The phone call came in around 11 Thursday morning. “Amber, I’m calling to make sure that you have prepared for the storm.”
I recognized the Charleston area code—it was SCDNR (South Carolina Department of Natural Resources)—and I knew that I had to come up with some sort of informed report. I had been in denial…maybe the storm will fizzle out or maybe it will move west. This can’t be happening after all that we have been through this season with the beach renourishment project on Hilton Head.
I panicked a bit as I thought to myself, “I still have 89 nests incubating on the second largest barrier island on the Eastern Seaboard! How am I supposed to attend to all of them in the next eight hours?”
Our discussion closed with special permissions granted to relocate nests in danger of washing away, but I was doubtful that an effort that large could be accomplished in such a short amount of time.
“Get in the car,” she said. “To the beach—NOW.”
We gathered our rain gear and cranked the Turtle Gator (the John Deere Gator used for HHI Sea Turtle Patrol). We stopped at the first nest in South Forest Beach and found evidence of hatchlings six inches below the surface, waiting for the perfect moment to emerge. Little did they know that Tropical Storm Hermine was approaching.
The hatchlings had left their shells at the bottom of the nest and we both knew from past experience that the storm surge would drown them if we didn’t release them quickly. Storms Joaquin and Erika came late in the 2015 nesting season and the beach was sparse with sea turtle nests. This storm was much larger and far too early!
The wind was picking up and the tide was coming in fast.
We wore our Buffs©, but the sand was stacking up in our hair and ears anyway. One down, 80-something to go. Even the eternal optimist was a bit overwhelmed after the third hour. Our progress was inadequate. We just couldn’t move fast enough, so I decided to text an APB to my staff: “Storm coming. Need assistance on the beach. Call if you can help.”
Four texts came in immediately and their assignments were given. A sense of pride soothed my angst and hope was renewed. However, nests had to be prioritized. Even with five people on the beach, we would not get to all of them. All nests that had shown some sign of emergence were dug up and inventoried and any hatchings alive in the nest were released at the water’s edge.
Nests that had passed 70 days of incubation (overdue, 60-day incubation is average) were also inventoried so that we could collect the data that we needed.
Poles marking these nests would not stand up to the crashing waves and the information would be lost.
Gathering data and hatchlings from soon to be emergent nests progressed. Fourteen nests revealed live hatchlings ready for release and five nests were painstakingly moved to even higher ground.
It is risky to move an incubating sea turtle egg. Any harsh handling and the embryo will not survive. They need to be warm, dry and still. It was dark and the rain started to be consistent at 10. This was the rallying hour when all hands were to be off the beach, regardless of accomplishments.
Just in time for the heavy rain and lightning bolts, we made it back to the car.
Sandy, wet and exhausted, we felt that it was our best effort. The next morning, we rested as the storm continued to wreak havoc. A total of 39 nests had been evaluated and nests selected to remain in place survived the storm.
There were no losses to storm surge—just near misses. I can honestly say that I will never beat Mother Nature, she will just let me win from time to time.
Hilton Head Island had a record breaking 2016 nesting season with a grand total of 411 nests on 15 miles of beach. The previous record was in 2013 with 339 nests. Despite extreme heat, tropical storms and heavy equipment on the beach for the renourishment project, the HHI Sea Turtle Patrol documented a successful hatching season. Congratulations and thank you to the 10 members of the HHI Sea Turtle Protection Project Staff and to all who have supported the project.
For the latest nesting news on Hilton Head Island and in South Carolina, visit seaturtle.org.
Story and photos provided by Amber Hester Kuehn, HHI Sea Turtle Protection Project Manager.