Protective Program for Loggerhead Turtles Goes Volunteer

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At the start of the 1988 Loggerhead turtle nesting season, it was obvious that the protective program with a staff of paid employees would not be operating. Buzz Botts, who had operated the program the year before, had moved to Savannah; the beach gates were locked and no access was permitted.

I had gone out on night patrols a number of times with Buzz in earlier seasons, and I had learned the importance of continued protection of the nests. His dedication to the preservation of the species was contagious and I was not immune.

I drove over to Fort Johnson for a two-hour mini-course in turtle nest protection from Sally Murphy, the state wildlife agent in charge of sea turtle management along the South Carolina coast.

Returning with a permit to conduct the protective program, I did some arm-twisting and came up with nine other "volunteers" – most of them members of the old KICA Committee for the Natural Environment. However, it was not until the Fourth of July that I was able to obtain a key to the gate at Fiddler’s Run; thus half the season was lost.

We took turns patrolling the beach each morning in our own vehicles, and our approach was simplistic. Our two objectives were to count the nesting crawls for the remained of the season and keep a record of “strandings” (dead turtles) on the beach.

No attempt was made to determine hatching success, because many of the little red flags that we had employed to mark the nests were difficult to relocate or had been moved to fly over sandcastles. However, a report was written and recommendations for the following year were made. We hoped to recruit additional volunteers, find some financial support for essential supplies such as protective screens , begin a public awareness program and do a better job on the beach.

The 1989 season began well. We persuaded the Community Association to provide a budget of $1600 for the program. (We actually spent only $645.) Also, we obtained the loan of a 4-wheel drive vehicle from Security for the summer. In a sense, we began with about the same level of support as had the young students, O. Rhett Talbert, Jr. and Tom McGee eighteen years earlier.

Our vehicle, good old #510 to some, something less flattering to others, had seen better days. It had been subjected to too many uncaring drivers. The first thing that all learned was never, never put on the emergency brake - otherwise a mechanic must be called to free it, and permit the vehicle to roll along once again.

There were other minor peculiarities; often it refused to go into reverse, and always it refused to stay in 4-wheel drive unless the co-pilot held the shift in that position. With the season assured by all this material support, we sought volunteers and our list jumped from the 10 of the previous year to 24 in 1989.

As a first move toward diversification of responsibility, I formed a committee of Bill Connellee, Ruth Cusick and myself to run the program for the season. Ruth went to Ft Johnson for a training session with Sally so that now we had two experts. The nest numbers were low for most beaches in the state that year, and we had found only 84 nests on the Kiawah beach by the time nesting terminated on August 13th.

Subsequently, patrols were made weekly to inspect nests, record hatchings and monitor raccoon predation. Sadly, 25 of the nests at the eastern portion of the beach were partially or completely destroyed by raccoons. (No protective screens had been available in 1988, and the loses to raccoons mercifully were not recorded. In 1989, we began to protect some nests with 2’ x 4’ wire screens laid down over the nests, but the raccoons easily burrowed beneath them. Later in the season, we began securing the screens with 16” wire wickets at the corners, and predation was reduced somewhat.)

I had scheduled a little party on September 28th for our volunteers to celebrate what we at that time considered to be a fairly good season, but Hurricane Hugo had other plans as it roared ashore on September 21st. Fortunately the winds struck Kiawah from the marsh side and did no harm to our beach, so the unhatched turtles remained snug in their nests. In conclusion, 1989 was a learning experience for all of us, and we felt optimistically that we could do a better job in the future.

In the decade of the nineties, we received strong material support from the new Town of Kiawah Island. In turn, the town received an award in 1998 from the Municipal Association of South Carolina in recognition of the excellent protective program for Loggerhead turtle nesting on the Kiawah Island beach.

The number of volunteers steadily rose to over one hundred, and in continuation of my efforts to diffuse responsibility and increase the sense of participation, the operating committee was gradually increased to seven members.

This strong support permitted us to broaden the scope of our efforts. Up to that time, our objectives had been to catalog the location of nests, relocate some, and protect all as best we could. This comes under the heading of protection of the rookery and will always be the primary objective.

However, we now felt sufficiently advanced to be able to share our experience and knowledge with others and so we took on a second objective of public education. Bill Connellee began a series of weekly slide shows about the natural history of sea turtles and our efforts to protect their nesting on the Kiawah beach. Later, this effort was expanded to include demonstrations of our program on the beach. Publicity was promoted further by stories in the Charleston newspaper, the local Islands magazine, Kiawah Island Talk, several travel magazines, and all local TV stations.

Predation of nests was drastically reduced by the use of larger 4’ x 4’ screens secured with wooden pegs, plus the installation of an electrified fence at some nests. (The procedures for electrified fencing were reported at the 1992 Workshop on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation at Jekyll Island, Ga.)

Encouraged by these measures to heighten the effectiveness of our protective efforts, we began some other special studies. This became a fifth aspect of the program in addition to the earlier ones of 1) protection of nests, 2) collection of hatching data, 3) collection of stranding data and 4) public education.

These special studies included;
1) changes in the groundwater table at various tide levels as a guide to relocation of nests possibly in danger of flooding,
2) the temperature within the nest during the incubation period as a measure of the sex ratio of the hatchlings,
3) an exploratory study on the feasibility of identifying each nesting turtle by the unique pattern of its crawl marks,
4) identification of plant species most invasive of the nests.

These special studies not only added value to the program but also provided a challenge for some of the volunteers. The results of the groundwater study were reported at the 20th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation at Orlando, Fla. in the spring of 2000.

A second poster at that same Symposium fully described the accomplishments of our protective program on Kiawah Island. Ours is the longest continuous protective program in the state, and our parent organization, S. C. Dept. of Natural Resources, considers it the best.

We ended the Twentieth Century with a record number of nests (262 that had been located and marked and 34 unmarked for a total of 296). This was the most that we had ever recorded in a season, and it placed us second in the state. Only the huge rookery at Cape Romain with 1246 nests exceeded our number in 1999.

Now as we begin the Twenty-first Century, we face the future with confidence. Given the full material support by the Town of Kiawah Island, a cadre of over one-hundred volunteers with years of experience, one of the best beaches in the state and an expanding number of turtle nests, our continued success seems assured.

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Revised: May 15, 2015