With several weeks remaining in nesting season, sea turtles have laid the most nests on South Carolina beaches since recordkeeping began in the early 1980s, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
As of July 10, 6,978 nests have been counted in ground surveys across the coast, according to a news release. That tops the 6,446 nests counted in 2016.
SCDNR oversees a network of volunteers who help staff count nests. Volunteers and staff from Edisto and Kiawah islands reported record counts on June 29 and 30, and beaches in Hilton Head and Garden City have since recorded records.
“This has been a tremendous season so far, and we are grateful for our dedicated network of volunteers in South Carolina who make this large-scale conservation effort happen,” said biologist Michelle Pate, director of SCDNR’s sea turtle program.
The first hatch of the season occurred in Hilton Head on June 27, SCDNR said.
The 2019 season began with an early state date and a nest laid by a Kemp’s ridley, the world’s most endangered sea turtle. A high number of ‘day nesters,’ or female sea turtles that come ashore to nest in broad daylight instead of more typical darkness, has also been documented.
“Day nesters tend to be pretty rare, isolated events,” Pate said.
The increased number of day nesters could be because of dry sand conditions, which can hinder a sea turtle’s efforts to dig a nest cavity, or harassment during night emergence, the release said.
Record-breaking years have become increasingly common across the Southeast in recent years, according to the release, and sea turtle biologists are optimistic that the trend signals the beginning of recovery for loggerhead sea turtles, whose nests make up the vast majority of S.C. nests. Loggerhead turtles were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1978.
State and federal law prohibits the harm of or interference with sea turtles or their nests. Harassment includes any activity that changes a sea turtle’s natural behavior, ranging from approaching nesting females to take photos to ‘assisting’ hatchlings on their path to the ocean.
“Sea turtles are wild animals,” Pate said. “Let nature take its course.”