Officials warn against interfering with sea turtle nesting in Myrtle Beach

Officials warn against interfering with sea turtle nesting in Myrtle Beach
A hatching sea turtle (Source: Phil Lanoue Photography)
A hatching sea turtle (Source: Phil Lanoue Photography)

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) – City officials and state park rangers are encouraging everyone to keep your lights off overnight in order to protect the sea turtles. Most mother turtles will finish nesting soon and the prime hatching season will continue through September.

A post on the Myrtle Beach City Government Facebook page states the police department has gotten an increase in reports of people shining lights at sea turtles or even scaring them away. Doing that is potentially life-threatening to the turtles and anyone doing so could face federal charges.

According to the spokesperson with the city, Mark Kruea, 14 turtle nests with more than 1,500 eggs have been found in the city limits so far this season. Once those nests are found, they are relocated to the Myrtle Beach State Park where it is less busy and the sea turtles have a better chance of surviving. Sea turtles are protected by federal law, so you are not allowed to disturb them. That includes shining lights at them, taking flash photographs, or attempting to touch or interfere with them. Federal penalties could include jail time and fines of up to $15,000.

Just down the road from Myrtle Beach State Park, rangers at Huntington Beach State Park have counted 16 nests so far. Rangers are urging everyone to minimize any use of artificial light at night.

"They are protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act. It is literally a crime to harass a sea turtle, take flash photos of it, shine a light in its face – anything that might deter it from nesting or prevent the mother turtle or the hatchling from entering the ocean," explained Mike Walker, the interpretive ranger at Huntington Beach State Park.

Walker explained sea turtles are very sensitive to light, so any lights will draw them away from the ocean, and that means they risk dying.

The park is also participating in a multi-state research project out of the University of Georgia to protect the sea turtle population. In North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia one egg out of every nest is sacrificed. If the rangers can get that egg out of the nest quick enough, Walker explained, they can essentially get a DNA fingerprint of the mother turtle by analyzing the DNA of the internal membrane of the egg. So when the season is over, they'll know which mother turtles laid which nests. And this gives them a much better idea of what the population is like.

Walker said the preliminary results are very interesting. Scientists used to think that sea turtles would always return to the same beach where they hatched to lay their nests, but based on the results that is not always the case. They're also learning more about mother sea turtles' nesting patterns. "Some turtles are putting all their nests in a nesting season in a small limited area on the beach," said Walker. "And then we have one turtle that nested here, and laid a nest in North Carolina, and laid a nest in Georgia. Just literally spreading her eggs all over the southeast."

If you would like to learn more about participating in a public inventory of a nest that already hatched, click here.

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