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Born free: Baby sea turtles hatching along SC beaches

Three loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings make their way to the ocean after being discovered by South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts (S.C.U.T.E.) volunteers during a nest inventory on Garden City Beach. Thousands of loggerhead sea turtles are hatching on Grand Strand Beaches this month. S.C.U.T.E. volunteers conduct nest “inventories” three days after spotting signs that a nest has hatched. The volunteers count the number of eggs hatched, take DNA samples, and usher any stranded hatchlings to the ocean. The inventories are also opportunities to give “Turtle Talks” to spectators about proper conservation practices such as turning lights out along the coast and cleaning up area beaches.
Three loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings make their way to the ocean after being discovered by South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts (S.C.U.T.E.) volunteers during a nest inventory on Garden City Beach. Thousands of loggerhead sea turtles are hatching on Grand Strand Beaches this month. S.C.U.T.E. volunteers conduct nest “inventories” three days after spotting signs that a nest has hatched. The volunteers count the number of eggs hatched, take DNA samples, and usher any stranded hatchlings to the ocean. The inventories are also opportunities to give “Turtle Talks” to spectators about proper conservation practices such as turning lights out along the coast and cleaning up area beaches. jlee@thesunnews.com

Monitoring 18 loggerhead sea turtle nests in the heart of the busy summer beach season is quite a chore for Linda Mataya and other members of the North Myrtle Beach Sea Turtle Patrol.

Mataya and Rob Kayton are co-leaders of the group that keeps close tabs on sea turtle nesting activity, which generally occurs from early May through mid-August each year and just happens to coincide with the time when human traffic is the heaviest on the beaches.

The NMB Sea Turtle Patrol monitors the beaches from Cherry Grove to the Briarcliffe area. Nine of the nests are on the North Myrtle Beach beaches, the other nine located on the small stretch of beach at Briarcliffe.

Four of the nests have hatched, the most recent of which took place late Friday night. Mataya said the fourth nest will be inventoried on Tuesday to gather a host of information, including how many eggs were in the nest and how many hatched, and to check if any hatchlings are remaining.

With 14 more nests each containing about 120 eggs still to hatch and the end of the nesting season fast approaching, hundreds of hatchlings will emerge from the nests located just above the spring high tide line in the next few weeks and make their way into the surf.

The group runs into all sorts of problems – from both humans and wildlife – in helping ensure nature is able to take its course for the nesting turtles, the eggs in the nest and then the hatchlings.

Humans have a natural fascination with sea turtles, but that fascination is best served from a distance.

Mataya recalls a late-night incident in mid-June when a loggerhead sea turtle was laying her eggs in a nest on the beach adjacent to Shore Drive on the north end of Myrtle Beach. Patrons from a popular nearby bar stumbled upon the spectacle of nature.

“They were putting beer cans on her back (while she was laying the eggs),” Mataya recalled, not so fondly.

As the hatching season reaches a peak, Mataya encourages onlookers to just watch and not interfere if they find hatchings heading for the sea.

“People just need to stay back and respect them,” she said. “It’s OK to watch them. Nests are hatching all over the place. People just need to leave them alone. They don’t have any trouble finding the water.”

Numerous animals have a taste for turtle eggs, giving patrol members another threat to keep an eye out for.

Despite the urban nature of North Myrtle Beach, a fox has been snooping around a few of the nests this summer but doesn’t appear to have damaged any eggs. Mataya says coyotes have also been spotted in the area, but have not bothered the nests thus far.

“We’ve had challenges here,’’ Mataya said. “We try to monitor them the best we can. When I know it’s over 50 days, and they have a 50 to 75 day period of incubation, I check them every night and stay around until dark when activity (on the beach) decreases.’’

The first three of the nest hatchings, which invariably occurred at night, went well.

“All three were very successful,’’ Mataya said. “There was no disorientation and (the hatchlings) all went right to the water.’’

Two occurred unnoticed overnight and were discovered the next morning, with tiny turtle tracks headed to the surf one tell-tale sign.

Another hatching occurred at night on Monday, July 27.

“We were there, and we had probably 50 tourists watching,’’ Mataya said. “We have to make sure people don’t shine lights on them, take pictures with flashes or mess with them.’’

While the patrol group spends plenty of time and energy on nesting activity, members are also involved in rescuing stranded sea turtles.

Mataya has a permit from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources allowing her to transport alive or dead sea turtles when a stranding occurs and is the go-to person when a stranding occurs along the Grand Strand.

Such an event occurred on May 6 when the crew at Ocean Watersports, located near Third Avenue South in Myrtle Beach, found a green sea turtle struggling in the surf and called Mataya.

The turtle was in a weakened state, emaciated and was covered in barnacles, thus earning the name Barnacle Bob.

Mataya transported Barnacle Bob to the South Carolina Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital in Charleston.

Staff at the Sea Turtle Hospital consider Barnacle Bob to be the most emaciated turtle ever admitted to the facility. The turtle has recovered very well but is still currently being treated for a joint infection on one flipper.

In August 2014, the same Ocean Watersports crew found another turtle in distress, which Mataya transported to the Sea Turtle Hospital.

The loggerhead, named McAdoo, appeared to have been hit by a boat propeller and had been attacked by a shark. After more than nine months of rehab in Charleston, McAdoo was released on June 8 at the Isle of Palms.

“Not all of them survive once they reach the hospital – they’re usually in such bad shape when they’re found,” Mataya said. “The ones they can save like Barnacle Bob and McAdoo are our success stories.’’

Mataya and her husband, Charles, retired to Cherry Grove in 2001 and became involved in sea turtle protection and rescue in 2006. In 2010, the North Myrtle Beach Sea Turtle Patrol was formed.

She urges the public to consider the impact trash left on the beaches or allowed to enter the ocean has on sea turtles and other marine species. Specifically, plastic or rubber items such as water bottles or balloons are very harmful to turtles that ingest them.

“Balloons and plastics are a problem with turtles,” Mataya said. “If you bring it onto the beach, take it off the beach.”

For more information on the North Myrtle Beach Sea Turtle Patrol, visit www.nmbturtle.blogspot.com.

Gregg Holshouser: 843-651-9028, wholshouser@sc.rr.com

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