Loggerhead Sea Turtles


 

The loggerhead sea turtle, our state reptile, has a rich reddish-brown carapace and yellow plastron. The loggerhead's large skull provides for the attachment of strong jaw muscles for crushing conchs and crabs. Loggerheads usually leave the cold coastal waters in the winter and are often seen along the western edge of the Gulf Stream. The major nesting area for the loggerhead in the western Atlantic is the southeastern United States. In South Carolina, the primary nesting beaches are between North Inlet and Prices' Inlet, but other beaches in the southern part of the state also have moderate nesting densities. These are mainly undeveloped nesting beaches between Kiawah Island and Hilton Head. The nesting season runs from mid May to mid August. The average clutch size in South Carolina is 120 eggs. The average incubation duration is 55 - 60 days. The loggerhead is the most common sea turtle to strand in South Carolina and the nesting population has declined three percent per year since records began in 1980.

On July 28, 1978, the loggerhead sea turtle was designated as threatened. In 1988, a fifth grade class in the town of Ninety Six thought that if the loggerhead turtle was the state reptile, it would bring more attention to the plight of this threatened species and perhaps help conservation efforts. They wrote letters to their state Senator, Mr. John Drummond who introduced a bill in the legislature. They also came as a class and displayed a banner from the balcony of the Senate. The bill passed on the last day of the session.

 

Globally, there are seven species of sea turtles, four of which naturally inhabit South Carolina's nearshore coastal waters and inshore estuaries from April-November. These four species are the loggerhead, Kemp's ridley, leatherback and green sea turtles. All species of sea turtles are either listed as endangered (a species that is in danger of becoming extinct) or threatened (a species that is likely to become endangered) and are protected by international, federal and state laws. Please refer to the web pages on each of these species for more specific information.

 

Nesting

Loggerhead nesting season runs from May-October. Nests are laid on all barrier islands in South Carolina. Loggerheads comprise the majority of sea turtle nesting in the state while Kemp's ridleys, leatherbacks and greens are infrequent nesters. There are two components to the nesting season: nest laying (egg deposition) and hatching. Loggerheads lay nests from May to mid-August while hatchlings emerge from the nests (after incubating) July - October. An adult female loggerhead emerges from the ocean at night and lays a nest with an average of 120 eggs. The eggs incubate 55 - 60 days. One individual female loggerhead will lay ~ four nests per season with two week intervals between each nest. She will nest (reproduce) approximately every 2.5 to 3 years. So one individual female does not nest every year. This interval between nesting seasons creates a natural fluctuation of high, medium and low nesting years. Since the nesting fluctuates from year to year naturally, it is difficult to assess nesting population changes over the short-term. Please refer to the Sea Turtle Nesting page for more information on long-term nesting trends. Members of the SCDNR Sea Turtle Nest Protection Projects manage, monitor and inventory nests that are laid. See more on this below.


Lights Out for Loggerheads

The support of South Carolina coastal residents is needed more than ever to raise awareness and educate our visitors to Keep Light's Out for Loggerheads.  The loggerhead (Caretta caretta) sea turtle nesting season is May through October.  Nesting occurs on the beaches of South Carolina's barrier islands. From May to mid-August, loggerheads come ashore to deposit approximately 120 eggs in a nest cavity in the dry sand dune system.  Sixty days later, loggerhead hatchlings emerge from the nest at night and head to the ocean.  Nests hatch from July through the end of October.  During the nesting season, loggerheads may be disoriented by artificial lights.  A disorientation event occurs when artificial light from man-made sources leads turtles away from the ocean.

To date in South Carolina, 34 disorientation events of loggerhead hatchlings have been reported to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Marine Turtle Conservation Program.  This is compared to 23 in 2008. These disorientation events may have affected as many as 4,080 hatchlings (based on the average of 120 eggs in a nest).  The causes of these disorientations include streetlights, gas station hood lights, city sky glow, exterior lights on commercial establishments, high density dwellings and beach front homes, including pool lights.  People on or near the beach carrying flashlights or lanterns, bonfires, and landscape lighting can also disorient loggerhead hatchlings.

When loggerhead hatchlings emerge from the shell, they are attracted to the blue and green wavelengths of light which are naturally reflected off the ocean through celestial light. They use this natural light cue to navigate from the nest towards the ocean.  This same mechanism is used by adult females when nesting. If an artificial light source on the beach is brighter than the natural light, the hatchlings will head towards this artificial source.  These artificial lights can be a direct source such as a beach front home's exterior flood light or a street light; the artificial light can also be indirect, light pollution that creates a sky glow effect.

When a hatchling sea turtle is attracted away from the ocean towards a direct or indirect source of light, biologists describe this as a disorientation event.  The hatchlings become disoriented and crawl away from the ocean towards the brightest light. During this disorientation event, hatchlings are more susceptible to nocturnal predators and desiccation.  While crawling the wrong way on the beach, hatchlings exhaust valuable, limited energy stores needed to swim offshore.  Hatchlings need energy once they reach the ocean to swim towards floating Sargassum seaweed found as far as 60 miles offshore. They use the seaweed as camouflage to protect them from predators.  The seaweed is also home to small crustaceans that loggerhead hatchlings eat to replenish their energy.

Loggerheads are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and are protected by federal and state laws. The loggerhead nesting population in the southeastern United States is continuing to decline and it has been recommended that this species be reclassified from threatened to endangered.  If a sea turtle hatchling is disoriented by artificial light, the maximum federal fine for harming a threatened species is $25,000. County and local lighting ordinances exist to protect sea turtles.  To see a list of lighting ordinances in South Carolina, please visit: http://www.dnr.sc.gov/seaturtle/volres/ordinances.pdf.  Violating local or county lighting ordinances carry fines up to $500.

As coastal development continues to increase, the number of disorientation events will also rise. If sea turtle friendly light fixtures and bulbs are used, this increasing trend can be reversed.  Sustainable development allows for sea turtles and people to coexist in the beachfront communities.

 

Protecting Sea Turtles in South Carolina

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Marine Turtle Conservation Program is responsible for managing and protecting sea turtles in the state of South Carolina, USA. This program has several all encompassing components: management, monitoring, research, and education. More specifically this program provides technical expertise on anthropogenic activities that have the potential to impact sea turtles (i.e., nourishment, dredging), locates and protects sea turtle nests (~300 km of coastline), documents strandings, performs necropsies on fresh dead strandings, works with the SC Aquarium to provide rehabilitation for live strandings, monitors nearshore waters for leatherbacks, and provides as much education, outreach and exchange of scientific information as time allows.

The SCDNR began monitoring sea turtle nesting activities and strandings in the late 1970s. Information gained from this program contributes to ongoing sea turtle nest management and protection projects on all of the state's beaches.There are approximately 300 kilometers of ocean-facing sandy beaches in South Carolina that provide suitable nesting habitat for sea turtles. To date, loggerheads, green turtles, leatherbacks and rarely Kemp’s ridleys sea turtle nests have been recorded on South Carolina beaches. By far the most common nesting species is the loggerhead. In South Carolina, nesting surveys and nest protection measures are carried out by a variety of public agencies such as the SCDNR, USFWS, South Carolina Department of Parks and Recreation and Coastal Carolina University. Several private organizations and numerous volunteers are also actively involved with sea turtle protection work.Altogether, more than 800 individuals participate in nest monitoring activities in South Carolina each year. Results from all South Carolina sea turtle nesting beach projects are submitted to the SCDNR and compiled for the State and made available to federal agencies. These data are crucial in monitoring populations, formulating protective regulations, making management decisions, and maximizing reproduction for recovery.


Current Nest Count

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Marine Turtle Conservation Program is responsible for managing and protecting sea turtles in the state of South Carolina, USA. This program has several all encompassing components: management, monitoring, research, and education. More specifically this program provides technical expertise on anthropogenic activities that have the potential to impact sea turtles (i.e., nourishment, dredging), locates and protects sea turtle nests (~300 km of coastline), documents strandings, performs necropsies on fresh dead strandings, works with the SC Aquarium to provide rehabilitation for live strandings, monitors nearshore waters for leatherbacks, and provides as much education, outreach and exchange of scientific information as time allows.

The SCDNR began monitoring sea turtle nesting activities and strandings in the late 1970s. Information gained from this program contributes to ongoing sea turtle nest management and protection projects on all of the state's beaches.There are approximately 330 kilometers of ocean-facing sandy beaches in South Carolina that provide suitable nesting habitat for sea turtles. To date, loggerheads, green turtles, leatherbacks and rarely Kemp's ridleys sea turtle nests have been recorded on South Carolina beaches. By far the most common nesting species is the loggerhead. In South Carolina, nesting surveys and nest protection measures are carried out by a variety of public agencies such as the SCDNR, USFWS, South Carolina Department of Parks and Recreation and Coastal Carolina University. Several private organizations and numerous volunteers are also actively involved with sea turtle protection work.Altogether, more than 800 individuals participate in nest monitoring activities in South Carolina each year. Results from all South Carolina sea turtle nesting beach projects are submitted to the SCDNR and compiled for the State and made available to federal agencies. These data are crucial in monitoring populations, formulating protective regulations, making management decisions, and maximizing reproduction for recovery.

Beginning in 1980, approximately 12 aerial surveys were flown each year for three years followed by two non-survey years. Estimates for the non-survey years were extrapolated from ground data based on six index beaches. These six beaches represent a mean of 40% of the nesting effort over a 15 year period. Therefore, on the non-survey years, ground data was used to estimate the remaining 60% of the nesting effort.

The data presented here should be considered preliminary in nature. All data, figures and maps on this website remain copyright of the project coordinators and may not be used or referenced without the explicit written consent of the data owners.

The other main management component of the program is sea turtle stranding response. All four species of sea turtles mentioned above strand in South Carolina. A sea turtle stranding is one that washes up alive or dead on the beach. The majority of strandings are dead when they wash up. SCDNR stranding network members collect standardized data on these strandings. See more on this below. If the stranding is fresh, the stranding is salvaged by SCDNR for necropsy. If the turtle strands alive, SCDNR transports the sea turtle to the SC Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program. SCDNR issues a permit that authorizes the aquarium to provide rehablitation to these sick or injured animals. After successful rehabilitation, these animals are released back into the wild.

Our program publishes a semiannual newsletter entitled Loggerheadlines. This newsletter offers more detailed information on current sea turtle news in South Carolina and along the southeastern United States. Current and archived issues are available on the Loggerheadlines page.

SCDNR permits, trains and manages 21 sea turtle nest protection projects along the coast. Permits are also issued to individuals that serve on the South Carolina Sea Turtle Salvage and Stranding Network. These two groups of individuals make up a small army of about 800 and provide relentless support of the Marine Turtle Conservation Program. For more information, please visit our Volunteer Program page. Individual project web sites are also available on this page.

When including SCDNR information in an article or news clip, please promote our program by referring the public to our sea turtle web site: http://www.dnr.sc.gov/seaturtle/. They can also promote our program by purchasing an endangered species license plate. Information about this plate is available on the South Carolina DMV web site: http://www.scdmvonline.com/VehPlateSpecialty.aspx. Finally, the public is encouraged to report live healthy sea turtles here: http://www.seaturtle.org/istor/. For dead, injured or sick sea turtles, please contact the SCDNR Hotline at 1-800-922-5431.