26 Sep 2023
Loggerhead turtles are beloved around these parts, and for good reason. These magnificent creatures - also known by their Latin name Caretta caretta - are gentle giants of the sea who nest on area beaches, including right here on the Isle of Palms.
Loggerhead nesting season is going on now. It runs from the beginning of May through the end of October. Usually the first nest appears here on the IOP around, appropriately, Mother’s Day.
Recently, an incredible story of one IOP loggerhead mama made the news, and it’s worth sharing. More about her in a minute.
Tough Times for Turtles
Not that long ago, loggerhead turtle numbers were in a pretty bad decline. Much of it was due to us humans and our manmade issues - things like boat strikes, pollution and loss of natural habitat.
Thankfully some other caring humans stepped in to help - like good folks at the South Carolina Aquarium here in Charleston, its new Sea Turtle Care Center, the SC Department of Natural Resources, and especially the local Island Turtle Team, who are “boots on the ground” early each morning during nesting season. Made up of intrepid volunteers like IOP’s beloved nature expert Mary Pringle, the Island Turtle Team are the true heroes and crusaders for Caretta caretta.
Lights Out for Loggerheads
Researchers began studying ways to help ensure the loggerheads’ survival. They realized artificial light sources along the beaches were causing the young hatchlings to get confused as they left the nest. They mistook the artificial lights for the moon shining over the water… crawling in the wrong direction, toward the houses instead of out toward the ocean.
So SCDNR came up with the idea of, “Lights Out for Loggerheads.” Basically, it says that any exterior lights in your beach house that face the ocean, be turned off between sunset and sunrise during turtle nesting season.
Soon towns and municipalities got on board, and it’s now an official ordinance in places like the Isle of Palms on down to Hilton Head Island.
Thankfully, loggerhead nesting numbers are rebounding quite nicely. The South Carolina coastline, which is just 190 miles in length, is now home to over a thousand nests each year.
But there’s one particular loggerhead mama who has really captured the spotlight.
DNA Testing is for Turtles, Too
DNA testing has been all the rage lately with people, and it’s having a big moment with other creatures, too.
Several years ago, Island Turtle Team members headed to the International Sea Turtle Symposium, where they met someone with a brilliant idea. Dr. Brian Michael Shamblin of the University of Georgia presented a paper about using genetic testing on loggerhead eggs to help in sea turtle research. Basically, a mother loggerhead leaves behind some cells of her own on the inner lining of the eggshells she lays in her nest. He suggested testing for DNA and then cataloguing the population along the Atlantic Coast.
It was a brand new theory, and Team members jumped on board, ASAP. They were able to secure some federal grant money for the project. And incredibly, they have been able to test every single loggerhead nest on the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island for the last 13 years.
CC002992 - One Amazing Mama!
One here’s the kicker - a single female loggerhead, known in the DNA testing as CC002992, has laid 30 nests (!) on the Isle of Palms since 2011.
Almost every one of her nests was on the northern tip of the IOP, near Dewees Inlet and Ocean Point in Wild Dunes.
The Turtle Team keeps wonderfully detailed records. They know the exact location, total number of eggs, and hatch rate for each one of her 30 nests.
And She Has Daughters, Too...
The story gets even better. She has produced six daughters, who have also come back to lay nests. I’ll let Dr. Shamblin explain in his own words…
“She has six daughters that have started nesting since 2018… All six are nesting nearby but one as far away as Ocean Isle, North Carolina… What’s even more incredible is that all six are full sisters – they share the same dad. Given the size of the population, we think it is unlikely that the same pair of loggerheads would mate across breeding seasons, so we suspect that all six of these turtles hatched the same year… It is extremely difficult to measure survival in juvenile sea turtles, but we suspect that most hatchlings that make it into the water likely perish before their first birthday… It may take a female’s entire lifetime to produce a daughter to replace herself in the population.”
Three of her daughters are nesting on a regular basis on Dewees Island right next to the Isle of Palms, on nearby Capers Island, and on Pawley’s Island just up the coast. Extraordinary!
Guess she knew a good thing when she found it… and now her daughters know, too. The Isle of Palms is a special place, indeed… worth coming back to again, year after year.
your Isle of Palms vacation blogger