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Sea turtles: Nesting sets record pace after slow start

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A cool spring delayed the start of sea turtle nesting, but the egg-laying females have come ashore in record numbers since then, according to the head of the volunteer group that monitors nests.

The 169 nests recorded as of Wednesday already beat last year’s number, said Jeff McClary, co-founder and head of S.C. United Turtle Enthusiasts, better known as SCUTE. “We’re 55 nests ahead of last season” at this time, he said. “We started 18 days later because it was a cool spring and the water didn’t heat up.”

By this time last year, the first nests had already hatched. McClary expects the late start will mean the sea turtles will continue laying nests later in the season. “I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll have 200,” he said.

But nesting that takes place after mid-August becomes a problem because those nests won’t have until October when the water temperature is cooling. “You’re dealing with cold, stunned hatchlings in the water,” McClary said.

The one-year record for nests is 205, set in 2011. The low is 43. “I hold my breath until we get past 43,” McClary said.

There are 19 nests so far on Pawleys Island, up from 11 last year but still behind the record of 24 nests set in 2011, said Mary Schneider, who coordinates SCUTE volunteers on the island.

“It’s been a good year,” she said.

The first nest on the island was laid June 1 and should hatch by the end of the month

The undeveloped beach at Hobcaw accounts for a third the nests, though the numbers are up from last year, they are down slightly at nearby North Island, McClary said. “We’re finding out from a DNA study that nesting patterns are regional,” he explained.

Volunteers collect DNA samples from each nest, which are used to track where the females nest. It used to be thought they returned to the same beach each time they nested.

Last year, there were no nests at North Litchfield. This year there are six. There were 16 in 2011. “I couldn’t explain it because North Litchfield is good habitat,” McClary said.

Despite what the DNA study shows, he’s still surprised that Huntington Beach State Park only has four nests. It usually has around 25.

The DNA study has also changed assumptions about the frequency of nesting. It used to be thought sea turtles nested every other year or every third year. Results from Georgia show the interval between nests averages 3.6 years, McClary said.

“We’ve come a long way since paper and pencils,” he said.

Still there’s some measure of intuition that goes into the process after 25 years as well as excitement about establishing a new record. “I think we’ve got 36 more nests left in us,” McClary said.

SCUTE volunteers conduct inventories of nests three days after they hatch. It’s an opportunity for the public to see any hatchlings that haven’t made it to the ocean and learn more about sea turtles. A schedule of inventories is posted on the group’s Facebook page.

Nesting by the numbers

Hobcaw: 56

DeBordieu: 26

Pawleys Island: 19

Litchfield Beach: 11

Litchfield by the Sea: 3

North Litchfield: 6

Huntington Beach: 4

Garden City: 10

Horry County: 34

Correction: This story has been changed from the print version to correct an error in the nesting at Hobcaw. The numbers are up this year, not down as previously reported. Nesting at North Island is down, although that area is not included in the SCUTE totals. [E-Mail Article To a Friend]

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