THE ANCIENT ONES RETURN to Hilton Head Island’s beaches every summer. They are loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta), large ocean dwelling turtles that nest on South Atlantic shores, from Virginia Beach, VA to Florida’s Keys. From mid-May through August, females swim hundreds of miles to the beach, trudge ashore, and lay their eggs. Their saga of life is timeless, dramatic, and sometimes tragic.
Loggerheads and related sea turtles descend from the giant Archelon, a shelled reptile that swam in primordial seas over 70 million years ago. Fossils of these marine beasts have been discovered as far away as South Dakota (once a seabed) and measured 16 feet, beak to tip of the carapace (top shell). The loggerhead is named for its large head, which is covered with scales that really do look like a pine log.
The loggerhead turtle lives in the ocean and lays eggs on coastal beaches. These are dynamic environments, subject to natural disruptions and human conflicts. Loggerheads have perished when trapped in the trawl nets of shrimp boats. Other fishing activities may accidentally kill crabs and jellyfish, which are primary foods for the turtles. Collisions with powerboats and personal watercraft often damage the turtles’ shells, leading to their demise. Floating debris such as fishing line and plastic bags all too often suffocate loggerheads.
Loggerhead turtles nest on the beach from May through August. The female crawls ashore above the high tide line, digs a nest cavity with her hind flippers, lays over 100 ping-pong ball-sized eggs, buries the nest, and trudges back to the water. She may lay eggs up to four more times in a season. But she will not return to protect her offspring. They will hatch 42-75 days later and crawl to the ocean to begin life—if they are lucky. Ghost crabs, gulls and crows, raccoons, and dogs eat the hatchlings. Even a forgotten beach chair may be a lethal barrier for sea turtle babies. If the little turtles do make it into the ocean, they must survive storms and predatory fish.
And then, there are the lights.
When the hatchlings climb out of their nest, they instinctually crawl toward the moonlit or starlight-illuminated ocean horizon. But lights from buildings and homes near the beach confuse the newborns and cause them to trudge into dunes or seaside developments. Here, baby loggerheads perish from dehydration, predators, and even by drowning in swimming pools.
And that’s not all. When female loggerheads come ashore to nest and see bright lights, they instinctually abandon the site and return to the ocean.
How You Can Protect Loggerhead Turtles
The Town of Hilton Head Island “Lights Out for Turtles” program requires that outdoor lighting on beachfront buildings and other structures must be shielded or turned off after 10 p.m. from May 1 through October 31. This regulation also means that all windows facing the beach must be shaded with draperies or screens. Island rental agents and hotels provide information on this requirement. It’s easy, and it saves lives!