Have you ever seen a picture of a loggerhead sea turtle? They are massive, ocean swimming creatures that can grow up to 3 1/2 feet long and 350 pounds. They spend the vast majority of their lives out at sea, usually submerged under water. But they don't start out that way.
Loggerheads are born on land, in a nest all the way up the beach, deep in the dry sand. The tiny hatchlings must make their way out of the buried nest and down to the ocean. They emerge all together from the sand and scurry down the open beach as quickly as they can to avoid predators, drawn to the bright light of the sun or moon reflected on the water. Female loggerheads will return to the beach where they were born every year between May and August and clamber ashore to make their own nests and lay their eggs. Scientists still aren't really sure how they do it. About 60 days later, hatchlings will emerge to continue the cycle.
The wide, warm beaches of South Carolina are favorite spots for loggerhead sea turtles. In fact, the loggerhead is the official reptile of the state of South Carolina. It's unlikely that you'll see a nesting loggerhead turtle; that happens at night, and they are usually safely back in the ocean before the sun comes up. You're far more likely to see the tracks a mother loggerhead makes in the sand when she comes up to make her nest. You'll see the beeline of tracks emerge from the ocean, up the beach, and back, almost like the tire tracks of a tractor.
Loggerheads are endangered, their nests are very delicate, and the beaches where the female loggerheads have returned for generations to lay their eggs have now become popular tourist attractions. If you do come across a nesting turtle, leave her alone and give her a wide berth. Do not approach her, and do not shine a flashlight at her. She will become disoriented and have a difficult time returning to the ocean. If you believe a turtle is injured on the beach, call the SC Department of Natural Resources to report it at 800.922.5431.
There are several volunteer programs in South Carolina that work to protect these remarkable, majestic creatures and to ensure that their nests remain safe, giving the baby loggerheads the best possible chance at making it back to the sea. The programs are your best chance at safely seeing turtle tracks, nests and hatchlings, and it gives you the opportunity to help protect these delicate nests and these amazing animals.
Volunteer groups in communities all down the South Carolina coast walk the beaches each morning at dawn to look for turtle tracks in the sand. When they find tracks, they look for a nest. If they find a nest, they mark it so that others don't accidentally destroy it.
If you're interested, check out these groups:
Myrtle Beach State Park Sea Turtle Patrol
Fripp Island Loggerhead Patrol
Isle of Palms Island Turtle Team
Folly Beach Turtle Watch Program
Edisto Beach State Park Turtle Nest Inventories and Night Turtle Walks
Coastal Discovery Museum's Evening Sea Turtle Walk on Hilton Head
If you find a marked nest in the area of soft sand between the beach and the dunes, don't bother it. Don't step on it or dig it up. If you are lucky enough to see hatchlings trying to emerge, leave them to their work. If you happen to come across a nest that is hatching, do not touch or pick up the baby turtles, and don't carry them to the ocean. You will harm them. They must make their own way down the beach to the water in order to imprint on the beach.
So the next time you're visiting a beautiful South Carolina beach, consider setting that alarm for the early morning or staying up late for a walk the beach in search of turtle tracks and new nests. Who knows what you might discover on a turtle watch?