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Community : Top Stories Last Updated: Jul 10, 2013 - 10:45:43 AM

Turtle Patrol!
By Elizabeth Bush
Jun 26, 2013 - 9:13:02 AM

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As Daniel Island resident Kerrie Scott keeps count, certified turtle team members carefully remove the eggs from a shallow nest in the sand for relocation to a safer spot.
Two sets of tracks come out from the water and extend up the beach towards a nest buried beneath the sand. These tracks show where the mother turtle left the water and reveal her path back to the sea after laying her eggs.

It’s just after dawn on a quiet Sunday morning, a time when many in the Lowcountry are still blissfully ensconced in a cozy, pre-church slumber. But not Daniel Island residents Kerrie Scott and Kelly Cobb. For them, the chance to witness evidence of one of God’s miracles firsthand is enough to entice them out of their beds and away from their homes.
“I have to say, it’s a great way to start your day!” says Kerrie, her Starbucks coffee in hand, as they make their way towards the Isle of Palms.
As Kelly’s car crests the top of the bridge heading onto the island, bringing into view a vast and inviting ocean, their excitement builds over what the early morning light might reveal in the delicate sand. Kelly and Kerrie are part of the Island Turtle Team, a dedicated crew of about 100 volunteers who patrol the beaches of Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island looking for evidence of Loggerhead turtles each and every day during turtle nesting season. This year’s watch began on May 15 and will continue through mid-August.  
“One of the key things is to walk at the high tide line, because loggerheads come in at night to nest,” continues Kerrie, who is tasked with patrolling a 1.5 mile stretch of the beach with Kelly one morning a week. “We’re looking for tracks from the high tide line to the dunes.”
Their goal is to find turtle nests and make sure the eggs are safe and protected, offering hatchlings the best chance of survival. Time is of the essence, Kerrie says.
“If that momma turtle nested below the high tide line, those eggs will not survive the water infiltrating the nest! Right after the eggs are laid (typically at night) we have about a 12 hour window…if they need to be moved to a safer location.”
On this day, just as they are approaching the Isle of Palms, Kerrie receives a phone call from another volunteer, Jackie Huffman, who is helping to patrol their section of the beach. She tells them she has spotted two sets of tracks. Kelly and Kerrie are practically giddy over the discovery.
“She thinks she found a nest!” exclaims Kerrie, and the race to beach intensifies.  It is the first time the duo has ever had a viable nest discovery since they began volunteering some four years ago.  Once they hit the sand, near 30th Avenue, Jackie hurries over to show them her find.
“You can see one (set of tracks) up and then one back,” Jackie tells them. “It almost looks like tractor tracks…This was the entry and that was the exit.”
The ladies gather around an area of lightly piled sand at the end of the tracks on the beach. The length of each set of flipper prints is different, indicating the mother turtle came up to the beach at a higher tide than when she left.
“It’s interesting,” says Kerrie. “It looks like she spent a fair amount of time here.”
“This is probably the nest,”’ adds Jackie, pointing down at a slight mound in the sand. “You can see the flipper marks there.”
Before Kelly and Kerrie arrived, Jackie followed “nest discovery protocol” and notified Mary Pringle, who serves as the project leader for the Island Turtle Team. Pringle in turn contacted the other members of her crew, each specially trained and certified by the Department of Natural Resources to mark nests, handle eggs and hatchlings, and conduct relocations if necessary.
Within minutes, Mary arrives on scene with her team in tow. A few passersby on the beach stop to see what is unfolding. One gets out her camera and snaps a photo. Mary measures the tracks to assess the nesting turtle’s size. A mature sea turtle can weigh over 200 pounds.
“She’s probably about average size,” she says. “…About 21 inches…From her tracks, I would say she was not huge.”
As Kerrie, Kelly and Jackie look on, another volunteer uses a stick with handles at the top to gently probe the sand where the team believes the nest might be located. Looking for “the soft spot,” she feels a slight release, indicating a nest is likely below.  Two volunteers carefully begin to dig out the sand, searching for eggs.
“They dig with their rear flippers,” explains Mary. “And cover with all of them.”
Just a few inches beneath the surface, a broken egg about the size and color of a ping-pong ball is discovered, and then another.
“They’re very shallow,” says Mary, who collects the eggs’ remnants so DNA samples can be obtained that will allow them to track the mother’s future nesting activities.  She surmises the mother turtle inadvertently broke them while burying the rest of the cache with her powerful flippers. Moments later, volunteers discover 124 more eggs neatly packed at the base of the narrow, 12-inch deep hole. Because the nest doesn’t appear to be high enough on the beach to avoid the rising tide, the team begins the process of moving it to a more suitable location near the dunes   
“We’ve had three nests this year,” Mary tells Kerrie, Kelly and Jackie. “Y’all are lucky to find this one!”
Once the eggs are counted and buried back in the sand in their new spot, the team marks the location of the nest with a familiar bright orange sign (the official “discoverers” of the nest are listed on the back). A thin rope connected to three stakes is placed around the space. It will take anywhere from 45 to 65 days for the eggs to hatch, but until then, Kerrie, Kelly and Jackie will check back regularly to make sure the area is undisturbed and protected.
“We’re looking for signs of ghost crabs and ants!” says Kerrie. “They can get into the nest and eat the eggs. Sometimes they can destroy a whole nest! It’s important to check all the nests in our section for these disturbances as well as continue to look for turtle tracks each morning.”
Special scientific equipment is used to assess the exact time the nest might “boil,” or hatch. Kerrie, Kelly and Jackie will each be notified so they can be present as the tiny turtle babies make their way towards the ocean for the first time.
“We’re definitely camping out!” says Kerrie.
The turtle team conducts an inventory of the hatchlings about three days after the boil, and places them inside a red bucket for counting. That way they can determine if all of the babies are accounted for.  Some will have already made their trek to the sea, but a few might remain in the nest.  
“It’s really cool!” adds Kelly. “…It’s very common to see three little babies going towards the water. They kind of straggle a little. They don’t all go at once.”  
“They’re just a little bit bigger than your toe and they release them into the ocean,” says Kerrie. “It’s amazing…They are fascinating creatures.”
Kerrie and Kelly, who often bring their children along, say they have learned a tremendous amount about turtles since joining the volunteer beach patrol. “Momma turtles,” explains Kerrie, “can nest up to six times a season, laying a total of 600 to 800 eggs.”
“They then take a year or two off and then they can start nesting again,” she adds. “She doesn’t come back to the nest once the eggs are laid.”
But that’s where the turtle team volunteers come in, to make sure everything goes exactly as planned for the hatchlings’ journey.  Last year, there were some 4,628 turtle nests documented in South Carolina, with a total of 68 on Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island.  
Like protective parents, Kerrie and Kelly take their jobs watching over turtle eggs very seriously.  Come August, when the Daniel Island friends gather to see the hatchlings from today’s nest discovery make their way to the water, they will surely reflect on their contributions to the process. And every early morning they gave to the cause, patrolling the beach while wiping sleep from their eyes, will be well worth the time.
“I love the whole experience,” says Kelly, on the drive back to Daniel Island after their eventful morning. “I feel like I am really taking advantage of what’s here…For us, it’s about teaching our children, showing them how to take care of what’s around you, and appreciating what’s around you.”
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