on the ocean surface and the white of the surf. 
On the night of hatching, volunteers play a vital role in safeguarding the emergence of hatchlings. Because they are attracted to light, they often go the wrong way when streetlights, interior lights and landscape lights can be seen from the beach. They assist by guiding the tiny turtles towards the ocean, ensuring they navigate past potential obstacles like artificial lights that could disorient them, providing these newborns with the best chance of survival in their inaugural journey.  If the hatchlings fail to make it to the ocean, they may die in the morning sun from dehydration or be found by predators.
Despite the odds stacked against them, statistics from the Sea Turtle Conservancy reveal that only about one in 1,000 hatchlings survive to adulthood. Those fortunate few can live for several decades, potentially reaching up to 50 years or more.  Loggerheads are the third largest species of sea turtles and average 3 feet in length and can weigh 200-400 pounds.

Getting Involved and Making a Difference

For those eager to contribute, the Island Turtle Team welcomes volunteers from all walks of life. Hundreds of volunteers are needed every season and each volunteer undergoes training and commits to walking a section of the beach one day a week for the entire turtle nesting season.  Whether joining sunrise beach patrols, participating in educational programs, or supporting conservation efforts, every contribution is vital in preserving this treasured species.  At this time, volunteer positions are not available for visitors, due to the four-month time commitment. 
Those inspired to support Island Turtle Team’s cause can also participate in fundraising events, spread awareness through social platforms, or contribute to their conservation initiatives. Every action taken, no matter how small, matters.

South Carolina Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Care Center

The South Carolina Aquarium's Sea Turtle Care Center is a crucial facility dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of sea turtles. Located in Charleston, South Carolina, the center specializes in providing medical care to injured or sick sea turtles found along the South Carolina coast. It's equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, including a surgical suite, radiology capabilities, and specialized tanks for various stages of rehabilitation. The center's primary goal is to treat and nurse injured or ill turtles back to health, addressing issues caused by boat strikes, fishing gear entanglements, pollution-related illnesses, and other injuries.
Once rehabilitated, the center focuses on releasing these turtles back into their natural habitats. Additionally, the Sea Turtle Care Center actively engages with the public through educational programs, raising awareness about sea turtle conservation and the importance of protecting these endangered species and their habitats.

In Isle of Palms and its neighboring shores, a delicate dance between nature and civilization unfolds each nesting season. Beyond the joy and rarity of witnessing the marvel of the turtles—it calls on all who visit and live here to become stewards of the sea. Through volunteer efforts, education, and fundraisers, we become guardians of a heritage,  ensuring that the magic of sea turtle nesting endures for generations to come.