Sea Turtle Love

Hands-on help gives threatened sea turtles a better chance for survival.
Sara Askew Jones

Cameras click, children giggle, and murmurs of "Oh, wow" rise from the crowd as a tiny sea turtle hatchling makes its way toward the ocean. The air tingles with excitement here on DeBordieu Colony until the lone straggler successfully reaches the waves.

"It is a bittersweet moment when they leave the beach," says Betsy Brabson, a project coordinator for South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts (SCUTE). "Sea turtles have such a long road ahead of them." How long? Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings makes it to adulthood.

In the Swim of Things
Loggerheads, leatherbacks, and four other marine turtle species (all threatened or endangered) return each year to our beaches to lay their eggs. Volunteer groups from North Carolina to Florida devote countless hours helping the turtles survive.

"Each state has its own guidelines," Betsy says. "But we all are trying to accomplish the same thing: protection of the nests and turtles."

The state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) supervises protection programs along the coast. In Horry and Georgetown counties, SCUTE patrols beaches and monitors nests from May to October. On DeBordieu, "Volunteers walk 5-mile stretches each day at sunrise, looking for turtle tracks from the ocean to the dunes," explains Betsy.

Only DNR-certified volunteers are allowed to legally probe for eggs, relocate nests, conduct inventories, and remove dead turtles. A newfound nest is protected with mesh and marked with a dated sign if it's in a good location or relocated if it's not. Betsy's group records this information to determine when to expect hatchlings. They collect and share all data with DNR. "Everything associated with sea turtles is protected by state and federal laws," notes Betsy.

"The turtle problems are global," she continues, reeling off the offenses. "We've polluted the oceans, longline fishermen catch them on their lines, boat propellers strike them and lop off flippers. Also, they've had loss of habitat due to erosion, storms, and development. So we are trying to help them and undo what man has done."

Kudzu of the Coast
The latest problem for sea turtles is beach vitex (Vitex rotundifolia). The invasive plant, brought from the Pacific Rim to help stabilize the dunes after Hurricane Hugo, comes with baggage. The non-native shrub has vinelike stems that spread at an alarming rate, choking out native species such as sea oats in the process. In addition, it creates problems for nesting turtles by making it difficult for females to dig their nests in the sand and entangling hatchlings as they crawl out.

Betsy noticed the plant's proliferation while monitoring areas of DeBordieu. "I sat on it and didn't do anything about it. Finally, I took a clipping to Clemson, which confirmed that beach vitex is invasive and has no place on coastal Carolina dunes." Her involvement helped jump-start a movement that now includes government agencies, scientists, and volunteers along the coast. Known as the Carolinas Beach Vitex Task Force, the group receives funding through a grant from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF). Most recently, Clemson University, a task force partner, received a sizable grant from NFWF to eradicate the beach vitex from 75 sites and to restore the dunes with native vegetation.

Chuck Gresham, Clemson professor at the Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science, conducted research that substantiated concerns about beach vitex.

"There was a lot of apprehension, and legitimately so, but no data," says Chuck. So he tackled the issue in three steps. First he set up projects to study the plant’s biology. Next he focused on how get rid of it. The final stage includes plans for its complete eradication.

A Brighter Future
Betsy is committed to protecting sea turtles and to ridding the coast of invasive beach vitex. "I have no scientific background," she says. "It's all been on-the-job training."

At the close of this busy day, Betsy sends the crowd away with a final thought: "Read up on turtles―they are fascinating. They've been around for more than 100 million years."

Watching the last tiny newborn struggle toward the surf, she says, "Seeing turtle hatchlings is something that I never get tired of. It really is phenomenal."

Help Wanted

  1. Build sandcastles. The trend for beachgoers to dig large holes creates problems for people and turtles. "Many are being dug where the waves never get to them and fill them in," says Betsy. "Somebody walking at night could get hurt, or a turtle coming up to nest might never get out of one. It's fine to dig a hole, but fill it in at the end of the day."
  2. Lights out. Douse oceanfront lights at 10 p.m. "Hatchlings orient to the brightest horizon," Betsy explains. "We want that to be the bioluminescence of the waves. If it's your floodlights, the turtles go the wrong way and die of dehydration."
  3. Clean up. Take beach items in at night. "Turtles are cumbersome, and they don't see well," says Betsy. "If they run into a beach chair, they may turn around and go back. If that happens too many times, they drop their eggs in the ocean. If they can't lay their eggs on the beach, they have to get rid of them somewhere."

"Turtle Love" is from the July 2007 issue of South Carolina Living: People and Places, a special section of Southern Living for our subscribers in South Carolina.