Every sea turtle nesting season has its memorable moments. As my role evolves, I look back on all the seasons that have prepared me for the next. Now that 25 years have passed since my first sea turtle patrol on Hilton Head Island, I feel like I should know what to expect. However, an animal that has evolved for 80 million years has lessons for a lifetime. I will never know it all, and I am constantly amazed.
Some of my awe stems from watching others react to the information given at Turtle Talks. Other instances arise when those who happen to be in the right place at the right time see a hatchling making its way to the ocean or an adult loggerhead finishing her nest at sunrise and are obviously overwhelmed. Not all wildlife has this effect on people.
For me personally, the 2022 nesting season was memorable in a novel way. My focus is usually only on sand, numbers, temperature probes, supplies, reporting, etc., but I had to look up this season to address the attention to our program that had quickly exceeded my expectations.
It began with the dedication of nest No.1 to Scott Liggett and the debut of our new video funded by the town’s Accommodation Tax Grant. Shortly after, Sea Turtle Patrol HHI received national recognition on NBC’s TODAY Show on May 20, 2022. A film crew and cast from California, Atlanta, and New York were enthusiastic when they witnessed the discovery of nest No.5. When anchor, Dylan Dreyer saw a freshly laid sea turtle egg for the first time, she said, “Oh my gosh; oh wow. It’s so special, it makes me feel …like … proud.”
She took the words right out of my mouth, even though I have seen it thousands of times. When joined by the rest of the cast, Craig Melvin announced that the sea turtle was the “unofficial mascot of Hilton Head Island”—certainly an honor for Hilton Head Island, because the sea turtle is an ambassador for the ocean, a majestic title.
Then, on June 11, social media influencers, “The Bucket List Family,” joined us for sea turtle patrol. They were very humble when we dedicated a nest on their behalf and grateful when they received a turtle bag filled with small tokens such as the Myrtle the Loggerhead Turtle book, Mermaid of Hilton Head LIGHTS OUT! turtle book, stickers, etc. for the kids. They thanked me via text which allowed me to alert them when a sea turtle was nesting in front of their beachfront rental during their stay. I was honored to personally introduce them to one of our loggerheads, and they included the experience in their production for 2.6 million followers: youtube.com/watch?v=2_jFqktu2U0&t=303s.
In addition to the television and social media recognition, I realized that I was being watched on the beach. Several children had begun to recognize the Turtle Truck and interact with us. Some were residents and some were visitors. They began to call us by name and ask us to explain what we were doing.
I’ve never had a child dress up like me for Halloween, but there is a first for everything. I am assured it was a compliment. I have never thought of myself as a role model, but as we raise awareness, we become representatives. I hope that I can live up to this honor.
Despite the fact that my head was not constantly in the sand, over 100 loggerheads (complete 2022 DNA results still pending) and one green sea turtle had laid 423 nests (second highest season) on HHI between May 5 and August 6, resulting in a record emergence success (hatchlings emerging from the sand, 76%) on Hilton Head. Congratulations to 18 Sea Turtle Patrol HHI staff members who relocated 241 nests (57%), marked and gauged the success of each one while hundreds of Turtle Tracker volunteers “put the beach to bed” each night, referring to their efforts to fill holes, clear trash from the beach, flatten the sand, and educate beachgoers.
To prepare for each season, I consider the successes and the failures pertaining to all things sea turtle. This experience includes human interactions/interruptions: artificial light from beachfront homes and flashlights, personal property/trash left on the beach after sunset, holes left unfilled, and physical interactions with this endangered species. We can use this data to engage tourists.
For example, 19 nests were affected by artificial beachfront lighting in 2022; approximately 2,000 hatchlings perished in the dune. It is unfortunate, but it is an improvement over the 28 nests affected by artificial beachfront lighting in 2021. Our environmental awareness education campaign to improve beach etiquette has proven results if we are persistent, recognizing our failures to ensure our successes.
It is difficult to enforce municipal codes/beach ordinances on 14 miles of beach 24 hours/day. We must continue to attract and educate tourists with our message. The next generation is watching.
If you are local and would like to learn more about sea turtle preservation on HHI, several opportunities will be offered and announced on our website. Training sessions will be held March-April 2023 and will be free of charge at USCB HHI Campus.
For more information, visit www.SeaTurtlePatrolHHI.org.