In This Section

Protection of Loggerhead Turtles focus of program Coastal

September 5, 2000

More than 1,000 loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings have made it safely into the waters off Waites Island, S.C., this summer thanks to a little help from their friends at Coastal Carolina University.

The Loggerhead Sea Turtles Protection Program sponsored by the Center for Marine and Wetland Studies at Coastal is in its seventh year of monitoring and preserving sea turtle nests on Waites Island. South Carolina has the second highest number of loggerhead nesting areas in the United States, following Florida. The U.S. federal government has listed the loggerhead as a threatened species worldwide.

"The decline of the female sea turtles populations is a result of the exploitation of their eggs and adults, destruction and alteration of their habitat and the indirect capture and killing in fishing and shrimping nets," said Eric Koepfler, program director and associate professor of marine science at Coastal.

The loggerhead turtle nesting period takes place from May through September. Female turtles, which reach reproduction age between 20 to 30 years old, will usually lay several nests during one season and may nest every two to three years. Each egg chamber, which the female carves in the sand with her rear flippers, contains an average of 120 flexible eggs about the size of ping pong balls.

It takes roughly 60 days for the eggs to hatch. The hatchlings will emerge at night and then travel to the brightest light source which, in pristine environments, is the light reflecting off the ocean. In areas with extensive beachfront development the hatchlings may be attracted to lighting away from the ocean. It is estimated that only one in a 1,000 to one in 10,000 hatchlings make it to adulthood. Waites Island has about six to 15 nests per season, which would result in just one hatchling reaching maturity, according to Koepfler.

Each season around 20 Coastal students as well as faculty and community volunteers assist in the research and monitoring of the nests.

"Our objective is to find nests and, when necessary, relocate them to less dangerous locations," said Koepfler. 'The nests are then covered with screening for protection. Once the eggs hatch, the nests are surveyed to determine the hatching success rate.'

According to Koepfler, the gender of sea turtles is determined by the incubation temperature that is experienced during the first third of the incubation process. Low temperatures produce females while higher temperatures produce males.

Coastal's sea turtle protection program works closely with South Carolina's Department of Natural Resources and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Waites Island, one of the few remaining undeveloped stretches along South Carolina's Atlantic coast, provides 1,062 acres of pristine barrier island and a natural laboratory for extensive study in marine science and wetland biology for Coastal students.