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May 1, 2023

Project Turtle Watch, Established 1981

Celebrate Hilton Head Magazine

Photography By

Amber Hester-Kuehn
The 2023 sea turtle nesting season officially begins on May 1. Hilton Head Beaches have been monitored for sea turtle nesting for over 40 years. Not many sea turtle nest monitoring programs can claim to have the very first member currently on staff. Her name is Nanci Polk-Weckhorst, and she rejoined Sea Turtle Patrol HHI […]

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The 2023 sea turtle nesting season officially begins on May 1. Hilton Head Beaches have been monitored for sea turtle nesting for over 40 years.

Not many sea turtle nest monitoring programs can claim to have the very first member currently on staff. Her name is Nanci Polk-Weckhorst, and she rejoined Sea Turtle Patrol HHI in 2018. I think she would agree that the program has come a long way since 1981 when she rode her bicycle up and down the beach, responding to reports from a few volunteers and members of the community that were trusted to call her when tracks were spotted on the beach.

Nanci Polk was a beautiful 30-year-old, Charleston native, competitive surfer girl, with a degree in marine biology, living on a pristine island with her handsome boyfriend, later husband, Jerre Weckhorst. It’s interesting how some things never go out of style.

That first year, 41 nests were marked. In the report, it was noted that nine nests were poached, or taken for food. Some were washed away by the tide, and a raccoon predated another. However, the purpose of the monitoring in those days was simply to discover how many sea turtle nests were laid on HHI rather than to determine the hatching success. This type of monitoring was compared to strandings (dead sea turtles) which were also counted to collect data necessary to regulate the shrimp trawlers with the implementation of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs). There were 37 strandings in 1981 to match 41 nests.

The balance of sea turtle survival on HHI was critical, and the vital information collected in the state was the push for federal regulations to protect sea turtles from fishing practices that decimated the population as bycatch. A crusade led by Sally Hopkins (Murphy) and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and supported by volunteers on seven reporting South Carolina beaches in 1981 pioneered these regulations that were enforced a decade later and can be attributed for saving our loggerhead population.

Nanci and Amber Hester- Kuehn

In 1982, Charles Frazier’s Sea Pines Beach Conservancy funded the nest monitoring program, and 44 nests were laid on this beach; 15 of these hatched. The rest of the island documented 30 nests for a total of 74 sea turtle nests laid on HHI, accompanied by 21 strandings. I am qualified to guarantee that sea turtle populations rotate nesting activity on a two-year interval, and the turtles were not paid to show up. Obviously, this sector of the population was more robust. It was noted that the nest marking poles were frequently removed by the public, and bright lights disoriented many hatchlings.

The first lighting ordinance was introduced on Hilton Head Beach in 1990 and was recently updated in March of 2021. Decades of data collection become impetus for passing municipal ordinances, but some things never change.

In 1983, 73 nests were laid, and 14 stranded sea turtles were documented.

In 1984, Sea Pines Beach Conservancy continued to support Project Turtle Watch in preparation for a potential beach renourishment permit from the state. Thirty-three nests were laid in Sea Pines, 19 of which hatched. There were 40 additional nests on the island for a total of 73 nests and 13 strandings. Based on current biological theory, we can assume that some of these nests were laid by the nesting females present in 1981.

The increased nesting density could be due to more consistent methods of data collection or recruitment based on the slight progress in the crusade for Best Fishing Practices. Even more consistent and noted in the annual report was pole removal and hatchling misorientation due to beachfront lights. When Nanci told us that residents did not like the nest marking poles, she was not exaggerating.

Nanci Polk-Weckhorst gently moves a nest that was laid too close to the water.

I should mention that, per usual, with intense daily monitoring and work to be done, there is a village that makes it successful. At the same time, there are typically a few that become the force that keeps it together. Many thanks to Nanci’s assistant Jeff Rupert.

As much as the data collector in me wants to take you through the Loggerhead Lineup by progressive annum, I have a word limit. In 1985 Greenwood Development funded Project Turtle Watch, and Ed Drane served as additional SCDNR permit holder for Hilton Head Island for many years while Nanci focused on marine mammal strandings. Sally Krebs, biologist for the Town of Hilton Head staff, assisted with sea turtle nesting and marine mammal strandings. Changes were coming, and Nanci participated until the demand for her craft, Nan-Seas Custom Canvas became all consuming. She visited the beach to surf and enjoy time with her husband and the young locals whom she inspired with her surfing talent. Meanwhile, her hatchlings were out in the vast ocean where statistically one in a thousand would return to nest in 30 years.

The sea turtle hatchlings Nanci saw leaving the beach in 1981 would potentially lay eggs for the first time by approximately 2011. Coincidentally, Hilton Head Beach experienced a sudden and significant increase in nesting density in 2010. The average nesting density from 1999-2009 was 170 nests. The average nesting density 2010-2020 was 335 nests. That is a 50 percent increase based on the decade before this pivotal year compared to the decade to follow.

The combination of ongoing nest monitoring, poaching enforcement, federal fishing regulations, and public awareness presents a brighter future for the endangered loggerhead population that nests on Hilton Head Island.

I know the level of passion that it takes to keep going when odds are stacked against you for environmental protection. I am fortunate to have been inspired by Nanci’s journey and her dedication to the mission. It is a spark that is unexplained and cannot be extinguished. I have five more years on the beach before my hatchlings return. I’m looking forward to welcoming them home. Thank you Nanci!

Amber Hester-Kuehn is director of Sea Turtle Patrol HHI, 501c3 Nonprofit Permit MTP566.

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