It’s officially sea turtle nesting season in Hilton Head! We’ve been embracing the natural beauty of the Lowcountry now more than ever, and we hope this guide will inspire you to head outside and experience this amazing natural phenomenon right here in Hilton Head.
Because of the work and advocacy of the Turtle Trackers, sea turtle nesting on Hilton Head has significantly increased—from 179 nests in 2018 to 463 nests in 2019—and the numbers are projected to be high again this season. To help keep the nests safe and to further the conservation efforts of sea turtles, there are strict guidelines for viewing and assisting turtles. Even with these guidelines in place, you can still have an unforgettable experience observing sea turtles as they make their way on shore to lay their eggs—and possibly as hatchlings take their first journey back to the sea.
The first nest was discovered on the north end of the island in early May and was named after late Turtle Tracker, Annette Walker, in a bittersweet dedication to the work she has done to protect turtles and their nests on Hilton Head’s shores. You’ll see an increasing number of nest markers on the beach from May until October, when all nests have hatched and the season ends.
What species of turtles are native to the Lowcountry?
Loggerhead sea turtle. Credit: USFWS
Loggerhead Sea Turtle
The most common turtle to nest on the beaches here in Hilton Head, the loggerhead sea turtle grows to an average of 3 feet long and 250 pounds. These turtles are known for their reddish-brown shell and log shaped head. Since 1988, the Loggerhead has been the official state reptile of South Carolina, but that doesn’t mean they’ve always been protected. This iconic turtle species has been threatened or endangered since the 1970s. Loggerhead sea turtles are also what’s called a “keystone species,” meaning that the balance of their entire ecosystem is dependent in some way upon their survival.
Green sea turtle. Credit: James Watt/NOAA
Green Sea Turtle
Green sea turtles are extremely similar to loggerheads, but can be identified by their rounded shell and shorter snout. The more widespread of the four local species, the green sea turtle is known to nest along the shorelines of more than 80 countries. Green sea turtles are also much larger on average, reaching up to 5 feet long and weighing 700 pounds. You may also notice that the turtle itself is not strictly green in color. This species gets its name from the color of its fat, possibly caused by their seaweed-rich diet.
Leatherback sea turtle. Credit: Alastair Rae
Leatherback Sea Turtle
Aptly named due to their soft, leathery shells, the leatherback sea turtle is the largest turtle on earth—reaching up to 7 feet long and weighing up to 2,000 pounds. The leatherback is also one of the most ancient reptile species on the planet, dating back in fossil records up to 100 million years ago. You won’t soon forget the rare experience of witnessing a leatherback sea turtle lay her eggs on Hilton Head’s shores.
Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle. Credit: National Park Service
Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
The rarest and smallest of the four local species, the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle is also the world’s most critically endangered sea turtle. Kemp’s Ridleys will often travel hundreds of miles to return and nest on the same beach they were hatched from. Because of their critical status and dwindling numbers, protecting these turtles’ nests and hatchlings have become a huge priority in recent years.
Where are the common nesting areas on Hilton Head?
All four species of turtle nest along sandy beaches, mostly on the southeastern shore of the island. Although there are some small beaches nestled along the shore facing Port Royal, very few turtles nest in this area. You can find an overview of popular nesting areas in Hilton Head here, and the page is also continuously updated with nesting data specific to our area. You can check in daily to watch the numbers of nests rise, or maybe even use the map to catch a glimpse of a nesting turtle yourself! Before you go looking for sea turtles as they journey onshore, it’s important for your safety and for the conservation efforts of these vulnerable reptiles that you follow all established guidelines while searching for and viewing sea turtles.
How can I safely view sea turtles?
If you spot a sea turtle on the shore, be sure to stay at least 30 feet away, giving it a wide berth to travel to and from the water. Do not approach or attempt to touch a sea turtle, as they have the capability to deliver a painful bite if provoked. Additionally, if a human disrupts a nesting sea turtle’s path, she may become disoriented or travel back to the water without laying her eggs (called a “false crawl”). Some may even become stranded and die due to debris or obstacles on the shore.
As a good rule of thumb, don’t go venturing into sand dunes during nesting season. Although these make great locations to view nesting turtles or see nests from afar, there is a risk of walking upon an unmarked nest. Sea turtles often prefer to nest in dunes with grass, as the grass indicates that they have reached past the tide line and have found a more protected location to lay their eggs. Keep on the lookout for signs of a sea turtle nest by identifying their tracks in the sand, as pictured in the image below.
If you see an unmarked nest or crawl marks, do not walk over any portion of it. Sea turtle tracking volunteers use these marks in the sand to monitor and mark new nests each morning.
If you spot a nesting turtle or hatchlings at night, do not use a flashlight or cell phone, as artificial light can disorient the turtles and cause them to lose their way or begin traveling in the wrong direction. In fact, it is possible that a white t-shirt or pair of white tennis shoes can reflect enough light to confuse turtles. Beachfront properties are also required by law to eliminate artificial light after 10pm, including light that comes from inside the home. Many homeowners have installed automated blinds to help comply with this new law, which has likely led to the dramatic increase in successful nestings on Hilton Head Island.
In light of the recent pandemic, we must also advise you to observe proper social distancing when viewing sea turtles or hatchlings. This amazing natural phenomena has been known to draw a crowd of onlookers on public beaches. Be sure to keep at least six feet of distance with onlookers outside your immediate family or group.
If you see a confused, injured, or dead turtle or hatchling or observe anyone attempting to disturb a turtle or nest, call the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ 24/7 hotline at 1-800-922-5431.
What else can I do to help sea turtle conservation locally?
An indirect way that you can assist nesting sea turtles is by reducing litter on Hilton Head Island. Sea turtles often confuse trash bags, balloons, or similar items for their favorite foods—jellyfish, crabs, or seaweed. As you can imagine, garbage can be hazardous or even deadly to these reptiles. Help conservation efforts by picking up and properly disposing of any trash that you see.
Another way to assist sea turtles and prevent strandings is to fill in holes and collapse sand structures on the shoreline. These holes and structures can be deadly to nesting sea turtles or hatchlings as they make their way to and from the water.
Hilton Head’s oceanic wildlife is one of the many things that naturally draws people to its sandy shores. If you’re looking to embrace the Lowcountry’s rich culture, coastal views, and diverse wildlife, we hope you’ll consider calling Hilton Head “home.” Give us a call at 843-757-7712 or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be happy to help you find your perfect corner of our Lowcountry paradise.
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