Early History of the Kiawah Island Turtle Program

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I believe that property owners on Little Cumberland Island, Georgia in 1964 began the first protective program for Loggerhead turtle nesting. Shortly thereafter, people began to protect other nesting sites termed rookeries, and the Kiawah Island program in 1972 was one of the early ones. Indeed, it was the first organized effort to protect any wildlife on Kiawah Island.

There have been large changes in procedures and at one time the Kiawah Island program faltered and nearly expired. Therefore, I believe many of you will welcome this brief review. I have gathered much of the story of the early years from recollections of persons involved in the events or living on the island at the time and familiar with the endeavor.

Concern for the Kiawah Island turtle rookery originated through the actions of two young friends in Charleston who had long shared an interest in reptiles. O. Rhett Talbert, Jr. and Tom McGee were unaware that sea turtles were in any way endangered when they became interested in the animals and decided in 1972 to spend their summer break from college observing the nesting behavior.

They received permission and encouragement from Mrs. C.C. Royal who, along with her children, owned the island. The two then sought support from the state wildlife agency, at that time called the South Carolina Wildlife & Marine Resources Dept. That agency gave them a modest sum for supplies and the use of an old Jeep for patrolling the beach at night.

Their interest at that time was limited to the general biology of the species. For example, they counted emergent crawls, and attempted to relate the number of crawls to the phases of the moon or the stages of the tide.

As the study progressed, they were dismayed by the nearly total destruction of the nests by raccoons, and thus they became aware that the species might be endangered. The focus of their efforts then changed, and they began putting 3'x3' screens of hardware cloth of 2"x4" mesh size over the nests as protection. Even so, some predation of nests continued despite the screens.

One night as they were patrolling the dark beach for telltale marks of new turtle crawls, they observed an adult raccoon eating an egg over a screened nest. Intrigued as to how it could reach the eggs, they approached and in the light from the headlights saw the adult leave and an immature kit come up from the nest, pass easily through the screen, and trot off after the adult.

Presumably the kit was passing eggs up to its parent. On the basis of this observation, they began to protect the nests further with a smaller screen of finer mesh placed in the center of the large one.

During the following summer of 1973 they enlisted four more friends from Charleston into the enterprise. In that same year, the Kuwait Investment Co. initiated an extensive environmental inventory of the island in connection with its purchase for development. The nesting of turtles on the beach was included in that study and John Dean of the Belle Barusch Institute and Rhett Talbert were the logical ones to do the evaluation.

Supported by funds for the environmental inventory, Rhett continued his efforts to protect the nests. The program was enlarged to include the tagging of nesting turtles in an effort to determine the number of turtles using the rookery.

Also, a hatchery was installed to decrease the destruction of nests by raccoons. The hatchery consisted of a large wire enclosure located back in the dune field toward the middle of the island. However, extremely heavy rains that totaled an estimated 20 inches during the first twenty days of August flooded the hatchery that had been situated low in the dunes. All nests were lost.

This destruction prompted a change in 1975 to a new "shed" hatchery. Eggs were packed in Styrofoam coolers, stored in a shelter, and periodically moistened. The hatched turtles were released in the evening at various locations on the beach.

On the basis of the successful outcome of this trial, it was concluded that this procedure was the most satisfactory protective measure for use in the future. (The state and federal agencies for a number of good reasons no longer permit artificial procedures such as this.)

After the successful initiation of the protective program in the years 1972 through 1975, there followed a period from 1976 through 1979 for which most records have been lost.

The Kiawah Island Community Assoc. sponsored the program, and the change in management was marked by a shift in objectives. Hatchery production and resort guest education became the primary objectives. The tagging program was abandoned and collection of nesting data was erratic.

It was during this period that the Federal Endangered Species Act included the Loggerhead turtle as a threatened species. Consequently, the S. C. Wildlife & Marine Resources Dept. became involved in protection of this and other threatened or endangered species along the S.C. coast.

However, the state did not become involved with the rookery on Kiawah Island until about 1980 when it began requiring permits to operate the protective programs on all South Carolina beaches. It was then that annual reports appeared on a regular basis, because this was one of the requirements for the state permit.

Those reports have been preserved, and the following account is from them. As an illustration of the scope of the operation on Kiawah at that time, the 1985 Community Association budget allotted $15,000 for the turtle program, including salaries for four patrol and hatchery personnel. The beach was patrolled throughout the night, and a public education program was initiated and vigorously pursued.

The two components of the education program were evening slide shows and patrol tours. For example, in 1983 the slide shows were presented twice each week throughout the summer to describe the natural history of the turtle and the nesting program on Kiawah Island. The night patrol tours were limited only by the number that could be crammed into and onto the patrol Jeep. They seem to have been quite popular, because more than 200 persons participated in 1983. (I was told that the back seat of the Jeep was especially popular with young couples in search of the romance of a moonlit beach.) Therefore, the turtle nest protection program had advanced to a level that encompassed three objectives: conservation of the species, comprehensive data collection and public education.

We now come upon a dark period in the story. The curtain began to come down in 1986 when the Kiawah Island Co. was primarily interested in selling the island and neglected the program.

William Botts, known to most people on the island as Buzz was the unsung hero at this time. Buzz directed the Jeep Safari that gave the popular daytime tours of the beach and undeveloped portions of the island. He was widely regarded as one of the most pleasant and knowledgeable of the guides.

Buzz also had participated in the turtle program for several years, and in 1986 he operated it with one other paid employee.

In 1987 Buzz again contracted to operate the program, but it was abruptly cancelled a few days prior to the beginning of the nesting season. The reason was a budget "shortfall".

Finally in mid-June operations began but with very restricted financial support. The hatchery was eliminated as well as the lectures, patrols were changed to once daily at dawn, and the salaried personnel again numbered only two. Despite all these handicaps Buzz prevailed, and a very creditable report was written for the last portion of the season.

The protective program did not quite founder at that stage despite the stormy seas, and I will relate in another story how it was rescued.



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