Loggerhead Sea Turtles

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Cape Island is home to the largest nesting population of turtles within the northern subpopulation of the southeastern loggerhead sea turtle. Cape Island is the northernmost barrier island in the refuge and is situated between the Santee Delta and Bulls Bay along the north central South Carolina coast. The island is accessible by boat from McClellanville, SC.

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The northern sub-population, or nesting aggregation, consists of those loggerheads which nest from North Carolina to around Cape Canaveral, Florida. These turtles are isolated from all other nesting turtles in the southeast based on genetic studies involving mitochondrial DNA. Cape Romain's barrier island beaches are the most significant loggerhead nesting areas north of Cape Canaveral. Earlier years have averaged 1000 nests annually; however, with nest records in recent years, the average number is climbing. In 2017, 1,973 nests were recorded; in 2016, an initial record was set with 2,521 nests and, in 2019, 3,596 nests were recorded on refuge islands. 

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Loggerhead Hatchling Emergence Video



The Nest Recovery Project

Loggerhead sea turtle nest monitoring and management activities began in 1979 with the listing of the species.

Presently, management activities each nesting season include:

  • Locating nests and false crawls
  • Relocating nests when necessary
  • Caging nests
  • Recording daily minimum and maximum temperatures and daily rainfall 
  • Inventory of nests 
  • Participation in the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network
  • Genetic Sampling   
Loggerhead Hatchling Trek Video

Early research on loggerhead sea turtles began on Cape Island in the late 1930's by Junior Refuge Manager William Baldwin. Baldwin, along with Wildlife Technician John M. Lofton, conducted surveys of the nesting loggerheads at what was then known as the Cape Romain Migratory Bird Refuge. Their research included data on loggerheads such as biology, migration, and status of the population. The information contained in their manuscript, dated 1940, contained some of the first ever data published concerning sea turtles. The document is still regarded as very valuable.

Although nesting on Cape Island begins in early May, the work on the project begins earlier in the year. Refuge staff and volunteers ready all terrain vehicles and tow trailers, and prepare marking poles and caging for in situ nests (those which are left in place) and those moved to prevent washout. As assessment of shoreline erosion is a necessity in an effort to estimate placement of relocated nests. An evaluation of the predator population is also important since predators may have a substantial impact on freshly laid nests as well as emerging hatchlings.

Once nesting begins, the crew (usually a team of five to seven) goes into a rigorous schedule of nest and false crawl location, nest relocation, caging, and monitoring. This demanding work program endures long, hot days in the Carolina sun, afternoon thunderstorms, biting flies, and mosquitoes. The crew at Cape will monitor nesting and evaluate characteristics of nests all summer long. This includes bi-monthly surveys of in situ nests, paying close attention to flooding, erosion and washover, disturbance of any kind, and hatching productivity.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Nests
Loggerhead Nest Incubation Temperatures in Hatchery Nests vs in situ Nests
Loggerhead Nest Incubation Temperatures in Hatcheries

Other Local Agencies Involved in Loggerhead Sea Turtle Recovery:

South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program

To help ensure sea turtles have a future in our oceans, the South Carolina Aquarium uses its facilities to aid sick and injured sea turtles through its Sea Turtle Rescue Program. When an unhealthy sea turtle is found along the coast, it is brought to the Sea Turtle Hospital by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, where staff and volunteers monitor and provide treatments and rehabilitative care. When deemed healthy enough to survive on its own, the turtle is returned to the ocean where it can rejoin the sea turtle population. The Sea Turtle Rescue Program supports the Aquarium's conservation mission not only through sea turtle rehabilitation but also offers award-winning programs and exhibits, Hospital behind-the-scene tours, and outreach programs to promote sea turtle conservation, protection, and education.

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Dewees Island

Since 2008, private donations from the Dewees Island Property Owners Association has supported interns to assist refuge staff with the nest recovery program. With the help of these interns and a cadre of volunteers, staff members are able to continue the complete survey and nest protection of Cape, Lighthouse and Bulls Islands.  

Folly Turtles

SCDNR Turtles

NOAA Fisheries Turtles

Volunteering for the Loggerhead Program

Contact Tricia Midgett, volunteer coordinator for the refuge at 843.928.3264 x210 or email patricia_midgett@fws.gov. Our volunteers are vital to the success of the nest relocation project. June, July, and August are the busiest months of the turtle nesting season.

Nest Numbers for Cape Romain

Follow the number of loggerhead sea turtle nests at Cape Romain. Go to seaturtle.org and follow the link from "Sea Turtle Nesting" to South Carolina's Program. You will find nests for Cape, Lighthouse and Bulls Island. And, you can "Adopt-A-Nest" in support of our nest relocation project!

Facts About Loggerhead Sea Turtles

Common Name:Loggerhead - named for its exceptionally large head.

Scientific Name:Caretta caretta

Carapace is a reddish-brown with a yellowish-brown plastron. Hatchlings have a dark-brown carapace with flippers pale brown on margins.

The Loggerhead can measure up to 1.1 meters (3.5 ft) long when fully grown and can weigh approximately 135 kilograms (300 lb).