S.C.U.T.E. – Sea Turtle Protection on Pawleys Island
The Town Council of Pawleys Island enthusiastically supports the South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts (S.C.U.T.E.). This non-profit organization was formed in 1990 by Chris Marlow and Jeff McClary in response to the need for better protection of sea turtles that nest on Pawleys Island. Since its beginning at Pawleys, SCUTE has initiated volunteer programs at beaches from Little River to Debordieu.
Mary Schneider is currently the SCUTE coordinator for Pawleys Island. She is supported by 45 local resident volunteers. Under a permit from the SC Department of Natural Resources, SCUTE volunteers serve as stewards to protect the turtles’ nesting habitat and as educators to those who show an interest in learning more about our turtles and how to help them. From May until the last nest hatches, volunteers monitor the beach at dawn each day for signs of turtle activity, whether that be a simple crawl onto the beach, the laying of a new nest, or the evidence of an overnight nest hatch. SCUTE volunteers wear distinctive white tee shirts. You are invited to address any of your sea turtle questions to these volunteers. SCUTE is self-funded by its volunteers. If you wish to provide a donation to further sea turtle protection, SCUTE encourages you to contact the Sea Turtle Rescue Program at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston.
There are seven species of sea turtles worldwide: leatherback, green, loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley, flatback, hawksbill, and olive Ridley. Virtually all turtles that lay nests on Pawleys Island are loggerheads – a species over 150 million years old. Adult loggerheads are 3 x 4 feet in size and weigh 300 pounds (seen in the video above). Every second or third year, they lay 4 or 5 nests a season, each containing an average of 120 ping-pong sized eggs. Nests that are laid in the inter-tidal zone or in areas at risk for foot traffic are carefully relocated by SCUTE volunteers who have been trained and authorized by the SC Department of Natural Resources. You can spot sea turtle nests by their distinctive orange screening and orange signs on nest poles.
In recent years loggerheads have made a recovery despite still being classed as endangered by the US Dept. of the Interior. Nesting on Pawleys Island has increased from an average of 8 nests a year from 1996 – 2001 to an average of 20 nests in the years 2010 – 2016. There was a record number of 24 nests on Pawleys Island in 2016. Loggerhead nests incubate for an average of 60 days with hatching almost always occurring in the coolest/darkest hours of the night. Three days after a hatching is reported by a SCUTE volunteer, the nest is inventoried and its varied contents (hatched shells, live hatchlings, un-hatched shells, dead hatchlings) are reported to the SC/DNR. These inventories are excellent opportunities for the public (particularly children!) to learn about sea turtles and their protection.
Orange Signs on Nest Poles
Informational Talk on the Beach
Inventories on Pawleys Island are always scheduled at 6:00 pm and are announced by a SCUTE notice on this website, on FACEBOOK/SCUTE, and on the door of the Pawleys Island Town Hall. Inventories are often observed by more than 100 vacationers with SCUTE volunteers providing informative talks during the process. Any live hatchlings found in a nest are released on the beach to start their life journeys in the ocean (see video below). After 30 years, the females will return to Pawleys Island (or nearby beaches) to begin their own nesting history. DNA has confirmed that the same turtles return to Pawleys Island over the years, even after foraging throughout the Atlantic sea basin. This is made possible by the incubating turtle imprinting the magnetic coordinates of its birthplace.
Since 2010, SCUTE has been participating in a multi-state (NC, SC, GA) research project, funded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, to identify specific nesting females through their maternal DNA. One egg is extracted from each nest and its DNA analyzed at the University of Georgia. The maternal DNA is unique to that one turtle which allows the tracking of the nests that are laid by each female, and the counting of the number of females that are nesting – in recent years, this number has varied between 12 and 18 unique turtles per year.
How You Can Help Us Help Our Turtles
When you leave the beach each evening, take all of your belongings, and your trash, with you. Balloons and plastics are particularly dangerous because they look like turtles’ favorite food – jelly fish — when floating in the water. And please take down your shelters, beach chairs and tents as they present an entanglement danger to the turtles, and they can create obstructions which frighten the mothers and cause them to leave the beach without laying their eggs.
Everyone likes to dig a hole or two in the sand and build sand castles, but at the end of the day please fill in those holes and take down your castles so that neither turtles nor people fall in them or over them over night.
It is VERY important to have a dark beach in order for the turtles to come ashore and lay their eggs. Artificial lighting disorients the babies and discourages the mothers. After dark, please turn off outdoor lighting and shut curtains or blinds where indoor lighting can be seen from the beach. And do not use flashlights on the beach at night. They are just as detrimental as a floodlight.
If you see a turtle nesting, please respect her needs and leave her alone to take care of Nature’s work — she has an enormous task to accomplish. It’s okay to watch quietly from a distance, but no taking pictures or shining lights in her direction, and certainly do not disturb the nest in any way.
The sea turtles that visit our beaches are all Federally protected, so only individuals with special authorization and training experiences are permitted to touch the turtles (live or dead), their eggs, or their nests; disturbing any sea turtle, its nest or its eggs is punishable under Federal law and carries large fines as well as possible jail sentencing. If you see a turtle on the beach, leave it alone! If it is injured or somehow in distress, call this number, 843-455-1242, and record the nature of the problem and the location of the turtle. A SCUTE coordinator will respond as soon as possible. If it is a mother coming in to lay her eggs, sit quietly at a distance and do not disturb her as she goes about her business.
Things That Are Wrong To Do
All of these present obstructions for the nesting and emerging turtles and can harm them either by entrapment or entanglement.
These bright lights confuse and disorient an adult or hatchling turtle and may cause them to head into dangerous areas like parking lots.
Disturbing or harassing sea turtles is against the law; if you encounter a turtle on the beach, keep others away and call SCUTE leaders for assistance.
Special authorization by the Department of Natural Resources is required for handling baby turtles and the turtle nests. ONLY those who have received special training are permitted to do so; others are subject to disciplinary actions at state and Federal levels.