Nesting Season  SC on pace for record number of sea turtle nests

Ben Santomassimo gently takes 106 loggerhead sea turtle eggs from a nest and places them in a bucket on Tuesday as the sun rises. Santomassimo, a Myrtle Beach State Park ranger, said the nest was relocated to the state park for safety reasons while they wait 45-55 days for the eggs to hatch and the turtles to emerge. Beach maintenance workers with the city of Myrtle Beach found the nest as they cleared the beach of trash near 45th Avenue North. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

One by one, Ben Santomassimo delicately transferred 106 eggs from a nest into a bucket on the coast of Myrtle Beach.

Each about the size of a ping pong ball, the loggerhead eggs are a small segment of ones laid this year on South Carolina shores during the state’s sea turtle nesting season.

The season is from May to October, and this year’s is on pace for record numbers.

“It’s no accident,” said Myrtle Beach State park ranger Ann Wilson.

More than 5,900 sea turtle nests in the state have been marked during the 2019 season. The record set in 2016 was 6,446 nests.

In May and June of 2016, there were 3,928 nests. For those months this year, there have been 5,796 reported.

Wilson pointed out loggerheads mature between 25 and 35 years old, which is when they start to reproduce.

The 1980s saw several regulations on sea turtle protection go into effect, and she added the work done by biologists and volunteers over decades is paying off.

Nests have begun to hatch, with a hatch in the North Strand this week. It’s the first reported hatching in Horry County this year.

Turtle sightings have led to amazement for people like Dustin Holmes, who has done beach maintenance work for the city of Myrtle Beach for about four years and gotten to see more than a few turtles.

When those like Holmes spot sea turtles on Grand Strand shores, state park rangers like Wilson and Santomassimo join volunteers in responding and checking out the scene for possible nests.

A “false crawl” occurs when a turtle wanders onto the beach and heads back into the ocean without laying eggs.

On Tuesday morning, the loggerhead sea turtle nest was discovered and a rare green sea turtle nest with 147 eggs was found further north.

Eggs from both nests were to taken to the state park grounds, where a patrol can monitor the eggs daily and there is less light pollution.

Loggerhead nests are the most common in the state and can contain 50 to 170 eggs.

Once a nest is laid, it normally takes about 50 to 60 days for it to hatch, Wilson said, with factors like temperature affecting when a hatch occurs.

Less than 75 nests have been reported in Horry County so far in 2019.

In an effort to gather more information on loggerheads that reproduce, University of Georgia researchers are using eggshells from nests to establish DNA fingerprints.

Turtles that are injured might be taken to the Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston.

Beach goers can take precautions that might prevent a sea turtle from being obstructed or harmed.

Dog walkers are asked to leash their dogs so the dogs won’t disturb the nest and visitors are urged to take items brought like umbrellas, coolers, towels and chairs with them when they leave the beach.

Those who visit the beach are encouraged to properly dispose of trash, and Wilson said plastic in the sea poses a threat to turtles that could ingest it.

If one encounters a turtle, he or she is urged to stay behind it.

Wilson said humans can prevent an adult female sea turtle from laying eggs at a given moment by disturbing it.

If one of the female turtles is disturbed continually, it might lay eggs in the water instead of on land.

Also, one is advised to not do things like take selfies with sea turtles, which are protected by state and federal law.

Wilson said people who have shared photos of themselves sitting on sea turtles have been prosecuted.

As hatchlings head in the direction of bright lights, Wilson said artificial light, like from a flashlight, can steer the baby turtles in the wrong direction.

Sometimes, the little animals can head inland and end up in places like pools or on the streets.

Surfside Beach leaders had considered an ordinance that would have required people to fill in holes they had made before leaving the beach. But, the council tabled the ordinance.

Mark Kruea with Myrtle Beach said there isn’t a hole-filling ordinance for the city, but there are many state and federal laws addressing harassing turtles and their nests.

North Myrtle Beach has a hole-filling ordinance that limits holes to one foot and requires the people to fill the holes when they leave the beach. Violating the ordinance could result in a $100 fine.

“Holes are definitely an issue,” Wilson said, recalling seeing a photo of a loggerhead falling into a hole in Florida and volunteers laboring to get the 200 pound-plus creature out.

Whether a hole affects a sea turtle depends on the hole’s size and what life stage a sea turtle is in.

For hatchlings, she said, even a small hole can be a hindrance. 

For adult turtles, falling into a hole can result in wasted energy.

A hatchling getting stuck makes it more vulnerable to predators. 

Wilson encourages those who dig holes to fill them when they leave the beach as well as smashing sandcastles that are made.

Janet Morgan is the editor of the Myrtle Beach Herald. Contact her at 843-488-7258 or at janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com.

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