SCUTE, or South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts, is a group of volunteers dedicated to sea turtle conservation in Georgetown and Horry counties. Organized in 1990, SCUTE is permitted by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to protect and, if necessary, relocate turtle nests as well as record turtle deaths through the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network.
SCUTE coordinates volunteer efforts to preserve quality nesting habitat and to monitor nests. The group also works to control beachfront lighting which disorients nesting female turtles and hatchlings. Hatchlings will follow the brightest light and therefore they do not make it to the ocean. In the past three years, thanks in part to the efforts of SCUTE, Georgetown County and the town of Pawleys Island have passed ordinances to limit beachfront lighting along their beaches. Beachfront lighting has been minimized in some areas of Horry County as well.
On average, SCUTE records 100 plus loggerhead nests with more than 12,000 eggs along Horry-Georgetown beaches. Volunteers estimate that about 70 percent of the eggs hatch. A limited number of hatchlings reach adulthood, which takes 30 plus years. These low odds make the SCUTE / Santee Cooper preservation effort essential to loggerhead sea turtle survival in South Carolina.
Santee Cooper has worked with organizations like SCUTE since 1990 to preserve and protect loggerhead sea turtles. Santee Cooper supports the efforts of SCUTE by shielding lights and working to raise awareness about sea turtles through a public education program. Santee Cooper provides free colorful “Lights Out” bumper stickers to remind property owners and visitors to turn off beachfront lights after 10 p.m. during nesting season. Throughout the nesting and hatching season, SCUTE volunteers distribute information to beach users who express an interest in turtle conservation. For more information on the loggerhead sea turtle, contact SCUTE at (843) 237-9821 or (843) 235-8755 or Myrtle Beach State Park at (843) 238-0874.
To learn more about Santee Cooper’s involvement with SCUTE, contact your nearest Santee Cooper retail office.
About the Sea Turtle
The loggerhead sea turtle, whose scientific name is Caretta caretta, is South Carolina’s official state reptile. The turtles nest on beaches from North Carolina to Florida. In South Carolina, the loggerhead is a threatened species, which means that they are likely to become endangered, or threatened with extinction, within the foreseeable future.
Adult loggerheads average 200-300 pounds and may grow up to 5 feet in length. Their nesting and hatching season is May 1 to October 31. During this time, females crawl ashore, dig an egg chamber with their rear flippers in the sand (usually on a well-drained dune) and then lay their eggs. The same turtle may lay several nests with more than 100 eggs each from May to mid-August.
The eggs hatch after 6-8 weeks. In a combined effort, the hatchlings dig out of their nests late at night and scramble toward the ocean. Because hatchlings head for the horizon with the greatest illumination, they often confuse artificial lighting along the oceanfront with the natural glow of the moon and stars reflecting off the waves. This mistake can be fatal for the young turtles who become trapped in vegetation in the dunes, are hit by cars, or are eaten by predators. Those that remain on the beach at daybreak may die from dehydration.
What you can do
Keeping our beaches safe for nesting turtles
- Turn off beachfront lights after 10 p.m. during nesting season May 1 to Oct. 31. Remember, indoor lighting can be harmful as well.
- Beach walkers are encouraged to join South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiast’s reporting network. For more information, call (843) 237-9821 or Huntington Beach State Park at (843) 237-4440.
- Call your local Santee Cooper retail office to have outdoor beachfront rental lights shielded.
- Visit Santee Cooper retail offices in Pawleys Island, Garden City, Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach to pick up bumper stickers or light switch stickers.
Observing nesting female turtles
Female loggerheads are skittish out of the water. If the turtle is scared away from one nesting site, she may attempt to nest further down the beach or return the next night. If her attempts are unsuccessful, she may dump the eggs in the ocean or select a poor nest site. To observe a nesting turtle without deterring her from coming ashore:
- Avoid interfering with or crowding around a turtle that is crawling to or from the ocean.
- If a female turtle is seen coming on the beach to nest, squat down and remain still. Movement will cause her to return to the water without nesting.
- Once the female turtle begins laying eggs, you may move a little closer to the rear of the turtle to watch.
- Minimize beachfront lighting and nighttime beach activities, both of which might prevent sea turtles from coming ashore.
- No flashlights, flash photography or other lighting devices should be used while observing the nesting turtle
Protecting turtle nests
Although female turtles lay hundreds of eggs during each nesting season, volunteers estimate that about 70 percent of eggs hatch. A limited number of hatchlings reach adulthood, which takes 30 – plus years. Predators eat many eggs; others are stolen by poachers or washed away by beach erosion. To help protect nests and eggs:
- Keep clear of all turtle nests and report them to SCUTE at 843-237-9821 or 843-237-4440 or Myrtle Beach State Park at 843-238-0874.
- If a nest is located below the high tide mark or in a high traffic area, the nest will be relocated. Only SCUTE volunteers are permitted by the state to probe or move turtle nests or hatchlings.
- Nests will be protected with mesh screens to keep out predators. Do not disturb marked or screened nests.
- Avoid walking in nesting areas because the turtle eggs may be crushed if you step on a nest.
- Contact the S.C. Wildlife Department at 1-800-922-5431 if you see someone disturbing a sea turtle or nest.
Aiding stranded turtle hatchlings
Hatchlings usually dig their way out of the nest late at night and head toward the surf. Lighting along the oceanfront will disorient the hatchlings and cause them to head inland instead of toward the ocean. To help these small turtles reach the ocean safely:
- Minimize artificial beachfront lighting during nesting and hatching season, May 1 to Oct. 31, and encourage beach visitors and hotel and building managers to shield lighting.
- If you see hatchlings emerging from the nest, do nothing if they head toward the ocean on their own.
- Hatchlings will dehydrate in the heat of the sun and will die if they can’t make it to the ocean. If a stranded hatchling is found, help it get to the water by placing it just at the edge of the surf to allow it to rehydrate. It will then make its own way out to sea. Do not carry a turtle hatchling out into the water.
- Avoid walking in nesting areas because hatchlings may become trapped in footprints.
Reporting dead turtles
Once they enter the ocean, sea turtles are at risk from many dangers such as fishing nets or lines, boat propellers and predators. Turtles are also poached for their meat, shells, or skins, and of course they die from natural causes. If you spot a dead turtle on the beach:
- Do not move or disturb the turtle or any tags that may identify it.
- Report the dead turtle and its location to the S.C. Wildlife and Marine Resources Department or to SCUTE.
- Ask others not to move or take parts of the turtle carcass such as the skull and shell because all adults, hatchlings and eggs are protected by state or federal laws.