TURTLE BEACH?

For Weekly SurgeSeptember 18, 2013 

A Loggerhead turtle hatchling. Photo by Becky Billingsley for Weekly Surge.

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    EDITOR’S NOTE:

    Journalist and author Becky Billingsley of Myrtle Beach spent the summer of 2013 shadowing the Garden City Beach SCUTE group, which has approximately 30 volunteers. She accompanied Terry Armstrong and Mari Armstrong on weekly sunrise turtle walks to look for new nests (and to pick up bags and bags of litter), monitor laid nests and attended inventories of hatched nests. On one stellar morning, she was lucky to be present at dawn when three hatchlings made their wild dashes for the sea.

Chances are only one of the almost 1,000 palm-sized Loggerhead turtle hatchlings that made runs for the sea across Garden City Beach’s shore this summer will survive to adulthood, but recently implemented conservations efforts are increasing the odds.

If one of this year’s hatchlings does return 30 years from now to lay nests, it’s largely thanks to volunteers who are elated that 2013 was a record-breaking nesting year, with 5,099 Loggerhead nests along South Carolina’s coast as of Sept. 10.

Humans know much about the Loggerhead turtle, which has been South Carolina’s state reptile since 1988, but the knowledge is constantly evolving.

Journey of a Lifetime

Loggerheads have roamed the seas throughout the world for more than 120 million years. They outlived the dinosaurs, mammoths and megalodons with which they once shared the beaches and oceans.

The most common and natural way for Loggerhead hatchlings to emerge is in a late night “boil” when 120 or so babies erupt from the nest in a swarm and fan out in a race for the sea. It normally takes less than 10 minutes from the time the first one leaves the nest until the last one dives under a wave.

Caretta Caretta, which is the Loggerheads’ Latin name, has a keen ability to read the Earth’s magnetic field. They have a map of the entire world in their heads, and they’re never lost in natural conditions.

Once in the water, hatchlings swim for almost two days to reach the warm current of the Gulf Stream. Exhausted, they climb into their cribs, which are mats of ruby-red Sargassum seaweed that camouflage them and also house tiny shrimp and other food that baby turtles like to eat. These rafts made of Sargassum float 2,500 miles to the North Atlantic where the turtles live and grow for up to 10 years.

When Loggerheads are about two feet long they’re big enough to survive outside the still waters of their North Atlantic nursery, and they head for the Caribbean. For the next 20 to 25 years they eat and swim and grow: Loggerheads are the world’s largest hard-shelled turtles (Leatherback Turtles can be up to 2,000 pounds, but their shells are soft). At maturity Loggerhead females can be four feet long and weigh up to 300 pounds. Males are slightly smaller.

In the spring of their 34th years, females set off for the beaches of their births. Along the way they mate and can store sperm from several males in their oviducts until eggs are fertilized. This means one egg clutch can have several fathers.

Males stay at sea their entire lives, unless they’re sick or injured, but the females’ purpose in life is to return, after traveling as much as 10,000 miles, to lay eggs where their mothers did. A first-time nester in 2013 was hatched in 1979, and changes in the intervening years to the Garden City Beach coastline were immense.

A significant change is the number of lights from development. Hatchlings and nesting mothers use the reflection of moon and stars on the ocean as a navigation tool, so lights in and on houses, hotels, and amusements; streetlights; flashlights; camera flashes; or any artificial light source can disorient them. Sometimes, if lights or noises confuse them enough, mothers may come onto the beach, decide the conditions are not right for laying a nest, turn around and go back to sea. That’s called a false crawl. They’ll try three times to come ashore and nest, but if after the third time they’re not successful, they’ll dump their eggs in the sea.

But when all is quiet and dark in the middle of the night, the mother turtle crawls to where she hopes is above the high tide line and wriggles to create a body pit, then uses her flippers to dig a chamber two feet deep in the shape of an upside-down light bulb where she deposits a clutch of around 120 soft mucus-covered eggs that look like luminescent pale pink ping pong ball-size pearls. After covering the nest with sand she lumbers back to the sea, leaving tracks that look like they were made by tractor tires. Tracks leading away from the nest are shallower than those emerging from the sea, because her load has been lightened.

She’ll return up to three more times, at about two-week intervals, to lay more nests. The female doesn’t eat during this period, because her shells are rigid and can’t expand to accommodate eggs and food.

After her work is done, the female Loggerhead swims back to the Caribbean and bulks up for two or three years before again making her nesting journey to the same beach, or at least close to it. She continues laying eggs through the end of her life, which can be as long as 70 years.

Fighting for Life

Some estimates are that one in 1,000 hatchlings survive to maturity, while others put the number much higher at one in 10,000. Whichever is the case, an extremely low percentage of hatchlings survive to the reproduction phase.

Before they’re even hatched challenges arise. Turtle eggs are tasty to ghost crabs, raccoons, feral hogs and coyotes. Fire ants that washed onto Garden City Beach with Hurricane Hugo invade nests and sting to death many hatchlings. If the nest is too close to vegetation, roots can destroy eggs or distort babies’ soft shells. Beach erosion can cause nests to be laid below the high tide line, and if seawater seeps down into the nest it is destroyed.

Crabs and seagulls watch for hatchlings to emerge from nests, and many are plucked off the beach before they make it to the ocean. Once in the water, baby Loggerheads are tasty snacks for fish, sharks, birds, blue crabs and other marine animals. Loggerheads breathe air, so the tiny babies have to swim near the surface so they can catch a breath about every two minutes. Adults can be submerged for several hours.

If the water they’re in becomes colder than 50 degrees Fahrenheit, they can be paralyzed by “cold stunning.” Juvenile turtles can contract Debilitated Turtle Syndrome, which is an unexplained condition that Department of Natural Resources marine biologists say, “…causes them to strand in an anemic, emaciated and dehydrated state.”

Humans severely impact Loggerheads’ life cycles, and they are protected by state and federal law under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Tent canopies or beach gear left overnight on the sand can deter females from laying nests. Occasionally humans dig deep pits in the sand and don’t fill them in before nightfall, and a mature female or a hatchling can fall into them and not be able to escape. Overcurious or heedless humans may scare away a nesting female with noise and flashlights, or they could step on hatchlings.

Litter left on beaches can easily be swept into the ocean tide. Plastic caps from beverage bottles and fireworks can be mistaken for food along with plastic grocery bags, which look to a turtle like floating jellyfish. Eating plastic will kill them.

Unleashed and unattended dogs might dig up nests or kill hatchlings. Propellers on recreational boats strike them, huge ships run over them, and fishing boats and shrimp trawlers snag tens of thousands of turtles in nets and on lines. In recent years fishing nets with escape hatches were developed, and they have helped with sea turtle survival.

Strength in numbers

Nesting records along the 186 or so miles of suitable ocean-facing South Carolina Loggerhead nesting grounds started being kept in the late 1970s. In 1980 slightly more than 4,000 nests were documented from fixed wing aircraft. The number of nests jumped to almost 7,000 in 1981, but since then a population decrease occurred at an average of 1.9 percent per year…until 2010.

The number of Palmetto State nests was “medium to high” in 2010 and 2011, and 2012 topped them with 4,596 nests. That record was shattered in 2013 with 5,099 nests counted as of Sept. 10.

Officials hope it is conservation efforts that are causing the population turnaround.

Local conservationists

In 1983 two local men – Jeff McClary and Chris Marlow – became interested in turtle conservation. Their efforts, with the help of former Georgetown County Councilman Glenn Cox , got the state’s first lighting ordinance to protect sea turtles passed in 1989.

That same year McClary and Marlow founded South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts, or SCUTE, to monitor nests. The SCDNR issues permits to volunteers who “…have the appropriate knowledge and experience and demonstrate that the proposed activity adds to the conservation of marine turtles,” and today McClary helps organize and guide more than 200 SCUTE volunteers throughout Georgetown and Horry counties.

Some of the volunteers simply walk an assigned length of beach – usually about a mile – at dawn. If they see tracks they call their section supervisor who comes and assesses them to determine if it’s a false crawl or if a nest was laid.

About 30 to 40 of the SCUTE volunteers have DNR permits to perform specific duties. This smaller group, which receives training from SCDNR and other volunteers, is allowed to determine if nests should be relocated and then move them to safer spots. They then monitor the nests for predation and other disturbances during the 42- to 75-day incubation period and perform nest inventories three days after nests are hatched. Their data is sent to DNR.

“No monies are allocated to volunteer groups from the state marine turtle program,” Michelle Pate, the S.C. Sea Turtle Program coordinator, said. “Stranding supplies and endangered species nesting signs are provided by the state sea turtle program [along with]…annual training workshops.”

The program is funded at the state level by grants from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Garden City Beach SCUTE group started the 2013 nesting season on a high note, because in 2012 there was a record-smashing 16 sea turtle nests along the group’s six-mile beach. Eleven were Loggerhead nests, and five of them were Green sea turtle nests. Herbivorous Greens, which are larger than Loggerheads, don’t typically nest in South Carolina, but in 2012 Garden City Beach was the state’s hot spot for them.

The most prolific South Carolina beach for Loggerhead nests is Cape Island, which is within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge north of Charleston. It has no development, so sea turtles can place their nests in the dunes in peace and quiet. This year Cape Island had 1,241 nests laid on its 5.5-mile-long beach.

Surrogate Parents

Sue Habermaeier has been a turtle walker for about six years, and since 2009 has been the leader of the 30 or so Garden City Beach SCUTE volunteers. Garden City’s beach is divided into eight sections, each a half-mile to a mile long, and they take turns walking them at dawn, from when the turtle-nesting season begins in mid-May until nesting ceases in August. They look for turtle tracks and new nests and then monitor nests until they all hatch, which can last into October.

Two of Habermaeier’s volunteers are Terry Armstrong and Mari Armstrong. They have SCDNR permits, and this year they monitored sections at sunrise three mornings per week.

On June 12 the Armstrongs spotted the “tractor tire” tracks left by a Loggerhead. The tracks are unmistakable for anyone who knows what to look for, and they really do look like a tractor came up out of the ocean and drove toward the dunes.

Mari Armstrong sent a photo of the tracks to Jeff McClary and told him she thought it was a false crawl. McClary said he’d come check them out.

Relocate or Die

On a rosy dawn in the middle of June, the Armstrongs were eager to get on the beach. A tourist called SCUTE the night before and said they saw a turtle laying a nest. Mari Armstrong fervently hoped the tide hadn’t washed over it.

“It’s still there!” Mari said upon approaching it. “I am so excited, so relieved. Now it has to be relocated, or the tide will get it.”

It was the sixth nest of the season for Garden City Beach.

Two large holes in the nest showed where two ghost crabs had already invaded. The Armstrongs worried about the possibility that crabs were still in the nest munching away on eggs.

While the Armstrongs, Habermaeier, McClary and a few other volunteers worked on nest relocation, the tourists who spotted the turtle the night before came to watch. Ken Huff, his wife, Tracie Huff, and their children 18-year-old Blair Huff and 15-year-old Christian Huff are from Augusta, Ga. Luckily they met Habermaeier the day before, and she gave them a pamphlet about Loggerhead conservation with her phone number on it.

“So last night we were walking,” Tracie Huff said, “and one of us saw a dark spot in the ocean. We thought it was a rock, and we had flashlights to look at it. We got closer and realized it was a Loggerhead, and she started to turn around so we backed off. We told others on the beach to turn off their flashlights. It took her a while for her to make it all the way up here…about 40 minutes to get up here to make her nest. We felt like we were her protectors. A lot of people were shining their flashlights. We wouldn’t have known not to do it if Sue hadn’t told us to be quiet and not shine the lights.”

The SCUTE volunteers measured the turtle’s tracks, which is a relatively reliable way for them to identify specific Loggerhead mothers. They chose a nearby relocation spot in the dunes that was not too close to vegetation, because plant roots can cause nest instability. The new nest was dug two feet deep, just as the mother would have done it.

When all was prepped, Habermaeier slowly and carefully, with her hands sheathed in latex gloves, began scooping sand off the nest. The Loggerhead mother disguised her body pit well, and it took a few minutes to locate the egg chamber. Soon, two feet down, the first glistening pale pink egg was revealed.

It looked pink because it was fresh – the eggs become white, and then brownish, as they gestate. Fresh eggs glisten because they’re covered in mucus that the experts believe has anti-bacterial properties.

“You can’t twist or turn them as you take them out,” Habermaeier said as she worked. “They have to be put in the bucket, and then put in the new nest, at the same orientation as they were in the original nest. See how space is becoming evident between the eggs? We have to leave that when they’re placed in the new nest. It’s important so when they start to hatch they have room to breathe and wiggle. The eggs have embryonic synchronization. When in embryo, they wiggle and communicate, so they can hatch together. The eggs never get hard – the shells are always soft. They’re soft because they have to drop into the nest, and if they were hard they’d break.”

Working with concentration and efficiency, Habermaeier placed 125 eggs in a 5-gallon bucket. Terry Armstrong and another volunteer put the eggs in the new nest and covered them with sand.

The nest was further protected with orange plastic netting specially designed and produced for the purpose by a Canadian company. The holes in its mesh are big enough to allow baby turtles to get out, and it is plastic instead of metal so it won’t interfere with the hatchlings’ perception of the Earth’s magnetic field. The net was staked down with tent pegs, and then a bright orange plastic sign on a metal stake was put in the ground in front of the nest, facing the beach.

The sign reads: “LOGGERHEAD TURTLE NESTING AREA. Eggs, Hatchlings, Adults, and Carcasses are Protected By Federal & State Laws. Contact 1-800-922-5431. www.dnr.sc.gov/seaturtle/.”

On June 26, the Armstrongs discovered someone ripped the sign off the pole. They probably wanted it as a souvenir.

Turtle Tracking

One egg out of every clutch is sacrificed for DNA testing, which started four years ago. It’s funded by a grant and performed by a graduate student at the University of Georgia. The father’s DNA is in the yolk, and that isn’t monitored. The mother’s DNA is in the shell lining, which is placed in a test tube and mailed to Georgia.

DNA data shows that in 2012, 1,199 unique females laid nests in South Carolina. Each laid about four nests, with one prolific female leaving seven nests behind.

Getting Trashy

By the Fourth of July, Garden City Beach had eight nests. It also had plenty of trash.

The Armstrongs always take plastic bags on their turtle walks to use for picking up trash. No public entity picks up litter on the Georgetown County portion of Garden City’s beach, which starts a short distance south of Garden City Pier. There also are no trash barrels on the Georgetown County portion of the beach; they’re located on Waccamaw Drive where pickup crews can easily drive by and dump them.

Unfortunately, carrying their litter from the beach to the street is too much trouble for many tourists, and in June, July and August, the beach was covered with used fireworks, plastic water bottles and bottle caps, beer cans and bottles, sunglasses, broken sun umbrellas, broken beach chairs, plastic bags, cracker wrappers, cigarette butts, used condoms, dirty diapers and much more.

The Horry County section of Garden City’s beach is neater. There are trash barrels on the beach, and the beach is raked for litter. The people who drive raking machines are trained to look for sea turtle nests. Ann Malys Wilson, an interpretive ranger at Myrtle Beach State Park, said most of the nests laid in Horry County are relocated to the park.

“We don’t have rakers at the park,” she said. “In the City of Myrtle Beach we have trained the rakers to look for crawls, and they’re really good at it. They called in 20 nests this year.”

The only beaches in Horry County monitored by SCUTE volunteers for sea turtle nest activity are in Myrtle Beach State Park and the Cherry Grove area of North Myrtle Beach, Wilson said.

By the middle of July, 10 Loggerhead nests were laid on Garden City’s beach, which turned out to be the year’s total.

“We found a nest yesterday under a tent canopy frame that is not supposed to be left on the beach overnight,” Mari Armstrong said on July 17. “There were about 20 of those canopy skeletons out here yesterday morning. Today there are 23 tent canopies, and one full-blown tent.”

Debbie Donnelly, a second-year Garden City Beach SCUTE volunteer, said there was also an enclosed tent on her section with people still sleeping in it and with beer cans strewn around.

Due to the rakers, there isn’t a problem on the Horry County end of Garden City Beach with tent frames and other beach gear left out overnight. Both counties have ordinances against leaving tents and canopies out overnight, but Georgetown County does not appear to enforce it.

Beth Goodale, the director of parks and recreation in Georgetown County, confirmed there is an ordinance prohibiting the tent structures and said the beach patrol officers have a tagging system. They are supposed to put a tag on the tent frames that remind people they should not leave them out overnight. None of the Garden City SCUTE volunteers saw tags on any of the tent frames the entire summer.

As for picking up beach litter, Goodale said it is cost prohibitive for Georgetown County. She has done cost estimates and said it would be $80,000 to pick up beach trash from Memorial Day through Labor Day. So they don’t do it.

The Coastal Carolinas Association of Realtors performs beach cleanups after Memorial Day and Labor Day. Local beach rental companies, such as Garden City Realty, encourage their renters to be mindful of sea turtles by publishing conservation information – including not leaving beach gear out overnight - on the backs of their check-in packages.

Birthing Babies

By July 24 there were a record-breaking 190 nests in Horry and Georgetown counties, and on Sept. 10 the count was up to 224. If you add in North Island at Winyah Bay, the total was 387 nests.

Starting at the end of July, volunteers are watching for signs that hatchlings have emerged. They’re looking for tire tracks again, but now they want to see swirls of skinny racing bike tire tracks left by hundreds of tiny flippers instead of the adults’ tractor tire-size tracks.

The way the first couple of Garden City Beach nests hatched this year drove SCUTE volunteers to distraction. Instead of hatching at night in a boil, the first nest had a few babies at a time coming out during the day. It is extremely hazardous for the hatchlings to crawl across hot sand and try to dodge tourists. When Jeff McClary determined it was time to do an inventory on the first nest, they found it infested with crabs and fire ants, and about half the hatchlings were lost.

The next nest dribbled out its hatchlings the same way, forced out into the heat of the day by ants and crabs. Two babies fried in the early August heat before they could reach the ocean. SCUTE volunteers also fretted because tourists kept leaving beach gear on the sand overnight. On Aug. 6, someone dug a huge hole, inserted a plastic children’s swimming pool and left it out all night directly in front of a turtle nest.

Finally, at the beginning of August, Garden City Beach’s nest No. 3 hatched normally, and its inventory showed a 97 percent successful hatch rate. However, nest No. 4 had a challenge. A few SCUTE volunteers were sitting on the beach after dark and chatting while children from nearby rental houses ran around with flashlights. They heard a child say, “Look, a baby turtle!” and a girl picked something up.

The volunteers went to see, and sure enough, Nest No. 4 had hatched and babies were scattered all over the beach. Children started chasing turtles with flashlights and severely disorienting them. Luckily, the volunteers were nearby to explain the flashlights needed to be turned off and everyone should back up and leave the hatchlings alone.

Three days after it hatched, a public turtle nest inventory was held on Nest No. 4. SCUTE has a Facebook page where notice of public turtle inventories is given, for anyone to come and watch. Often a few live babies are still in the nest, which are released, and the crowd gets to see them make their furious runs for the sea.

While volunteers dug up the nest, Sue Habermaeier used the opportunity to educate the crowd about sea turtle habits and conservation. She explained how hatchlings break out of their shells three days before they emerge from their subterranean chamber and wiggle around to exercise their limbs and absorb their umbilical sac, which provides them with the energy needed for their two-day swim to the Gulf Stream.

She also told how the sand’s temperature determines whether turtle embryos become male or female. During the middle third of the incubation period, sand temperature at 29.6 Celsius will result in a nest with approximately half females and half males, with the females located at the top of the nest. If the sand is a little warmer, the nest produces mostly females. If the nest is a little cooler, mostly males are hatched.

Most of the babies in nest No. 4 hatched successfully. Volunteers found three dead ones and nine still alive during the inventory, and some of the live ones had deformities such as one with an elongated flipper. He valiantly tried to crawl to the sea, but he went in circles. Another with a misshapen shell tried 10 times to dive into the waves, but he wasn’t strong enough to conquer the current and was repeatedly washed back up on the beach.

No more than one in a thousand make it to adulthood in the best of circumstances.

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