Sea turtles live in almost every ocean basin throughout the world, traveling long distances to feed sometimes crossing entire oceans. Sea turtles spend their whole life in the ocean except when the adult females come ashore to nest several times each season. Sea turtles only nest every two to five years after they reach maturity, which is approximately 20 years of age.
All sea turtles that nest in the U.S. are either listed as threatened or endangered. From leatherbacks to loggerheads, six of the seven species face danger at the hands of humans from accidental capture, entanglement in fishing gear, ocean pollution including plastic, as well as the loss of nesting and feeding sites due to coastal development. There are penalties for killing, harassing or harming these turtles. Violators can be prosecuted under Civil and Criminal laws and be fined up to $25,000 with up to one year in jail.
The turtle eggs are endangered as well by too much heat, too much water, bacteria in the nest and nest diggers such as dogs, roots, ants, sand crabs and people. If the eggs survive the incubation period to hatch, the hatchlings must face the danger from ants, ghost crabs, dogs, birds, and people as they make their way to the ocean. Once in the ocean, the hatchlings usually float in the Sargasso Sea grasses along the major North Atlantic currents trying to avoid becoming a snack for a predator. Research indicates that only one in a thousand sea turtles make it to sexual maturity.
During a typical day, a sea turtle feeds and rests periodically. They do need oxygen to live, but some sea turtles can stay submerged as long as five or six hours by slowing their heart rate to sleep. They can sleep at the surface when in deep water or at the bottom of the ocean wedged under a rock. Hatchlings usually sleep floating on the surface with their front flippers folded back over the top of their backs.
Since sea turtles remain submerged at sea except when nesting, it is difficult to conduct research on them. Also, juveniles and males do not return to shore, so it is difficult to get an accurate count of the numbers. Sea turtles do not interact and are mostly solitary creatures except during mating season. During nesting season, the females follow a regular pattern between the nesting beach and offshore reefs and other rocky surfaces, where it is assumed the mating takes place.
Most females return to the same beach each time they are ready to nest, which they do between two to five times during a nesting season. They often emerge from the ocean within a few hundred yards of where they last nested, and they usually return to the same beach where they were hatched.
Only the female nests and it often occurs at night. Sea turtles are usually slow and awkward on land, and nesting is exhausting work. The female will slowly crawl out of the ocean, stopping often as if to scope out a sight for nesting. Sometimes, the female will crawl back into the ocean for unknown reasons, and this is known as a false crawl. If she does not nest that night, she will crawl back out the next night to nest, but if she does not feel safe and cannot nest, she will drop her eggs in the ocean.
The female will crawl to a dry part of the beach and make her nest by flinging away loose dirt with her flippers and constructing a “body pit” by digging with her flippers and rotating her body. After she has constructed the body pit, using her cupped rear flippers as shovels, she digs an egg cavity shaped like a light bulb—large at the bottom and narrow at the top.
Once the egg cavity is constructed, the turtle begins to lay eggs, two or three at a time. The eggs are flexible which keeps them from breaking when they drop and allows the mother to carry more eggs. The average size of the clutch is between 80-120 eggs, which varies by species. Once the turtle finishes laying her eggs, she pushes sand over the top of the egg cavity with her rear flippers, packing the sand over the top. She then uses her front flippers to refill the body pit and disguise the nest by throwing sand in all directions making it harder for predators to find.
After the female has disguised her nest, she slowly makes her way back to the sea to rest before she nests again or to go back to her feeding grounds. Once the female leaves her nest, she never returns to it.
Incubation and Hatching:
It usually takes about 60 days for incubation depending on the weather. The hotter the weather the shorter the incubation period. The warmth of the sand also determines the sex of the hatchlings. The warmer sand produces more females and the cooler sand producers more males.
When the incubation period is over, the hatchlings must free themselves from the shells and the nests. To break open their shells, the hatchlings use their “caruncle” which is a temporary, sharp egg-tooth that falls off soon after birth. The hatchlings will dig out of the nest as a group usually at night or during a rainstorm when it is cooler. As they dig, the sand falls beneath them, and they appear to be bubbling up from the earth. They will turn towards the brightest light, which should be the ocean’s horizon, and dash for the sea.
If the hatchlings do not make it to the ocean quickly, they might die from dehydration or be eaten by a predator. Once they make it to the ocean, they will swim several miles offshore until they are carried in the currents and seaweed for years before returning to waters near the shore. There are many hazards for the hatchlings in the open waters such as birds, sharks, big fish and the danger of eating garbage. That is the reason that their survival rate is so low.
Protecting the Sea Turtles:
There are several ways to help protect sea turtles and the survival of the hatchlings. First, you can minimize beachfront lighting during nesting season, close blinds and draperies in ocean front rooms and turn off outdoor lighting to minimize disorientation that might cause the turtles and hatchlings to crawl towards land instead of heading for the ocean. Also, do not construct beach fires or take flash photography during nesting season.
If you dig a hole on the beach, fill it up before you leave to prevent the mother or the hatchlings from getting stuck in the hole. Remove all beach and recreational equipment from the beach which includes chairs, umbrellas, towels, beach toys and trash. Also, leave turtle tracks undisturbed and do not disturb marked nests. If you find, an unmarked nest, report it to the local police or sea turtle volunteer organization.
Sea Turtle Patrol Volunteers and Conservation:
All along the Grand Strand, from May 1st through mid-August, during the height of tourist season, starting at sunrise, dedicated volunteers with local sea turtle groups (Myrtle Beach Sea Turtle Volunteers, North Myrtle Beach Sea Turtle Patrol, South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts) take turns walking the beach looking for signs of a “crawl”. A “crawl” are the marks that a sea turtle leaves when crawling to and from the ocean that are similar to tire marks. Once a crawl is spotted, other members of the group are called to come to the site. When the potential nest is located, a trained volunteer uses a probing tool to see if eggs are inside of the nest.
Once the nest is confirmed, a single egg is extracted from the nest and the shell is used to obtain DNA to get information about the mother. Once this is done, the nest is covered, secured with netting and marked to be left alone until the eggs hatch. According to Paul Keane, a volunteer for the sea turtle patrol, ““We just want the shell, because the shell gives us information about the mother,” explained Paul Keane, a volunteer for the past five years. “We get rid of the yolk which contains information about the father. They’re not interested in that. By doing a study on the females it tells us how many females are out there and how many are nesting.”
The shell is sent to the University of Georgia in Athens for DNA testing. UGA tracks nests along the shores of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. From this testing, they have found that one turtle, that is approximately 75 years old and still laying eggs, has ten daughters and two granddaughters all nesting on beaches in South Carolina and Georgia.
Nests that are discovered in a busy or more populated area like downtown Myrtle Beach are relocated to Myrtle Beach State Park where it is darker, quieter and much safer for the turtle eggs and hatchlings. This is done to keep the babies from being confused by the bright lights of hotels or homes and heading in the wrong direction. The nests are also relocated if it is below the high tide line and in danger of being washed away because of beach erosion.
Three days after the turtles hatch, volunteers go back to the nest and do an inventory. They count the eggs, check to see if all have hatched, and if all the hatchlings have made it out of the nest. If they find any stragglers, they release the hatchlings in the direction of the water and hope they make it to the ocean.
Sea Turtle Species Nesting on the Grand Strand:
The sea turtles that nest along the Grand Strand from May to October are mostly Loggerheads which are about three feet long and almost as wide. The Loggerhead Sea Turtle weighs between 250-350 pounds and may nest between two to five times each nesting season. They lay approximately 117 ping-pong ball sized eggs in each nest. The eggs will incubate for 45 – 60 days depending on the temperature, and the hatchlings will emerge from the sand approximately three days after hatching as a group. Loggerhead hatchlings are about two inches long, dark brown and weigh only ounces.
South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts:
SCUTE, or South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts, is a group of volunteers dedicated to sea turtle conservation in Georgetown and Horry counties. On average, SCUTE records over 100 loggerhead nests with more than 12,000 eggs along the beaches of Horry and Georgetown counties. Volunteers estimate that about 70 percent of the eggs hatch. A limited number of hatchlings reach adulthood, which takes over 30 years. These low odds make the SCUTE/Santee Cooper preservation effort essential to loggerhead sea turtle survival in South Carolina.
Santee Cooper has worked with organizations like SCUTE since 1990 to preserve and protect loggerhead sea turtles. Santee Cooper supports the efforts of SCUTE by shielding lights and working to raise awareness about sea turtles through a public education program. Santee Cooper provides free “Lights Out” bumper stickers to remind visitors and property owners to turn their beachfront lights off after 10:00 p.m. during nesting season.
If you are interested in turtle conservation, for more information on the loggerhead sea turtle, contact SCUTE at 843-237-9821 or 843-235-8755 or Myrtle Beach State Park at 843-238-0874.
Anyone who spots a turtle nesting in Myrtle Beach can call City Beach Patrol at (843) 918-1382 or the Myrtle Beach State Park Nature Center at (843) 238-0874.