As a Friends of Hunting Island (FOHI) volunteer for the last 3 years, I've had the pleasure of volunteering to preserve one of the most threatened creatures on the planet. Dating back 145 million years, the loggerhead sea turtle has been around since the time of the dinosaurs. In 1988, the this sea turtle became the state reptile of South Carolina.
Now living in the Age of the Coronavirus, how have the loggerheads and the FOHI volunteers adapted to this global pandemic?
As a volunteer I've learned the most active member of the loggerhead family is the 'Mamma' loggerhead. It takes 20-30 years for a sea turtle to reach sexual maturity. When a female is ready to lay eggs, she more than often returns to the nesting beach where she was born, even if she has not been there for 30 years. She will lay up to 100+ eggs, which incubate in the warm sand for about 45-60 days
Female 'Mamma' loggerheads visit Hunting Island's shore from May through September to create her nests and deposit her eggs. Females lay an average of four egg clutches before become quiescent, not producing eggs for two to three years.
After the 45-60 days incubation period, hatchlings emerge from the nest, usually at night, and head to the ocean. They then swim approximately sixty miles to the protection of a thick mass of free-floating seaweed, known as Sargassum.
In 2019, the FOHI volunteers located and protected 153 loggerhead nests, located on six zones of Hunting Island State Park Beach. As a result, approximately 8,945 young turtles successfully hatched during the season.
To accomplish this, the volunteers attend to the following activities:
- Walk the beach in teams of 5-6 volunteers to identify the Mamma's crawls (tracks) and nests.
- Watch for Mammas leaving the beach
- Help probers locate the nest cavity.
- Help relocate nest eggs (too close to shore) to higher ground.
- Extract one egg from each nest for DNA testing.
- Protect nests from predators with mesh and wire cages and identify with official signage.
- Monitor nests for signs of hatching and hatchling emergence.
- Inventory nests when hatching is complete.
- Maintain radio contact with all teams and assist as necessary.
- Make sure all teams have left the beach safely and have reported their findings.
Odds of Survival
Even with all the care provided by the FOHI volunteers, loggerheads remain "threatened" in the United States and "endangered" internationally. If you’re born a loggerhead, the odds are not in your favor. Climate change, ocean pollution, and poaching threaten these marine animals.
Only one out of 1,000 baby sea turtles survives to adulthood, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
How the Coronavirus affects these Turtles & Volunteers
While humans are susceptible to catching the virus, loggerheads are not. However, that's not to say that this year they may be indirectly affected.
At Hunting Island, the Sea Turtle Conservation team has created a plan for the month of May. Its focus takes into account the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic, coupled with orders from Henry McMaster, Governor of the state of South Carolina, and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR).
Presently the FOHI volunteers (including myself) will NOT allowed to probe, cage, or take DNA samples.
During this time period, only 3 people will be patrolling the beach daily. That will include "Boss of the Beach" Buddy Lawrence, the day leader, and an assistant. In so doing, they will wear masks and maintain social distancing.
They will not carry backpacks, radios, or any other equipment. Cell phones will be used for communication and GPS locations of crawls and potential nests.
Should SCDNR permit us to expand our project safely, Buddy and the leaders will be in touch prior to June 1. They will keep the current roster of 234 volunteers up to date, during this time period.
Good news! Since the Hunting Island park is currently closed, Mamma loggerheads will proceed as usual with one caveat - they will have fewer humans on the beach to contend with.
According to a CNN report, researchers are seeing less plastic and waste left by people on the beach.
"I think there is a strong likelihood that we will see decreased human-caused impacts on sea turtle nesting this year, which is a rare silver lining to this global pandemic," said David Godfrey, Executive Director for the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
When the volunteers do return, it's important for all of us to follow the training rules noted above. However, our 'new normal' will most likely include keeping a respectable distance from all the marine animals, as well as our fellow volunteers.
As volunteers, I am sure all of us are looking forward to returning to our duties, when and if the quarantine is lifted in South Carolina. And oddly enough, the pandemic will have all of us more conscious of 'social distancing,' particularly as to how it will apply to this 'threatened' species. If we are allowed to return in June or July, some of these nests will be hatching around that time, and all those hatchlings are going to need enough space to make successful journeys from their nests to the ocean.
Primary Source: Friends of Hunting Island's Turtles