With the advent of DNA analysis, marine biologist Amber Kuehn, who directs the Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project, can track where the mother sea turtle lays her eggs along the entire Southeastern coast. The data show that female baby sea turtles return to the island as mothers who lay eggs. Starting at approximately age 30, they start laying eggs every few years.
Scientists don't know exactly how long sea turtles live.
“We can assume it’s over 100 years. We know of an estimated 90-plus-year-old female that still nests. She has a granddaughter in our DNA study old enough to lay eggs,” Kuehn said. “Sea turtles are reptiles, and reptiles have indeterminate growth — they grow a little as long as they live. They don’t have any identifying age marks.”
Six species of sea turtles make their home on the South Carolina coast, but loggerheads seem to prefer Hilton Head. Leatherback turtles are the largest sea turtle, measuring 6 to 9 feet in length at maturity, and 3 to 5 feet in width, weighing up to 1,500 pounds.
The Coastal Discovery Museum manages the Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project with a paid staff of eight. The Town of Hilton Head Island funds it.
“The project fits our mission of caring for the environment,” said Rex Garniewicz, CEO at Coastal Discovery Museum.
Sea turtles are farmed for food in China, but no sea turtle meat or body parts can be imported to the U.S. “You are not even allowed to own a sea turtle shell or genuine tortoiseshell jewelry in the U.S. without special permission,” Kuehn said.
Federal law provides even greater protection — and criminal penalties as severe as a $100,000 fine and a year in prison — if you take, harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap or capture any marine turtle, nest or eggs, or attempt to engage in any such conduct.
Last year, Hilton Head saw 411 sea turtle nests — a 26.4 percent increase, according to Kuehn. She collects scientific data, handles sea turtle strandings, and manages beach patrols.
“Every morning during nesting season, the team patrols for new nests on the entire beach of Hilton Head. If they discover a nest that wouldn’t survive in the location chosen by the mother turtle, they relocate it to higher ground. They have a 24-hour window to do so after the nest has been laid,” Garniewicz said.
Through presentations, door hangers, newsletters and advertisements, the team also reminds beachfront residents to turn off their lights and avoid flashlights on the beach after10PM during nesting season.
On average, mother sea turtles lay 120 eggs.Hatchlings migrate long distances between feeding grounds and the beaches from where they hatched. To survive from Hilton Head, hatchlings have to make a three-day, 70-mile swim to the Gulf Stream.
“Nature is so amazing, so awesome … the concept that these ancient creatures make their home in the place where I am is wonderful to me,” Siebold said.
THINGS YOU CAN DO TO SAVE THE SEA TURTLES
Advice courtesy of marine biologist Amber Kuehn:
1. Adopt a sea turtle nest. Visit the Coastal Discovery Museum’s Adopt-a-Nest Program at http://www.coastaldiscovery.org/home/discover-a-cause/sea-turtles/.
2. Lights out after 10 p.m.
If you live on the beach, keep exterior lights off during nesting season. And if you’re walking on the beach at night, don’t use a flashlight. Hatchlings follow the brightest light when navigating back to the ocean in the dark. Their primary cue is visual. Last year, seven nests were lost due to light violations. Hatchlings are not attracted to red wavelengths, so if you really need a light on your nighttime walk, take a red-hued flashlight with you instead.
3. Use reusable products and buy cloth grocery bags.
Plastic debris in the ocean degrades marine habitats and contributes to the deaths of many marine animals. Because floating plastic often resembles food to many marine birds, sea turtles and marine mammals, they can choke or starve because their digestive systems get blocked when they eat it. Help prevent these unnecessary deaths — use cloth grocery bags and reusable water bottles.
4. Pick up garbage and litter near beaches.
Much of the plastic and debris found in the ocean has its beginnings in beach litter. As beach crowds increase, so does the amount of trash left behind. Don’t let your day at the beach contribute to the destruction of our oceans. Bring a bag with you for your garbage and volunteer for beach cleanups.
5. Don’t dig big holes or leave tents or chairs on the beach.
Sea turtle hatchlings leaving their nests can fall into deep holes left behind by beachgoers and become trapped, never making it to the sea. Adult sea turtles intending to nest on Hilton Head beaches can also encounter obstacles such as large sand castles and beach equipment left on the beach. When they bump into them in the darkness, they are frightened and return to the sea without laying eggs.
6. Call the Sea Turtle Stranding Hotline if you discover a stranded sea turtle on the island.
Last year, Hilton Head Island had 25 sea turtle strandings, according to seaturtle.org. Don’t touch or try to move a stranded sea turtle back into the ocean; instead, call the hotline at 1-800-922-5431.