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Sea Turtle Monitoring at Waties Island

by Fuss

Waties Island is ALIVE with a prehistoric reptile right now!

Many organisms make this island and its surrounding waters their home throughout the year, but now is the time for the sea turtle to visit this 2.7-mile undeveloped barrier island. Sea turtles – loggerheads being the most common in South Carolina – are nesting on the island now. As of July 27, there were 17 confirmed sea turtle nests on Waties and close to 3,700 along the coast of South Carolina.

Under a special permit from S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), 45 volunteers monitor Waties Island daily for signs of these protected species. Beginning May 1 and continuing until the last nest of the season hatches, usually in September or October, daily teams begin their morning before 6 a.m., searching for adult female tracks during nesting season (May to mid-August), followed by tiny hatchling tracks later in the summer into early fall.

What makes this dedicated group rise before the sun? Amanda Painter, Coastal Carolina University marine science senior, wakes at 4:30 a.m. to meet her walking group. She enjoys “the satisfaction that you get from knowing that you are helping a population of sea turtles, and also knowing that you are helping to better understand the species.”

A confirmed nest is shielded by a cage and marked with identifying information. Data such as nest location and nesting adult track width is collected. After about 60 days, the 100-120 eggs (on average) hatch. Volunteers search for tiny tracks indicating the emergence of the hatchlings. Once these 3-inch reptiles reach the ocean, they swim continuously until they find shelter and food in huge mats of floating sargassum seaweed. 

Several days after hatchlings emergence, the volunteers perform an inventory on the nest that includes counting the hatched and unhatched eggs. They may get a rare chance to see live hatchlings that lag behind the others. All of this data is recorded and sent to SCDNR, the agency that has been monitoring sea turtle nesting activities and strandings since the late 1970s. 

The SCDNR sea turtle nesting permit for Waties Island is held by Karen Fuss, environmental educator at the Burroughs and Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies.

“Volunteers are the ones responsible for the program’s continued success and smooth running," says Fuss. "Each one of these dedicated individuals is extremely important to the daily monitoring and data collection, and the program would not continue without their time and efforts.” 

These volunteers include a mix of retirees, some working adults and several college and high school students. Ashley Ruis, senior marine science major at CCU, reports that one of her highlights this season was when her mother and brother joined her. “I was really excited that I got to share with them what I do every week and why I do it! My brother was really excited when he saw the eggs.” 

Lead volunteers Barb and Steve Demusz might sum up the Waties Island monitoring experience best. “We feel very fortunate to be able to work on this project in such a beautiful natural setting. Waties Island is a very special piece of undeveloped property, and we're really happy that CCU is maintaining it that way.”

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