You never know when a lazy day on a South Carolina beach is going to turn into a lesson in science and conservation.
That's what happened for us on a recent family vacation to Pawleys Island
, when we were able to watch two baby loggerhead sea turtles make their way from their nest in the dunes to the ocean.
Late one afternoon, we noticed a crowd gathering near the dunes on the north end of the island, where a Loggerhead turtle nest was located. These turtles nest on beaches from North Carolina to Florida from May 1 through Oct. 31, and hatch after 6-8 weeks.
The tiny Pawleys turtles were helped on their journey by SCUTE
, South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts, a group of dedicated volunteers in Georgetown and Horry counties. The group coordinates efforts to preserve the nesting areas, monitors nests and works to limit beachfront lighting. Turtles are threatened by several factors including trash in the ocean they mistake for food and their ability to climb to the dunes through a good beach, with their paths clear of beach chairs or sandcastle holes.
"It's been amazing on Pawleys how people have responded once they understand things like the need to pick up their beach chairs at night and move them," said Walter McElveen, a volunteer with SCUTE, who explained all about turtles and their habitats to the crowd of about 100 people on the beach.
Loggerheads are one of four types of sea turtles that visit South Carolina; three are endangered and the Loggerhead is considered in the threatened stage.
"We're hoping with our efforts -- this program on Pawleys was formed by some locals more than 20 years ago -- we are letting the turtles hold their own."
There is no schedule for turtle hatchings since there is no way to predict in advance when they will leave the nests. Each day volunteers walk the beach, checking on turtle nests. Once eggs have hatched, it is reported to SCUTE, which waits the S.C. Department of Natural
-established protocol of three full nights before doing an inventory of the nest.
SCUTE has found more than 170 Loggerhead nests with 12,000-plus turtle eggs on beaches in the two counties so far this summer. About 80 percent of those eggs hatch and make it to the ocean. Only about one turtle of every 1,000 that hatches will reach adulthood, which takes more than 25 years.
Two turtles were left in this Pawleys nest -- the others had already hatched and made their way to the sea. On this day, the crowd -- filled with wide-eyed children and camera-toting parents -- parted to watch the pair start their crawl to the surf. It took only a few minutes, and a loud cheer went up once the babies hit the water.
The turtles are a huge hit with vacationing families -- especially kids.
"I think it's because they are little babies. They are three days old when they pop out of the sand," McElveen said. "And they've been around since the dinosaurs. That has a lot of appeal to the young folks. It's so little, it gets to be so big and it lives so long. That's intriguing for the kids."
And they are flat-out adorable creatures.