Biologists counted South Carolina’s first two sea turtle nests of the season on May 2.
South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ Corinne Johnston found a loggerhead nest on South Island (part of Yawkey Wildlife Center) and Jerry Tupacz of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found a loggerhead nest on North Cape Island (part of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge).
This marks the second year in a row that South Carolina’s first sea turtle nest has appeared on May 2, one day after the official start of the season. Both nests follow false crawls spotted the day before on each island, tracks indicating a female sea turtle had come ashore but ultimately did not lay eggs.
Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and Yawkey Wildlife Center are home to the densest nesting in South Carolina, but sea turtles lay their eggs on beaches across the coast. SCDNR staff rely on a network of over 1,500 trained volunteers to regularly patrol beaches from May 1 to October 31 to count, monitor and protect sea turtle nests.
The 2023 season opens on the heels of another record-breaking year: in 2022, 7,996 sea turtle nests were counted in the state, marking the second-highest year since record-keeping began. Prior to 2022, nest numbers held steady at 5,644 nests in 2021 and 5,560 in 2020.
Nesting requires a great deal of energy, so female sea turtles do not lay eggs every year. This cyclical pattern of nesting results in fluctuating nest numbers from year to year. It’s not unusual for record-breaking years to follow low nesting years. A robust winter diet is crucial for female sea turtles to recoup the energy and nutrient reserves needed for shelling and laying eggs.
Overall, sea turtle nest numbers across the Southeast have trended up over the past decade after several decades of conservation efforts.
“We’re optimistic, but nest numbers have not reached Loggerhead Recovery Plan benchmarks, and the species is not out of the woods just yet,” said SCDNR biologist Michelle Pate, who leads the agency’s sea turtle nesting and stranding program. “Long term monitoring of these long-lived species needs to continue to ensure current management continues to work.”
Four sea turtle species nest on South Carolina beaches: loggerheads, greens, Kemp’s ridleys, and leatherbacks. All four species are classified as endangered or threatened and are protected under the Endangered Species Act and state law. Loggerhead nests comprise most of the state’s total number each year.
Sea turtle clutches average 120 eggs and hatch after approximately 60 days. Nesting females may remain in South Carolina waters and continue to nest every two weeks, laying up to six nests per season. Throughout this stressful time, the turtles also abstain from eating.
South Carolina beachgoers can help the state’s sea turtles by keeping beaches clean, turning beachfront lights out to avoid disorienting turtles, and giving all sea turtles and nests a wide and respectful berth when encountered on the beach.