Thursday, April 26, 2018

Ride the Tide

 Last summer I had the opportunity to conduct conservation research with the Sea Turtle Conservation Project at Hunting Island State Park. I grew up volunteering with conservationists on the sea islands of coastal South Carolina and witnessed first-hand the destructive power of nature, poor resource management, and habitat fragmentation. Hunting Island, South Carolina is a sub-tropical barrier sea island that harbors a 3.2 km saltwater lagoon and an ocean inlet – both critical shorebird habitats and home to hundreds of species of wildlife, including approximately 15,000 sea turtle visitors, annually. Lucky me; it’s in my backyard.

In conjunction with citizen scientists from Friends of Hunting Island (FOHI), we identified and monitored active nest sites of several species of threatened or endangered sea turtles. I learned to distinguish between green turtle (Chelonia mydas), diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin), and loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) tracks and nesting sites throughout the season (May-September). Occasionally a turtle would lay her clutch too low on the beach and we would have to move it to a safer location, above the high tide water line. Because turtle sex is temperature dependent, we meticulously excavated these nests using egg cartons so that each of the 100-120 eggs and their exact placement could be accurately mapped to avoid altering the naturally occurring sex ratio. Finally, we planted wire mesh around each nest site to prevent predation from scavengers or accidental destruction from human visitors during the fragile 70-day gestation period. All we could do then was monitor and educate park visitors – and hope.

One evening, I was invited to spend the night monitoring the beach for crawls (new nests). Around 3AM, I stumbled across a fresh set of tracks and quietly followed them up the beach towards a dune. As it turned out, it made little difference. The nesting mother had created a veritable sandstorm from her noisy digging and impeded my approach. I turned my headlamp setting to its red setting to avoid alarming her, and when she rested briefly, it quickly became obvious that she was entranced in egg-laying. I observed quietly, counting each egg, until she began burying them. After an hour she finally began the long haul back to the ocean. Watching her descend back into the black waters, I wondered at the event I had just witnessed.

Witnessing a nesting event is special, but I had not expected to be present for a hatching. Early one morning, finally came the call over the radio that our first nest was hatching. Rangers, interns, and FOHI citizen scientists piled into the UTVs and sped through the pre-dawn to the nesting site on North beach. The sand was roiling, a sure sign that the hatchlings would emerge at any moment. Waiting without interfering was one of the most challenging moments of my life. Finally, tiny loggerhead sea turtles began appearing, clumsily climbing from the nest. As we flanked the dune to guide the hatchlings towards the ocean, the feeling of solidarity was indescribable.

Once the hatchlings made it safely into the water, we began excavating the nest for DNA samples. As a barrier island, Hunting Island incurs a vast amount of erosion each year from storm surges, flooding, and hurricanes. One of the primary conservation concerns was that young mothers might not be able to locate proper nesting sites due to habitat degradation. Thus, we salvaged egg shells from the hatched nest to genetically identify individuals, perhaps trace sea turtle lineages, and collect data that could help determine rates of nesting site fidelity. The thought of positively impacting these fragile populations is reason for hope. 

Returning to Clemson last fall, I was determined to branch out and find other like-minded marine conservationists. I found that refuge in Dr. Childress' behavior lab and in Conservation of Marine Resources. It was here that I began to understand how to manipulate acoustic telemetry data, how to analyze communities from reef surveys, and how to synthesize and present research to a variety of audiences. Throughout the semester, we struggled and debated and crunched our way through massive data files, but in the end, working with other passionate conservationists was a pure pleasure.  

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