Ya Gotta Love Turtles: Citizen Science on Steroids

Kiawah Island is one of South Carolina’s densest loggerhead turtle nesting beaches, and as the 2019 season began, the standing record for Kiawah nests in a season was 402.  By the end of the 2019 season, the new record was 575.  With five seasons on sea turtle patrol at Hunting Island under my belt, I moved with my husband over to Charleston County in 2018 and signed up on Kiawah for two shifts each on both nesting and hatching patrols.  I love citizen science, I love teamwork, I love turtles, and I wanted to get my hands dirty.  Kiawah Island Sea Turtle Patrol is all of that and more.  It’s citizen science on steroids.

2019 was a remarkable year for sea turtles along the entire Southeastern coast.  Many have felt (and hoped) that the sea turtle conservation programs that were begun in the 1970s are paying off at last as the offspring of those turtles whose nests were protected from the beginning are now reaching reproductive maturity.   Thanks to citizen science, we now know more than ever about these magnificent creatures, and every season we learn even more.

Kiawah Island Nesting Patrol by Dory IngramOn any given day, Kiawah Island Nesting Patrol consists of five dedicated team members who travel the beach in a truck, beginning in May at dawn on consecutive four day shifts.  Each day is a whirlwind of activity: jumping in and out of the truck, searching for turtle tracks that may lead to a nest, probing to locate the nest cavity, extracting one egg from every nest for DNA studies, marking the nest with stakes, logging in data, and hoping to beat the current season’s standing record for the number of nests in any previous day. My team beat that record on our longest day (six hours on the beach) with nest 469, but there were many more nests to come.

Hatching patrol teams are comprised of two or three volunteers for seven consecutive days per shift.  We meet at dawn and walk an assigned one mile zone to monitor nests.  These volunteers are essentially the boots on the ground, and they notify nesting patrol of any new activity that they encounter.  Existing nests are checked for depredation, wash-overs, and signs of hatching, recording data throughout the process.  When nests begin to hatch, volunteers look for hatchling tracks, search for hatchlings that may have been disoriented, and mitigate any barriers that a hatchling might encounter on its way to the ocean.  Sometimes we find tiny tracks leading to nests that were missed the first time . . . as in one long morning when my hatching patrol partner and I enlisted the aid of nesting patrol in combing a dune field.  After an extensive search, we finally located a so-called “wild nest” on the back side of a dune.

Kiawah Island Hatching Patrol by Dory IngramHere’s where citizen science comes in.  The shell of every egg that is collected by nesting patrol holds the DNA of the nesting mother, and it tells us where, when, and how often each turtle has nested.  Three days after a confirmed hatching, hatching patrol volunteers open the nest, remove and count all contents, and record all data:  the number of hatched eggs, unhatched eggs, and any hatchlings, alive or dead, that remain in the nest.  [Spoiler alert: This can get pretty nasty.]  We release live hatchlings and rebury all other nest contents.  In the process, citizen science informs us about the success rate of every nesting beach, and about the success rate of every nest laid by every nesting turtle.  In fact, because of citizen science, we now know where, when, and how often each nesting grandmother, mother, daughter, and granddaughter returns to nest on our beaches.

Along the way, there are many teachable moments.  Every task, both on nesting and hatching patrol, may and will be interrupted at any time by curious beach visitors, eager to talk to volunteers and ask questions about every aspect of sea turtle nesting, hatching, and conservation.  These opportunities are perhaps as important to sea turtle conservation as is citizen science because public knowledge builds respect for this magnificent and ancient threatened species.

Suffice it to say that sea turtle patrol on Kiawah, or on ANY nesting beach, requires stamina, commitment, patience, and a willingness to get up really early, stay on the beach really late, stay really focused, and get your hands really dirty.  In short, ya gotta love turtles, and ya gotta love citizen science.  And if you’ve read this far, ya probably really do.

To learn more about sea turtle patrol on Kiawah Island, check out this link for contact information: https://www.kiawahisland.org/wildlife/loggerhead-sea-turtles/

 

Dory Ingram and her husband retired from Atlanta to Beaufort in the fall of 2012.  With no scientific background whatsoever, Dory jumped headlong into citizen science in the summer of 2013, when, as a newly minted Lowcountry Master Naturalist, she signed up for the Friends of Hunting Island Sea Turtle Conservation Project, where she was active for 6 seasons, concurrently with her first season on Kiawah.  After a move to Wadmalaw Island in 2018, Dory transferred to the CMNA and soon found herself on the beach at Kiawah Island, where the action never ends.  Dory also serves as a volunteer Conservation Assistant at the South Carolina Aquarium, where she primarily engages in citizen science through organized litter sweeps using the Litter Free Digital Journal.