By Stephen Fastenau
It was a birthday surprise born of a passion sparked years earlier.
Nearly 1,000 miles separate Kaitlyn Roberts’ home of Springfield, Illinois, and the beaches of South Carolina’s uninhabited barrier islands that she has walked this summer. Kaitlyn is a technician with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Marine Turtle Conservation Program, part of a team that works to survey turtle nests and later turtle hatches on the six islands they are assigned.
It was a path set by motion from a childhood visit to a turtle rehabilitation center while on vacation on Topsail Island in North Carolina. From that point, Kaitlyn amused her family by amassing dozens of turtle figurines as she grew up.
She is working her first nesting season since graduating from College of Charleston with a marine biology degree in May.
“Now I love everything about marine biology,” Kaitlyn said. “But turtles are kind of the special place in my heart.”
That’s why she was hopeful, but perhaps not optimistic, about the prospect of seeing her first baby turtle on an outing to Otter Island in early August — on her 22nd birthday.
An SCDNR truck towing a 24-foot Carolina Skimmer pulled into Bennetts Point landing at 7:30 a.m. and the team of Kaitlyn, Meredith Bean and Trevor Proctor began a familiar routine in preparing to launch the boat. They loaded the boat with the necessary supplies that they would later be carrying down the beach: backpacks containing heavy red stakes used to mark the nests, plastic vials for collecting shell samples, latex gloves for handling hatchlings and to prevent contaminating genetic samples, and multiple 32oz water bottles; collapsible metal wire cages used to protect the nests from predators, a small shovel for digging, and an aluminum probe to assist in finding nest chambers.
With Trevor at the helm, the 150-horsepower motor idled out of Mosquito Creek and pushed the skiff down the Ashepoo River to the south end of Otter Island, at the mouth of St. Helena Sound between Edisto Island and the sea islands of Beaufort County to the south.
The team, led by Meredith, makes as many as four trips a week during sea turtle season to conduct surveys of Otter, Pine, Cedar, Murphy, Morris, Bay Point and Sandy Point Islands. The trips begin in about mid-May to locate nests and collect genetic samples, and then later in the summer transition to recording hatching activity to conduct inventories of emerged nests.
Only Otter, Murphy and Sandy Point typically have eggs that go the distance and produce hatchlings, Meredith said, and so are the only islands the team conducts inventories.
Kaitlyn, Trevor and members of SCDNR’s Office of Media and Outreach disembarked on Otter Island to begin surveying while Meredith piloted the boat to check on nearby Pine Island.
Trevor began digging gently with his hands at one of the first nesting sites, feeling for the fluffier sand that chamber where adult loggerhead females lay eggs. There was evidence some of the eggs had been eaten by a coyote, one of the most common predators with racoons that threaten turtle eggs.
Trapping helps limit the number of predators on the 5,000 acre barrier island, but their presence is still apparent in the tracks along the beach.
“For the most part if a coyote has gotten to a nest, it’s all gone,” Trevor said.
The team seeks softer shell samples suitable for DNA testing and, while wearing gloves, places the shredded shell into a plastic vial. The samples are sent to Dr. Brian Shamblin, an assistant research scientist at the University of Georgia who uses the uses the maternal DNA from the egg shell to genetically tag and track which female turtles are nesting and where along the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia.
At the second nest, a lifeless hatchling was the first pulled from the sand. Then came a birthday surprise: Trevor dug a live, wiggling hatchling from the nest and then another.
Kaitlyn crouched and placed a hand over her mouth as Trevor wished her happy birthday and gently set a hatchling on the purple glove covering her other hand.
Eventually, nine live hatchlings were pulled from the nest and briefly contained in an open dry bag until the inventory was complete and Trevor and Kaitlyn could ensure there were no more live hatchlings inside the nest. The hatchlings were then released to crawl for the ocean.
The laughing gulls gathered up and down the beach were a concern. Hungry gulls can easily carry away the small hatchlings and from the air have little trouble spotting their prey.
But each of the turtles reached the water and floated away in the surf without event. The excitement and resulting flurry of phone calls and picture-taking set the excursion back, the mid-morning sun already peeking through the overcast sky with miles of island still to cover.
The hatchlings wouldn’t be the only ones logged on this trip. Another nest inventory revealed eight live hatchlings still in the nest that were also each released to the sea, some having to be helped gently over the heavy wrack line left by the outgoing tide.
“It is SUCH a pay-off to get to conduct a successful inventory where there are so many hatched shells in the nest,” Meredith said later. “It means all the hours and sweat and hard work we put in on the beach during the season actually paid off.”
The team continued walking the beach, with a wary eye toward the maritime forest and the possibility of encountering one of the eastern diamondback rattlesnakes known to inhabit the island. Instead, they saw hermit crabs scurrying through tide pools, numerous sand dollars, and a breathtaking stretch of “boneyard” where trees felled by erosion required walking through ankle-deep water to reach the sand on the other side.
On the way to rendezvous with Meredith and the boat waiting to carry the group back to Bennetts Point, Kaitlyn recounted her path to a position in the turtle program at SCDNR. She said she appreciates how the job incorporates the public and environment and the variety of tasks and specialties within the agency.
“I’ve come to love it,” she said.
Editor’s note: By federal and South Carolina law, sea turtles, their nests and hatchlings may only be handled by SCDNR professionals or volunteer groups working under SCDNR permits.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.