The Seabrook Island Turtle Patrol

  • Michelle Almeyda Wiedemuth
  • 09/6/21

A Q & A With Joshua Shilko From the Seabrook Island Turtle Patrol

1.  When Were Turtles First Discovered to Be Nesting on Seabrook? And/or the SC Shores?

A: Turtles have been around since the early Cretaceous period and were nesting on South Carolina beaches long before the Stono, Kiawah, and Bohicket Native American tribes first inhabited Seabrook Island in the 1400s. Likely, the earliest British settlers that arrived on the Island in 1666 were aware that sea turtles were nesting here.
 

2. What Other States Do They Nest in? Do They Primarily Nest in Warmer Climates? Why Do They Select Specific Locations as Opposed to Other Places?

A: All sea turtle species primarily nest in tropical and subtropical climates. Here in South Carolina, well over 99% of sea turtles, and nests are laid by loggerhead sea turtles, South Carolina's state reptile. Loggerheads primarily nest in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina, with limited nesting in other Gulf Coast states. Florida nesting constitutes 91% of all loggerheads in the U.S., while South Carolina ranks 2nd at 6.5%. Sea turtle nest site selection is based upon natal homing, an evolutionary capability to imprint on the area where they were born which is facilitated by magnetoreception and other site-specific cues, and nest-site fidelity, where a turtle returns to preferred nesting areas based on the availability of viable nesting sites. So while nesting sea turtles often return near the site of their birth to lay their nests, there is some variability based on changing beach conditions and changes to the Earth's magnetic field over time. Visit the link to our article on the topic: siturtlepatrol.com
 

3. How Long Has Your Organization Been Patrolling the Seabrook Beach? 

A: The Seabrook Island Turtle Patrol was first formed in 1990 and operates under a license granted by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
 

4. What Is Your Mission/objective?

A: The mission of the Seabrook Island Turtle Patrol is to recruit, train, and organize volunteers in a collective effort to monitor, preserve, protect, and facilitate the propagation of sea turtles on Seabrook Island. This is accomplished through identification and protection of nests, inventory of nests, data collection, and education of island residents and visitors.
 

5. How Many Volunteers Do You Have in an Average Each Year?

A: The Seabrook Island Turtle Patrol has operated with an average of 120 volunteers in recent years. Volunteers operate on various teams responsible for nest identification, nest maintenance, nest inventory, education, and communications.
 

6. What Can We All Do to Protect the Turtles That Are Nesting and the Hatchlings?

A:  There are several things all beachgoers can do to protect our nesting and hatching sea turtles and the good news is that they are all easy!

  • Lights out! Turn off exterior lights and draw blinds if you live in a home along the beach. Bright lights discourage nesting and attract hatchlings away from the water. If you need to use a light on the beach, shield the light with a red lens.
  • If you see a nesting turtle or emerging hatchling, keep your distance, keep pets away, and notify the Turtle Patrol at 843-310-4280.
  • Stay clear of nests and out of the dunes. Sea turtle nests on our beach are marked with an orange DNR sign and white pole and are always located in areas where no one should tread. Similarly, stay out of bird nesting areas as indicated by signage.
  • Fill in any holes and level and sand structures that you make on the beach before leaving. Tiny hatchlings and big nesting mother turtles alike can become stuck in or on these excavations.
  • Remove all equipment from the beach before leaving. Items on the beach discourage nesting mothers and, in some cases, can ensnare them. If you have a permit to have a bonfire, extinguish the fire thoroughly by 10 pm and cover it with sand.
  • Pack out any trash or food waste that you bring to the beach. Trash is dangerous when ingested and food waste attracts predators.
  • Recreate responsibly. Read up on steps you can take to avoid sea turtle mortality caused by boat strikes and fishing bycatch.
  • When you aren't on the beach, be a thoughtful consumer. Some examples:
    • avoid single-use plastics
    • choose foods that are harvested in a manner that does not endanger turtles
    • look for ways to reduce your energy usage and carbon output
    • choose sunscreen products that do not contain oxybenzone
  • Visit the link to our article on the topic: siturtlepatrol.com
 

7. What Are the Biggest Threats to the Turtles From Nesting on Seabrook?

A: As noted previously, sea turtles have survived and thrived for millions of years. Their population has only recently been decimated by human activities over just the past few centuries, including through direct harvest for food. While the loggerhead sea turtle population once numbered in the millions, it is estimated that there are currently around 50,000 nesting females left. Many of the ongoing threats to their survival are from human causes. Humans impact sea turtle survival through boating, fishing, coastal development, pollution, and beach recreation activities that result in sea turtle mortality, discourage nesting, reduce viable nesting sites, or disrupt nest development or hatchling movement. Warming oceans erode beaches and reduce viable nesting sites, and warmer summers skew the sex ratio of newborn hatchlings, likely resulting in future sea turtles populations that are overwhelmingly female. In South Carolina, the most significant cause of death for sea turtles is currently boat strikes, followed by fishing bycatch. While the loggerhead population continued to decline after the species was listed as part of the Endangered Species Act, sea turtle nest numbers across the Southeast have trended up over the most recent decade, making biologists across the region optimistic that these threatened reptiles are beginning to recover after several decades of conservation efforts. Visit links to our various articles on threats to sea turtles:

 

8. Are There Benefits to Our Ecosystem That Nesting and Hatching Turtles Provide?

A: Sea turtles are a keystone species whose presence and continued existence impact other species throughout both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems - including us!

  • Turtles are an important part of the food web – Hatchlings, juveniles, and to a lesser extent, adult sea turtles are natural prey for several predators on the land, sea, and air. While we generally attempt to protect turtles from these predators to help their numbers recover, sea turtles were historically, and continue to be, a food source for several species. Inversely, turtles play a role in maintaining healthy populations of the species that they call prey. This includes both flora and fauna as sea turtles control the growth of seagrass and the population of sponges and jellyfish, which, if left unchecked, would deplete other important species including coral and fish larvae in general. This directly impacts the availability of food sources for humans.
  • Sea turtles also play a role in beach renourishment – Each sea turtle nest represents a potential contribution of about 15lbs of nutrients to its beach when laid. In the wild, an average nest has around a 50% hatch success rate. This means that the other 50%, plus the eggshell remnants, are left to nourish the plants and animals that make their home on our coastline. Plants that grow in our dunes are important because of their role in preventing beach erosion, which impacts the habitability of barrier islands.
  • Sea turtles provide habitat for other species that make their home on the sea turtle, and seafaring birds often use basking sea turtles to rest. Epibionts are aquatic hitchhikers including algae, crustaceans, and other organisms that live on the turtle. The turtles provide them with real estate, but also transport and deposit them throughout the oceans, providing other species with food and generally increasing biodiversity.
 

9. What Is the One Thing? Or Maybe Your Top 5 Things You Want People to Know About Our Turtles?

A: Sea turtles face astronomical odds when they emerge from a nest. Just making it to the water is a victory amidst the many predators on the beach. When they hit the water, they swim frantically for 24 hours to reach the relative safety of the open ocean. If they make it this far, they will drift in open ocean currents while they mature before returning to offshore foraging grounds around 10 years of age. They won't reach reproductive maturity until they are 20-30 years old and the most optimistic estimates are that around 1 in 1000 hatchlings will survive to this stage. An average nesting female lays 3-5 nests averaging 110-120 eggs every 2-3 years. That means that once a nesting female reaches adulthood, they must survive for several nesting seasons just for the opportunity to replace themselves in the current population. So when we see a live adult sea turtle on our beach, it's truly a miracle, and when we lose an adult sea turtle prematurely, it's truly a tragedy.
 

10. What Are Some Ways Seabrookers Can Support Your Organization?

A: In addition to the items listed in the "what can we all do to protect sea turtles" section above, the biggest things that Seabrookers can do to help the Turtle Patrol are to show reverence for the wildlife on our island and to have a general awareness of the threatened and protected species that live here.

  • Be stewards of all of the wildlife and natural wonders that we share Seabrook Island with. Urge community officials to support conservation efforts and support leaders who value our environment.
  • Follow rules set to protect our wildlife and model the behaviors that you expect from those visiting the island when interacting with wildlife.
  • Know what to do if you encounter a sea turtle, marine mammal, or third bird in need of assistance. Our contacts page lists contacts for each of these scenarios: siturtlepatrol.com. Our article on fishing bycatch includes specific instructions on what to do if you or someone on the beach nearby catches a sea turtle: siturtlepatrol.com.
  • Report any harassment of wildlife to Beach Patrol or Security, as well as the DNR and Turtle Patrol, as appropriate. Again, these contacts are all available on our website.
 

About Seabrook Island Turtle Patrol

The Seabrook Island Turtle Patrol (SITP) is a volunteer organization. It is supported financially by the Seabrook Island Property Owners Association and member donations. The SITP operates under a permit issued by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). The SCDNR establishes guidelines for best practices in the identification, protection, and inventory of sea turtle nests. The Seabrook Island Turtle Patrol follows these guidelines and provides data to the SCDNR to assist in tracking the reproductive performance of sea turtles that nest on Seabrook Island, South Carolina.
 
To learn more visit their site: siturtlepatrol.com
 

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