Friends of Hunting Island Welcomes A New Frequent Visitor

The ‘Friends of Hunting Island’ is a membership group consisting of some of the most energetic and involved volunteers of Beaufort County. As animal advocates, their efforts are legend relating to the number of hours they dedicate to ‘saving the turtles’ on Hunting Island Beach — an effort many of them have been doing since FOHI’s sea turtle program started back in 1993.

They come by sea

The specific turtles I’m referring to are the venerable “Loggerheads.” They are the industrious reptiles that first appeared some 40 million years ago along the barrier islands — some time after the dinosaurs made their final exit from the planet.

The turtle season on Hunting Island commences with the FOHI volunteers combing the beach at 6am in search of turtle tracks, from May 1 through the end of October. Loggerheads are turtles that spend most of their lives at sea, whose females venture ashore once every 2-3 years for the sole purpose of nesting their eggs. The trek is thousands of miles and it’s said that baby turtles ‘imprint’ at birth on HI, and more than often return to the same beach where they were born.

The incubation period for nests is 45-60 days and each nest contains 120 eggs on average. Since only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings, or 1 in 10,000 eggs become a reproductive adult, it’s the volunteer’s job to improve their survival rate. To help them on land, FOHI members tend to the nests with a lot of TLC. In some instances, they will physically move eggs threatened by tides or predators. Unfortunately, HI’s sandy beaches have been eroding faster of recent date, due to the number of hurricanes ravaging the coastline.

They come by land

However, the Loggerheads are not HI’s only frequent travelers. There is another — somewhat overlooked — even though they’re just as indigenous to the island as the Loggerheads. These are the land-loving Diamondback terrapins (DBT).

Sea Turtle Conservation project coordinator Buddy Lawrence (aka the “Boss of the Beach”) notes that up till now, his focus and those of the volunteers had been with the “sea turtles.” However with DBT nests being spotted this year, it was decided these turtles might also benefit from FOHI’s oversight. So with Lawrence’s guidance, the volunteers have added DBTs to their agenda, when they make their daily patrols. In fact, Lawrence noted that the “northern end of Hunting Island is a terrapin nesting hotspot,” and one that will be watched with greater scrutiny.

FOHI’s involvement is most important since many aspects of terrapin behavior are unknown due to limited data collection. What is known is that terrapins hibernate in the colder months in the mud of creeks and salt marshes in surrounding areas in close proximity to the beach. Lawrence says, “DBTs can spend the winter in their nests and not emerge until the spring.”

Their nests are shallower than the Loggerheads. They are 4- 8 inches versus 15-24. Plus DBTs ovulate a lot less eggs — sometimes only 4-7, compared to the hundred or so found in a Loggerhead’s clutch.

Egg activity for these two species also differs markedly. According to Lawrence, “DBTs are able to retract their front and rear limbs (with their 'toe nails') into their shell, whereas a sea turtle’s flippers cannot be retracted into their shell.”

The Carolina terrapins range from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina to northern Florida. The major threats to DBTs are associated with human intervention. DBTs have a high mortality rate. This is due to their lack of speed — especially when killed by cars crossing thoroughfares, such as the Sea Island Parkway. So much so, that a “Terrapin Crossing” sign was installed by the state near Hunting Island, after this threat was made known by the Lowcountry Master Naturalist Association.

Friends of Land & Sea Celebrate

It was timely to add the Diamondback terrapins to the volunteers’ responsibility list this year. 2018 marks the FOHI’s anniversary. The Friends of Hunting Island are in the midst of celebrating their 25th year.

Over that time period, their accomplishments are many. The organization has attracted over 1400 members and is one of the largest volunteer organizations in Beaufort County having protected thousands of turtle nests. With HI being the one of state’s most popular parks, over a million visitors sojourn here every year. And it’s the volunteers working hand-in-hand with the park staff in preserving this undeveloped barrier island – that motivates them to come back, year after year.

So in combing the land and sea of Hunting Island, let’s not forget to celebrate both species of turtle this year. After all . . . the Loggerheads and the Diamondback terrapins were the first to travel to our fair shores all those millions of years ago – way before we even got here. In fact, it was these turtles that should be considered Hunting Island’s hosts — and us mere mortals — “their” guests.

Diamondback terrapin

Primary Source: Friends of Hunting Islan