Local volunteer group on early morning turtle patrol

Kiawah Island Turtle Patrol volunteers relocating a turtle nest (Emily Landeen/WCIV)

By Sonya

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. (WCIV) - Sea turtle nesting season is in full swing here in the Lowcountry and a nest of turtle eggs is like gold at the end of the rainbow for one group of volunteers on Kiawah Island.

The nesting patrol starts their day bright and early, driving up and down the beach looking for tracks.

"On the flipper there is a little bony appendage that make this mark and the 'V' points in the opposite direction from which she is moving," said Joseph Pezzullo. "Which way did she go in? Which way did she come out? We look for that."

Once they find the tracks, they scope out possible nest locations.

"This is the high tech tool that we use," said Pezzullo, holding up a metal rod about as long as a person's leg with two wooded handles on one end. "This is called a probe and we simply go and attempt to find where that hole is."

And then they start digging until they find the eggs.

"This sand can be as hard cement or very soft, but if you hit that hole -- even if you just hit the edge of it -- it will give way," he said.

Ghost crabs are one of the main predators of hatchlings, but there are also other concerns such as raccoons, coyotes and ants, which is why the turtle patrol monitors these nests on a daily basis.

Another issue that volunteers have to deal with is the location of the nest. Is it high enough on the beach that it won't get overwashed? Is it in a good spot relative to the ocean for the future hatchlings? If the answer is no, then the crew relocates it, which is a very time consuming process.

"We very carefully take the eggs out, count them, make an egg chamber as close as we can to what the nesting females did, put the eggs back in," said Pezzullo.

These nests will be monitored by walking patrols through the summer and into October if needed. Most eggs spend 55 to 60 days in the sand.

"When we find evidence that the hatch has occurred underground then we look for signs of emergence, which would be a depression and/or tracks. And when we are certain we have solid signs of an emergence, that becomes the starting point," said Pezzullo.

After three days, the volunteers dig into the nest to make sure none of the hatchlings got left behind. This is just one of the many steps that these volunteers take to help the turtles.

"They actually do get their hands dirty and they don't mind doing it," said Pezzullo. "They enjoy doing that and we have a wonderful patrol. We have generous support from the town and DNR; they give us the protocols and the directions and everything just works. It's a team effort and it is working here."

And with 200 people helping out, the future hatchlings on Kiawah are certainly in good hands.

There are currently 40 more nests than this time last year and that number is expected to rise. Last year there were 227 nests total. The average is about 140.