Summer days on Kiawah’s wide beach draw hosts of snoozing sunbathers, racing beach cruisers, serious sandcastle architects, not-so-serious bocce competitors, and fearless body surfers, just to name a few. But our summer nights attract a different crowd, equally determined to make the most of their beach visit. During this special time each year, one of the coast’s most beloved and endangered species, loggerhead sea turtles, make their mark — on the sand and in our hearts.
Loggerhead nesting and hatching activity occurs May through October. Nests laid on beaches without a nest protection project have extremely low hatch rates, typically under 10%. On Kiawah, that number jumps to over 70%. While the island’s low density master plan and ongoing conservation education contribute significantly to this success, the dedicated and enthusiastic Turtle Patrol volunteers are the true day-in and day-out heroes of the operation.
Sea turtle monitoring activities on Kiawah Island date back to the early 1970’s. Residents formed the Turtle Patrol in 1989 to officially partner with South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and it is now one of the largest such programs in the country.
Volunteers serve on the Nesting Patrol or Hatching Patrol (or both), with responsibilities corresponding to assisting turtles during these two critical phases of their lifecycle.
It all starts with mom. Female loggerheads reach maturity at middle age (around 30 years old), mating every two to three years in coastal waters. Under the cover of darkness, she returns to nest on or near the same beach where she herself hatched.
Guided by the soft glow of the moon and constellations, mom navigates the beach to locate the perfect spot to furtively dig a nest and deposit her precious cargo. Female loggerheads are understandably cautious, easily frightened off by loud noises or activity. Everything has to be just right or she’ll turn around and slip back into the sea. Once she’s carefully selected a site, she uses her back flippers to dig a hole about 20 inches deep; and then lays 100 to 150 golf-ball shaped eggs. She’ll meticulously cover the nest with sand and make her return to the water. The entire process takes about 75 minutes. She’ll lay several nests per season — about two weeks apart — May through August.
Over these months the Nesting Patrol is on duty, searching out and marking new turtle nests, recording their locations, and providing initial anti-predator protection. Every morning they meet at Kiawah’s Town Hall garage by 6 a.m. to grab the necessary supplies and jump in the one and only “Turtle Truck”.
Launching from Beachwalker Park, they drive the entire beach starting at Captain Sam’s Spit on the west end, traveling past Timbers Kiawah, and going as far east past the famed Ocean Course clubhouse as possible, depending on the tides. (The most eastern tip of the island, Sandy Point, is handled by SC DNR.) Usually there are five people aboard. These days, due to COVID-19 safety measures, only the driver and one other volunteer can be in the truck. Turtle nests can be hard to find, so this summer experienced Nesting Patrollers are also walking assigned zones to assist in the search. The extra diligence has paid off, 329 nests have been identified as of August 1st.