Sea turtles have cruised our oceans for millions of years. “Take a walk with a turtle. And behold the world in pause,” says author Bruce Feiler. Calmly watching from the horizon, sea turtles have witnessed the fall of dinosaurs and the rise of man. Six species of these reptiles can be found in oceans across the globe. The seventh species, the flatback turtle, is found only in the waters off Australia. Among this humble crew, the loggerhead sea turtle is medium sized. When fully grown they can reach 3 feet – weighing over 300 lbs. Males are easily distinguished by their long tail. The name loggerhead is attributed to their hefty dome in proportion to the body. This thick skull houses brawny jaws enabling it to indulge on whelks and conchs. These turtles, South Carolina’s state reptile, have taken a particular fondness to our local beaches. SCDNR estimates loggerheads have laid “an average of 3,378 nests, per year, over the last 10 years in the state.”
The sea turtle family has persevered through eons of environmental change. Every adult turtle to ever live might as well have won the lottery. Each must endure dozens of trials. Luck and chance play as crucial a role as prowess and capability. An enduring bridge between land and sea, thousands of sea turtles are migrating towards our beaches. A creature who spends its entire life in vast oceans must still return to the shore to give birth. After mating in open waters, females begin to make the journey back to the coast. Though not just any coast. With an internal GPS guiding the way, loggerhead turtles return, year after year, to the same beaches where they were born. Arriving on shore in early spring, these females will begin to deliver the next generation into the warmth of the wild dunes.
“The Turtle’s teachings are so beautiful. So very special. It teaches us that everything you are, everything you need and everything you bring to the world is inside you, not external, and you carry it with you, and are not limited to a place, space or time.”
– Eileen Anglin
Sea turtles have been returning to their ancestral breeding grounds for millions of years although commercial fishing has made it more challenging. This industry perpetually battles criticism for their negative impact on turtles as they move towards shore to nest. A Duke University case study “found that 250,000 loggerhead and 60,000 leatherback turtles are estimated to be inadvertently snared each year by commercial long line fishing.” Measures have been enacted on a federal level to help curb these losses. As of 2003, all shrimping vessels in North American waters must be equipped with a T.E.D. These turtle excluder devices are special grates designed to allow profitable shrimp through while funneling larger animals to safety. They have been proven to reduce sea turtle mortality rates by 97%, while one scientific study found that it only reduced shrimp harvest by 5 – 13%. Though the system does have limitations, SCDNR has recorded a rising number of turtle nests on local beaches since it’s implantation.
The sea turtle hides her approach under the veil of night. Waiting ashore are a litany of predators to her unborn offspring. Once at the water’s edge, the real work begins. Laden with eggs, the female sea turtle shuffles her way through the surf and into the safety of the dunes. Built for oceans, this creature is awkward and slow on the beach. It’s a grueling process that can take hours. Satisfied her offspring will be protected above the high tide line – she begins to dig.
Using her two rear flippers, she digs a body pit. If she’s lucky, she’ll only have to dig once. It can often take several attempts due to many challenges. Buried obstructions like logs cause wandering nests that make finding the surface difficult for newborn hatchlings. Shallow beds invite unwanted predators like raccoons or dogs. Every paddle stroke uses up valuable energy. The process can be repeated up to 4 times a season with 2 weeks between each nesting. Each clutch contains an average of 120 turtle eggs. Exhausted, the mother turtle turns back towards the ocean and slowly fades into the waves.
“Turtles always strike me as devastatingly serious. If turtles could talk, I’d believe everything they said.”
– Erin O’Brien
These fresh eggs will incubate for roughly 60 days. Cradled in the warmth of the dunes, a sea turtle’s sex is determined by their temperature . Cooler dunes in the Carolinas, with an average temperature less than 82 degrees, foster males. While warmer Floridian areas above 88 degrees stimulate the growth of females. Sadly, before even having the opportunity to hatch, roughly 20% of these eggs will be lost. The trials of a turtle’s life have begun. Insurmountable odds have been overcome to simply get to this moment.
From here the baby sea turtles will be confronted with a new set of challenges. While they slowly develop over the next few months, their survival will, in part, be up to us. Pay close attention to markings in the sand dunes on your next trip to the beach. SCDNR dutifully places orange marking tape around our local turtle clutches. For now, we will let these turtles rest. Our August blog will continue their story once they are ready to start popping out of their shells. Until then remain vigilant, honor local ‘no walking’ sand dune ordinances and always report suspected nests.
“And the turtles, of course all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”
– Dr. Seuss