Land & Conservation

A Sea Turtle Survival Story

A resilient hatchling is one of just three to make it out of a flooded nest in South Carolina

photo: Valerie Solze

The hatchling makes its way to the ocean after heavy rains swamped its nest.

The sea turtle team on South Carolina’s Hunting Island thought Nest 7 was a lost cause after heavy rains left it underwater three weeks ago. “I just thought, this is a drowned nest, and we are going to find a bunch of dead eggs,” says Chris Crosley, the president of Friends of Hunting Island, a conservation nonprofit. “But darn if Mother Nature doesn’t surprise you.”

Crosley was out patrolling the beaches on August 1, just days before Hurricane Isaias was to pass by, seeing if any new nests needed to be moved or reinforced before the storm arrived. Nest 7 was on the schedule for inventory and removal; after the seventy-five-day incubation period had passed, there wasn’t much hope that any hatchlings would emerge. 

“But, sure enough, after the first or second handful of sand, there he was,” says Crosley. “Out comes a hatchling. And he was a sturdy little guy!” Since the other eggs did not hatch, the turtles weren’t able to work together to rise up out of the nest. “He was having a hard time, because nobody was there to help him, and the sand was wet,” explains Crosley. Of the 145 eggs in the nest, 142 never hatched. Two hatched and made it out unnoticed by the sea turtle team, leaving the “only child” to be discovered by Crosley. 

photo: Chris Crosley
The nest was laid on May 16.

Flooding is a common threat to sea turtle nests. The wind speed of hurricanes and tropical storms isn’t usually a problem, but a nest can’t survive being underwater for long. And, Crosley says, a nest can’t be moved unless it is done within twelve hours of being laid, as jostling the turtles makes the mortality rate not worth risking a relocation. 

“There is really not much we can do,” says Crosley. “We are under permit to let nature be nature…and this is why a sea turtle lays hundreds of eggs.” After Hurricane Isaias hit, the sea turtle team at Hunting Island estimates they lost between twenty and sixty of their 132 nests. Loggerhead MarineLife Center in Juno Beach, Florida, a hotspot for sea turtle nests, reported that the area lost more than 1,000 of its 15,000 nests, and losses were similarly heavy on other East Coast beaches that took a pummeling in Monday’s storm. 

In the face of those losses, the emergence of the little fighter in Nest 7 is heartening. “He made it out before Isaias,” says Crosley. “It wasn’t rough yet, and he had two days to get out to deeper water.” As with all sea turtle hatchlings, the odds are overwhelmingly against him. But, then again, he has a track record of beating the odds. “We watched him all the way to the water, until he disappeared,” says Crosley. “I like to think he made it.”