Beaufort's Amazing Sea Turtle Teams

May 1 marks the beginning of sea turtle nesting season here in the Lowcountry. Dozens of dedicated volunteers will patrol our beaches to help monitor and protect South Carolina’s state reptile, the threatened loggerhead sea turtle.

 

Harbor Island sea turtle volunteers
Harbor Island sea turtle volunteers: Amanda, Machelle, Jim, Arlette, Louisa, and Maureen circa 2019. / Jan Grimsley

For the next six months, Jan Grimsley will walk the beach nearly every day at sunrise to fulfill her duties as one of Harbor Island’s sea turtle conversation program ringleaders.

“I’ll admit, I’m not a morning person,” laughs Jan, “which is kind of weird because this thing starts at sunrise. But getting out on the beach, watching the sun rise on a new day, and then walking and finding that first set of tracks, you know, it’s like the bonus for getting up so early.”

She’s one of many volunteers who patrol the beaches of Harbor, Hunting, Fripp, Pritchard’s, Coffin Point, Land’s End, and Hilton Head Island in search of sea turtle tracks and other signs of nest activity.

Every time a nest is discovered, volunteers mark and protect them with wire, poles, and signage, and log their GPS location into SCDNR’s database. They also work to clear debris and inform the public of the important role they play. Sometimes volunteers have to relocate to nests from intertidal zones to higher ground. And state-certified permit holders, like Jan and her counterpart Kathy Curry, even collect DNA samples from nests or measure mother turtles to help scientists monitor the health of species.

In short, it’s no small labor of love. These volunteers go to great lengths to be a part of this conservation effort—sometimes literally.

“I got to tell you there are other teams, like on Pritchard’s, that operate with a very small team of 12-14 people max, and they have more nests than we do. I mean that’s an incredible beach. They have to boat there to patrol it and it’s tide-dependent as to when they can get there. We’re a very small piece of a large coastal network that performs this vital conservation work,” says Jan.

Only one in every 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings makes it to adulthood. Then it takes 20 to 30 years for the lone female survivors to mature to their reproductive age. They return to the same natal region where they hatched to lay their eggs, typically coming ashore at night to avoid predators. Sea turtles will lay nests three to six times in a season often without eating anything during that timeframe.

“I was really lucky last year to be called out multiple times last season in order to measure and document 12 moms,” says Jan. “You don’t normally see them because they come in in the cover of night, obviously. But being so close—they’re very majestic creatures. It just reminds you of all the beauty of nature in its many forms. It’s a miracle each time you get to see it.”

Loggerhead sea turtle on Harbor Island. / Harbor Island Turtle Program
One of the loggerhead sea turtles Jan measured on Harbor Island. / Jan Grimsley

 

Local Turtle Teams

Check out our local teams to learn how to support their work or get involved:

Sea Turtles Depend on Conscious Beachgoers Too

Anyone who lives near a beach or visits one can make a difference in the fate of baby sea turtles’ lives. Make sure YOU know what to do:

Order a poster and benefit the sea turtles!

LIGHTS OUT – Keep our beaches dark for the turtles. Beaufort County lighting ordinance states that there shall be no visible light on our beaches May through October for our turtles. This includes house and porch lighting as well as NO flashlights on the beach. Lights disturb our nesting turtles and may be deadly to our hatchlings trying to find the ocean. Red-colored lights are a no-no as well.

PACK IN and PACK OUT – Remove all items from the beach every evening prior to going home. This includes tents, chairs, sand toys, and trash. Items left on the beach may cause problems for our turtles trying to find a spot to nest.

FILL IN HOLES – Please fill in any large holes that you dig above the high tide line. Turtles may become trapped in these. Large holes also pose a threat to people walking on the beach at night. When hatching season starts these holes may prove deadly traps for hatchlings trying to find the ocean.

PICK UP TRASH – Help keep our beach clean and safe of debris that may end up in our ocean. Sea turtles as well as many other ocean animals may become very ill or die from ingesting plastics and other debris.

GIVE THE TURTLES SPACE – If are lucky enough to see a turtle on the beach, it is important to give her plenty of space to lay. It is illegal to disturb a nesting turtle. If you spook her, she may not lay and that entire clutch of eggs could be lost.

DO NOT WALK IN TURTLE TRACKS – If you come upon turtle tracks on the beach early in the morning or late in the evening, it is very important that you do NOT walk in these. The Turtle Team uses these tracks as well as other field signs to locate the eggs. If the tracks and other nesting signs have been trampled, it makes it far more difficult to find the nest. Once the Turtle Team has investigated a crawl in the morning, large “X” marks are placed on the crawl so that we know it is an old crawl the next day.

Poster Proceeds Benefit Sea Turtles

Eat Stay Play Beaufort is selling these awesome “Lights Out Sea Turtles Dig the Dark” posters and donating a portion of the proceeds to local sea turtle protecting programs.

Stay tuned to order yours!