By Joanne Voulelis, Lowcountry Master Naturalist, Coastal Discovery Museum Docent
Summer visitors come in all shapes and sizes from both the land and the sea. Two of our largest visitors during summer months are Sea Turtles and Manatees. Sightings of Manatees here on Hilton Head have increased significantly. According to Dr. Al Segars, SCDNR, there were 77 sighting reports in 1993 versus 157 in 2016. Why the increase? Warmer ocean temperatures. Because manatees have no blubber, they require water to be at least 62 degrees. Manatees are found in shallow coastal areas and rivers. People are drawn to manatees because of their size (800-1200 lbs.), their unusual appearance (the “sea cow”) and because they are curious and docile mammals. But please, don’t touch them, feed them (they are herbivores) or water them. Manatees have no natural predator in the wild, but humans contribute to their threatened status. When well-meaning folks put water hoses on their docks to attract manatees (they require fresh drinking water to survive), they are inadvertently endangering their welfare by encouraging them to swim near marinas. Boat strikes are the number one cause of injury and death. Habitat loss from waterfront development also impacts their survival. If you should sight a manatee, please contact the SCDNR with that information (www.dnr.sc.gov).
Our more common summer visitor is the loggerhead sea turtle (although an occasional green or leatherback may be found nesting on our beaches). A record high 411 nests were identified during the 2016 season, despite the beach renourishment project. Unfortunately, some nests were lost to Hurricane Matthew. Our turtle patrol worked round the clock last year and deserve both our gratitude and our continued support in keeping our turtles and their nests safe. Recently beachgoers have seen nesting sites along the 12 mile stretch of beach. Each nest will be cordoned off with orange tape and a “do not disturb” sign attached.
Sea Turtles remain on the endangered species list. You can help Sea Turtles by doing the following:
Lights out from dusk to dawn: Turtles, both adults and hatchlings, need to return to the ocean. They typically emerge at night and use the brightest light over the horizon to guide them. If there are competing lights on the beach, they will get confused and become vulnerable to predators, exhaustion or dehydration. Turn off visible lights in ocean front buildings and do not use flash photography or shine flashlights near a turtle. Please, only use a red flashlight.
Flatten sand castles: As hatchlings make their way to the ocean, it is helpful if they have a clear path. Hatchlings are small enough to fit in the palm of a hand so it is difficult for them to navigate over or around a sand castle.
Fill in holes: It is fun to bury your friend (or little brother or sister) in the sand, but fill in the hole before leaving the beach so hatchlings do not fall in and get stuck. Otherwise, it becomes a cereal bowl for birds and other predators.
Don’t leave trash or cigarettes on the beach: If trash is ingested by a turtle, it can prove dangerous. Some Sea Turtles eat jelly fish; plastic bags, for instance, can look like dinner, but can be fatal if it becomes stuck in a turtles’ air passage. Moreover, if a turtle ingests lots of trash, it mistakenly believes it is full and will not seek nutritional food sources. This could cause starvation.
Observe from a distance: Should you be lucky enough to be on the beach during a hatching frenzy, please do not interfere with a hatchling’s journey to the sea. Also, do not attempt to touch or prod a mother turtle to move.
Adopt a Nest: All proceeds go to maintain the Sea Turtle Protection Program (firstname.lastname@example.org)