An amazing thing happens every summer on Hilton Head Island's beaches. An ancient mariner, the loggerhead sea turtle, emerges from the shimmering water of the Atlantic, and crawls ashore to lay her eggs in a sandy nest.
It may take her over an hour to excavate a perfect nest with her rear flippers. Then the mother turtle, weighing several hundred pounds, deposits approximately 100 ping-pong sized eggs into the nest, covers them with sand and returns to the sea.
After about 60 days a cluster of tiny hatchlings emerges from the sand and scrambles to the ocean to begin a long dangerous journey.
The loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), like all sea turtles, is a reptile and is related to land turtles, lizards, and snakes. Adapted to live in the ocean, loggerheads have powerful flippers instead of legs and an aerodynamic body and shell which enables them to move elegantly through the sea. loggerhead turtles are a federally threatened species.
What does the loggerhead look like?
The loggerhead has a massive skull and a body weighing 250-400 pounds and reaching up to 4 feet long! Like all sea turtles, loggerheads have front and rear paddle-like flippers that function similar to the wings of an airplane providing propulsion through the ocean. The upper shell of the loggerhead, called the carapace, is usually a reddish brown color, and the lower shell, called the plastron, is dull brown to yellow. The two shells are composed of horny plates called scutes.
Where do loggerheads live?
Loggerheads can be found in temperate and subtropical waters throughout most of the world. Adults usually stay close to shore, while juveniles float in the open ocean. Loggerheads prefer to feed in coastal bays and estuaries or in the shallow water along the continental shelves of the Atlantic ocean. Loggerheads live exclusively in the water, and the females only come on land to lay eggs (males typically don't come ashore).
What do loggerheads eat?
Loggerhead sea turtles are primarily carnivorous and feed mostly on shellfish that live on the bottom of the ocean. They have powerful jaw muscles and strong beak- like jaws which they use to eat hard shelled animals such as horseshoe crabs, whelks, and clams.
What about nesting?
Loggerhead sea turtles nest on the beaches of Hilton Head Island and other southeast beaches between May and August. An adult female will nest once every two to four years, coming to shore 4 and 6 times per season to lay eggs. Nesting typically occurs at night - the female crawls slowly to a dry part of the beach and begins to excavate a pit with her flippers. Once the cavity has been dug she deposits an average of 120 eggs. Using her rear flippers, she then covers the egg cavity and throws sand over the nest to disguise it from predators. When the work is done, the female slowly returns to the sea.
What about the hatchlings?
About 60 days after the female lays her eggs, the small turtles begin to hatch. They use a sharp tooth to break open the shell. All of the hatchlings join together to dig out of the nest, a job that can take several days. During the cool night, the 2 inch long hatchlings emerge from their sandy nest and scramble toward the sea. It is during this run to the sea that many hatchlings fall prey to waiting predators. Once in the water, hatchlings swim several miles off shore where they catch ocean currents. The hatchlings stay in the open water for several years before returning to nearshore waters.
Why are loggerheads threatened?
The life of a loggerhead sea turtle is difficult. It is estimated that only 1 of a few thousand hatchlings survive to adulthood. There are many reasons for this, some natural, some man-made. Each year thousands of turtles become entangled and drown in fishing nets. Thousands of turtles are killed each year when they mistakenly eat trash and debris. By following some of the guidelines on this page, we can all help ensure that the loggerhead sea turtle remains an integral part of the ecology of Hilton Head Island.
Remove beach litter
Balloons, plastic bags, foam, fishing gear and other non-degradable litter can cause the deaths of many sea turtles who mistake them for food.
Observe from a distance
If you encounter a nesting turtle, do not shine any lights on or around her - she may abandon her effort to nest. Do not use flash photography. Stay behind the turtle so that she cannot see you.
Do not harass a turtle
Don't touch or prod her to move. Stay out of the way as she crawls back to the water.
Leave nest sites alone
If you see a nest, don't disturb it. leave any identification markers in place.
Report injured turtles
Call to report dead or injured turtles.
The most important way you can protect Hilton Head Island's loggerhead sea turtles is to turn the lights out!
Sea turtle hatchlings usually emerge from the nest at night. They orient themselves toward the brightest horizon and dash towards the sea. Visible lights from buildings or streets near the beach disorient the hatchlings, and they wander inland where they often die. If they don't make it to the ocean quickly, hatchlings will die of dehydration in the sun or be caught by predators like birds and crabs. Artificial lights also discourage females from nesting.
The Town of Hilton Head Island requires that lights on structures visible from the beach be shielded or turned off after 10 p.m. from May 1 to October 31. Any windows facing the beach must also be covered with draperies or shade screens.
Remember, lights out for turtles!
To report a dead or injured sea turtle contact:
Sally Krebs -(843)341-4690
Beach Patrol - (843)785-3494
To report light violations contact the Town of Hilton Head Island Code Enforcement Officers:
Connie Pratt - (843)341-4642
To report wildlife offenses contact the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources - 1-800-922-5431