Sea turtle conservationists and volunteers walked the beaches of South Carolina's barrier islands for months tracking nests, moving ones in risky places and counting the number of eggs three days after the clutches hatched. Here's what they found:
In 2010 nests: 3,141 loggerheads, six green and three leatherback
In 2009 nests: 2,183 loggerhead, one green, three leatherback
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Sea turtles laid eggs in nearly 1,000 more nests on South Carolina's coasts this year than last year, indicating a decades-long decline might be leveling off, conservationists say.
Volunteers and conservationists who walked the state's beaches at dawn each morning from May through October reported 3,150 nests, most of them loggerhead turtles.
That's a jump from 2,187 recorded last year and does not include nests on remote beaches observed from the air.
Once they reach maturity, at 25 to 30 years of age, female loggerheads create an average of four nests in different places during the season, with about 113 eggs in each. But they also nest in cycles of two years, three years or even more, which leads to natural fluctuations in the number of nests.
That hasn't quelled the excitement of those involved in the effort, though.
Amy Tressler of the Coastal Discovery Museum, who manages Hilton Head Island's Sea Turtle Protection Program, said staff counted a record 239 nests on the island's beaches. The second highest number was 218 nests in 1999.
"Hopefully, the increase in numbers means that the protection project is paying off," she said. "We're not entirely sure, but we hope."
Despite the increase in nests over last year, according to DNR data, nesting has declined about 1.3 percent each year during the agency's 30 years of nest monitoring. Dubose Griffin, DNR sea turtle coordinator, said this year's numbers don't indicate a positive slope just yet, but show that the steady decline has diminished.
Griffin said the number of eggs that hatch, however, has risen since the monitoring program began because of management practices such as relocating nests that risk being trampled or washed away. Only 10 percent of unattended eggs make it through incubation, while the vast majority that are monitored become hatchlings, she said.
Some suspect the latest increase is caused by hatchlings that were helped by conservationists in the beginning of the 30-year program that have reached maturity and are returning to nest on barrier islands.
Karen Whitehead of Friends of Hunting Island, who has helped organize turtle teams to walk the beaches of the island, was one of more than 1,100 volunteers statewide who counted broken eggshells this year as part of the project. The island was host to 111 nests, including its first leatherback turtle, although its eggs were unfertilized.
"It was a very successful season," Whitehead said.
DNR asked volunteers' to track their hours and miles for the first time this year and will use the figures to receive matching federal dollars. Of the 1,100 volunteers, 391 reported back. They dedicated 21,922 hours to conservation efforts and drove 66, 286 miles. Their time and travel allows DNR to apply for $1.1 million in grants, Griffin said.