South Carolina's sea islands, part of a chain of barrier islands stretching from Charleston, S.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., are an essential nesting ground for many endangered sea turtle species, including the loggerhead and, rarely, the Kemp's Ridley. Encompassing nearly seven percent of loggerhead nesting areas in the U.S. (second to Florida, whose 91 percent of U.S. nesting grounds account for one-third of loggerhead nesting areas worldwide), South Carolina's beaches are a significant habitat for a declining population of loggerhead turtles. And with many Florida beaches potentially at risk from oil carried through the Gulf Stream, South Carolina's importance to nesting turtles has only been magnified.
I've spent many summers enjoying the near pristine quality of these coasts — beautiful white sand beaches buffeted by lovely wind-swept sand dunes, which, aside from their beauty, serve as important ecosystems for a range of animal and plant species. That's why I was excited to finally have the opportunity to accompany Seabrook Island's volunteer Turtle Patrol and contribute to a very important conservation effort.
Rising with the sun on Monday morning, I followed my mom (a seasoned Turtle Patrol volunteer) along her mile-and-a-half route in search of turtle nesting sites laid the night before. For 20 years, the Turtle Patrol
members have been walking the beaches every morning as part of their effort to "monitor, preserve, protect, and facilitate the propagation of sea turtles on Seabrook Island" — their activities include locating and marking nests, relocating nests to protect from man-made and natural threats when appropriate, reporting nests to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and keeping the beach free of litter.
Just the week before, she and her patrol partner had found a nest and reported it as the 24th of the nesting season, which runs from May through August. One week later, at the time of writing, the 37th nest of the season had been located and marked, already matching the total number of nests found in the entire 2009 nesting season
. Though we didn't locate any new nests on my patrol, we weren't without some action — we discovered a "false crawl" in which a female had evidently crawled into the dunes but failed to lay a nest before returning to the water.
Though false crawls occur quite frequently, a wide range of anthropogenic factors can deter a female from laying a nest. Overdevelopment and increased human presence on sensitive beach habitats, invasive dune vegetation, poaching of eggs by humans and natural predators, and even artificial lighting on beachfront property can disturb a nesting turtle. Taking into account larger threats not specific to baby and nesting turtles such as commercial fishing, plastic marine debris, and — even excluding massive disasters like the one unfolding in the Gulf — the dredging, construction and small-scale oil leaks associated with oil and gas exploration, it's small wonder that sea turtle populations have been declining for decades.
Though it has been difficult to find trends in sea turtle nesting data
from year to year, especially considering they take 20-30 years to mature, there is little doubt that sustained conservation efforts are necessary to ensure their survival. Even small-scale volunteer efforts like the one on Seabrook Island, if planned with foresight and implemented responsibly, can play a significant role. However, it's becoming more and more apparent that it may take much larger-scale commitment to conservation — like the scale proposed by the Nature Conservancy to rebuild the Gulf
— for our environment (and economy) to flourish.