Nearly two hours before dawn Wednesday, the beaches on Hilton Head Island are empty.
The only sounds are of sloshing waves and the low hum of two all-terrain vehicles whose riders scan the 12 miles of beach for loggerhead hatchlings.
This is a banner nesting year on Hilton Head, where 199 nests have been discovered. It is the second largest nesting season since 1985 – the year the local Sea Turtle Protection Project began.
Loggerheads are setting records statewide and they're laying eggs in large numbers in North Carolina as well. Across South Carolina, more than 3,000 nests have been found and numbers are up in Georgia and Florida. But those numbers don't guarantee the species' continued survival.
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Despite strong nesting, biologists warn the population of these rare turtles, which can weigh up to 300 pounds and live to be 100 years old, is still at risk.
The federal government is considering reclassifying loggerheads from threatened, the category they have occupied for 30 years, to endangered, said Barbara Schroeder, national sea turtle coordinator at the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“We have been concerned about the overall decline in nesting numbers over the past decade,” Schroeder said. “The nesting numbers this year seem to be a little better (in the Southeast U.S.).” Nests usually hold about 120 eggs.
Hatchlings remain in the nest about 50 days.
Changing the status depends on a global review of the species, which is currently under way.
Carlos Chacon, natural history manager at the Coastal Discovery Museum, said the change would “step up preservation.”
The museum and the Town of Hilton Head Island manage the local protection project, which sends patrollers to search and mark every nest from May through July.
Later in the season, patrollers mark nests where turtles are about to hatch with green ribbon. They check it after three days. If hatchlings are stuck inside, they help the animals make their way to the water. Patrollers also collect DNA samples from the eggs or dead turtles.
That helps researchers track nesting patterns.
At a nest on Folly Field Beach, Chacon digs two feet into the sand.
A number of hatchlings emerged from this same nest Friday, but six of the tiny creatures weren't quite ready for the wider world, said Sarah Skigen, patroller and natural resources associate for Hilton Head.
“Yeah, they are ready now,” Chacon said as he pulled out a hatchling the size of a child's palm.
But he only finds five hatchlings. There's a crab hole nearby, which likely accounts for the missing turtle. There are other dangers. The hatchlings use each one another's shoulders to push their way out of the nest. Some get left behind or don't hatch at the same time.
As he picks up the loggerheads, they move their flippers as if swimming and lift their heads every so often, the way they will at sea when they breathe.