South Carolina's irresistibly inviting shoreline draws thousands of summertime visitors looking to tickle their toes in our warm, soft sand. None makes more of a splash than the lovable loggerhead sea turtle.
Weighing in at about 250 pounds, these impressive sea dwellers - the largest of all hard-shelled turtles - have become the darlings of eco-minded beach-goers from Florida to North Carolina.
Each year between May and August, female loggerheads leave their ocean home to nest on our coast. They dig a large hole in the dry area of the beach near the sand dunes, deposit an average of 117 eggs and then cover up the nest to protect it from predators.
To help ensure the survival of the eggs, volunteers from North Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head Island walk the beaches at dawn every morning in search of sea turtle crawls or footprints. If a nest is found, a loggerhead turtle nesting sign is posted and the area is roped off or covered with fencing to keep it from being trampled or disturbed.
Myrtle Beach State Park offers visitors the opportunity to tag along on one of the early morning sea turtle patrols with Interpretive Ranger Ann Wilson. The half-mile public walks start at 6 a.m. every Friday from the first Friday in June through the first Friday in August.
In addition to looking for new nests, participants are asked to pick up litter, fill in holes and smash sandcastles that can create obstacles for both mother turtles and their offspring.
"If there's a nest in the park, I'll take the group there and talk about the turtles," Wilson said. "I'll explain how the hatchings push up together like a sand elevator to get to the surface."
It typically takes about 60 days for the hatchlings to emerge from the nest, usually under the cover of darkness. Once they reach the surface, they turn toward the brightest horizon and make a mad dash to the sea.
Lights from buildings and streets near the beach can disorient the little critters, leading them inland where they often die from exposure. Artificial lights also discourage females from nesting.
To help foster the survival of the threatened sea turtles, lights on structures visible from the beach should be shielded or turned off after 10 p.m. from May 1 to Oct. 31. Windows facing the beach should be covered with draperies or shade screens.
At Edisto Beach State Park, you can take a ranger-guided nighttime beach walk for a chance to witness a loggerhead nesting or hatchlings making their trek to the sea. Huntington Beach and Hunting Island state parks also offer educational programs on sea turtles during the summer season.
If you come across hatchings on your own, leave them to their own devices, even if it looks like they're struggling to get to the surf.
"If you pick them up and plunk them in the water, you've taken away a critical part of their life stage," Wilson said. "The hatchlings ‘imprint' on the beach as they walk out into the water. It helps them remember that specific beach and return to it as an adult."