Leatherback turtles come to Hilton Head Island this year!

Leatherback Turtle
Leatherback Turtle

June 30, 2011~With more than a month remaining in sea-turtle nesting season, reports of loggerhead nests are on pace to break records for some areas of Beaufort County.

And already, leatherback turtle nests have been documented on Hilton Head Island for the first time.

The largest sea turtles, endangered leatherbacks, reach lengths of more than 6 feet and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds.

Some of the tracks left by the leatherbacks’ crawl were wider than volunteers are tall, according to Amy Tressler of the Coastal Discovery Museum, who manages Hilton Head’s Sea Turtle Protection Program.

Leatherback eggs are the size of racquetballs, far larger than the golf ball-sized eggs of loggerheads, the area’s most common sea turtle.

“The leatherback is a huge highlight to the season over here,” Tressler said.

Last year, Hilton Head had a record 239 loggerhead nests. This year, volunteers and conservationists on daily dawn beach patrol have already tracked 209, Tressler said.

The leatherback, which can nest several times in a season, left three nests.

Leatherbacks typically nest south of Hilton Head — in Florida or the Caribbean — but occasionally swim farther north, said DuBose Griffin, sea turtle coordinator with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

It’s likely that the same turtle laid another nest at Hunting Island State Park, which recorded its first leatherback nest last year, although the eggs were unfertilized.

Hunting Island, however, isn’t likely to break records this year. Volunteers have found 41 nests, compared to last year’s 111.

On Harbor Island, project leader Fran Nolan reported 51 loggerhead nests. With a record 66 nests reported in 1999, Nolan said, volunteers are placing bets on whether this will be the top year.

On Fripp Island, 45 nests have been found, already beating last year’s total of 25, according to Janie Lackman, the island’s turtle patrol leader. Strict enforcement of a rule barring items from being left on the beaches overnight “makes our mamas very happy,” Lackman said.

In the past decade, the island’s best year was 2000, with 54 nests.

The “really promising” start to the season extends to beaches statewide, with more than 2,450 nests so far, Griffin said. Nest sites are so dense in some areas that not all reports are in yet, Griffin said.

Last year’s statewide total through October was 3,150 nests.

Griffin sees that as a sign that a decades-long nesting decline has leveled off, with increased conservation and surveying efforts a likely factor.

The first eggs on Beaufort County beaches were found in May, meaning hatchlings will soon emerge. Volunteers begin monitoring for hatchlings at 50 days after nesting. The average incubation time is 60 days, but hot, dry weather can hasten the process, Tressler said.

Turtle season also means it’s crucial that people turn off oceanfront lights, which is required on Hilton Head Island from 10 p.m. to dawn, Tressler said.

The lights cause the hatchlings to crawl away from the ocean and prevent nesting turtles from coming ashore. Shining flashlights or taking flash photographs of turtles at night is also a federal offense, Tressler said.

“One of the most important ways locals or visitors here can protect turtles is keep the beaches dark,” Tressler said.

Follow staff writer Allison Stice at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP

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Map of Hilton Head nesting sites:  http://www.seaturtle.org/nestdb/index.shtml?view_beach=73 . Enjoy the wildlife and remember “Keep your lights off after dark so they can find the water when they hatch.”