S.C.U.T.E. Offers a Helping Hand
By Jackie R. Broach
As the first pink and orange fingers of dawn spread over the Atlantic, a solitary figure crosses the sand and heads for the high tide line. A quick pause for a minute to admire the beauty of an ocean sunrise, then it’s on to the work of the morning.
The individual is a volunteer with South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts, known locally as S.C.U.T.E., and the scene is one enacted along the South Carolina coast every morning from May through September. Rain or shine, hot or cold, these dedicated volunteers get up before first light – some driving up to an hour – to hit the beach in an effort to preserve threatened sea turtle species.
As they take to their assigned portion of the beach, volunteers have several tasks. They act as stewards of the beach, picking up litter and making note of any issues or problems on the beach that may need to be reported to the state’s Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). But their main goal is to seek out tracks.
In the earlier part of the season (May into July), they are looking for adult sea turtle tracks from nesting females who come ashore at night to lay their eggs in the sand. The tracks are called a “crawl,” and they are easy to spot if you know what to look for.
“It looks like a tractor just driven up out of the ocean,” said Jeff McClary, who co-founded S.C.U.T.E. with a close friend, the late Chris Marlowe, back in 1988.
Once a crawl is spotted, volunteers determine if it leads to a nest or if the turtle was startled before she could lay her eggs. If there is a nest, a volunteer will locate the mouth of the nest (using a wooden pool cue or a metal probe), confirm that eggs are present, take a DNA sample for an ongoing sea turtle genetics and tracking study, and determine if the nest is in a location safe enough to survive the 60-day incubation period. If it is, volunteers mark the nest and protect it from predators. If it’s not, volunteers must pick an acceptable location, dig out a new nest by hand and relocate the eggs, usually upward of 100, one by one. To do this, volunteers must go through extensive training and receive certification from SCDNR.
After hatching begins, the volunteers’ duties grow. They must check the nests that are near hatching for tracks and signs that an emergence of baby turtles is imminent. Three days after hatching occurs, volunteers inventory nests to gather information, including nest success rates, for SCDNR. This means digging into the nest to count hatched shells and looking for factors that might have prevented eggs from hatching, such as fire ants or roots. This activity often draws the attention of beachgoers, so it can also serve as an opportunity to educate the public about S.C.U.T.E. and its mission.
Inventories are usually conducted in the evening, which means a S.C.U.T.E. volunteer may begin and end the day on the beach – often in less than ideal conditions, including sweltering heat, blowing sand, biting gnats, fire ants and other less endearing bits of nature.
“We really have some amazing people. You have to be dedicated to do it and stick with it,” McClary said. As the group’s image has grown through social media posts that include photos of adorable sea turtle hatchlings, more and more people have expressed interest in volunteering. Unfortunately, many of these new recruits retreat quickly once they realize the extensive dedication and effort required to be a volunteer.
“After a while, you can spot the ones who are just in it for the T-shirt,” said Betsy Brabson, coordinator for S.C.U.T.E. volunteers on DeBordieu and Hobcaw beaches. But, she notes, the ones who have a passion for it are just as obvious. “You can see it in their eyes,” Brabson said. “They get it. They understand why we’re here and they believe in the mission. They just get it.”
S.C.U.T.E. began as a sea turtle stranding network led by biologist Sally Murphy of SCDNR. Back in 1983, the network was busy documenting numerous cases of dead sea turtles washing ashore. Many had drowned, having been caught up in shrimping nets. The group helped get regulations passed that required excluder devices to be installed in all commercial shrimp nets, which kept sea turtles from being entrapped. It was a controversial issue, McClary recalled. Many shrimpers fought it, fearing it would hurt their businesses. But the year after the new regulations were put in place, South Carolina had one of its biggest shrimping years ever, in part because sea turtles weren’t destroying the nets as they tried to escape, and shrimpers were getting a cleaner drag. It turned out to be a win for all.
With stranding numbers decreasing, it was time to tackle sea turtle preservation from another angle: nest protection. Murphy approached Marlowe and McClary to help get a lighting ordinance passed in Georgetown County. Sea turtle hatchlings are instinctually attracted to light and were frequently heading inland toward porch lights, where they died in the sun or were killed by predators instead of making their way to the sea. From that effort, S.C.U.T.E. was born – and so was a way of life for many volunteers.
One of the most exciting events volunteers get to oversee is a “boil” – the term for a major hatch, in which dozens of tiny hatchlings “boil” out of the nest at once; it’s truly a sight to behold. Unfortunately, eager lay observers often put their own desire to witness the event above the health and safety of the hatchlings. “Nest sitting” has become a trend, with people staking out a nest near the end of its incubation period, waiting with cameras and flashlights. This can be dangerous for the hatchlings. Not only does light disorient them, but the crowds gathered around the nest can lead to hatchings being stepped on and killed. This creates yet another hurdle for S.C.U.T.E. in its preservation mission.
For those willing to stick out the early morning rounds and occasionally unpleasant conditions, being part of the turtle team becomes a way of life. “It’s really amazing to see people get sucked into it,” McClary said. He recalls seeing Brabson more than 30 years ago when she stumbled upon her first inventory. Back then, McClary says, she was a fresh-faced young woman with a ponytail, new to the area, who came upon him digging up a hatched nest and asked what he was doing. From that moment on Brabson was hooked.
“We had just moved to DeBordieu in the summer of 1991,” Brabson said. “I saw a crowd was forming in front of Pioneer Place Villas. Here’s Jeff digging out a hole in the sand and he brought out three baby turtles. The rest is history.”
Back then, the coordinators for DeBordieu were looking for someone young and energetic to replace them as they were nearing an age for retirement. Brabson, 36 at the time, trained the following summer and within a few years was named the new coordinator for that area.
“I was still so inexperienced,” Brabson said. “But I always had somebody to call in Jeff and Chris. I learned a lot out of necessity, but we have a great system here, in which there’s always somebody to call for help. We’ve all been green before and we’re all always happy to help a new volunteer learn. The state is really lucky to have such a strong volunteer group. All of this – the time, the travel expense – is available to the state at no cost because of the passion and dedication of our volunteers.”
Some volunteers estimate they put in anywhere from 400-750 hours per season between travel, morning walks, inventories and data entry.
McClary is proud of what the group has become, and he knows Marlowe, who passed away in March 2000, would be too.
Volunteers have different motivations for putting in the time and sweat for S.C.U.T.E. For Brabson, it’s the educational component of S.C.U.T.E’s mission.
“I love seeing that lightbulb come on for people, whether it’s a child or a 92-year-old.”
For McClary, “it’s the fact that we’re getting more hatchlings out there to hopefully grow into adults, and we’re constantly finding new nesters through DNA research. We’re seeing new turtles we haven’t recorded before, and that speaks directly to the impact of our efforts.”
S.C.U.T.E.’s average number of seasonal nests has nearly doubled from about 100 to nearly 200 in recent years. The biggest season on record was 2013 when 226 nests were recorded by the group. Last year was the second biggest year with 222 recorded. The worst season had only 43 nests.
“To this day, I still hold my breath until we get to 44,” McClary said.
Along with securing a next generation of nesting sea turtles, securing the next generation of S.C.U.T.E. volunteers is imperative for continuing the progress of rebuilding the species’ numbers. That’s a prime motivation for Mary Schneider, volunteer coordinator for Pawleys Island.
Schneider’s interest in preservation of wildlife, and in particular sea turtles, began in her childhood, when she would visit Pawleys Island with her family. She would see people walking on the dunes in front of the family’s beach house, looking for sea turtle nests and digging up the eggs.
“I didn’t like that,” she said. “When my children started coming to Pawleys, before we moved here, I would tell them, ‘we don’t want anybody doing that.’ One night they saw a nest laid and they erased every track, so no one could find it.”
After she and her husband, Phil, moved to Pawleys Island full-time in 1994, they continued their preservation efforts as S.C.U.T.E. members. Three and a half decades later, she’s starting to think about retirement, as are many of the group’s long-time volunteers. At age 78, her husband has already had to restrict his volunteer service.
“He’s good at computers, so he does all the data entry,” she said. As with all of those who truly love being part of S.C.U.T.E. and its mission, the decision to scale back his activities was a tough one.
“He did it as long as he could,” Schneider said. “One day he couldn’t get up from the sand on his own and a couple of walkers had to lift him up from an inventory and walk him to his car to make sure he got there. Once he couldn’t get down there and up on his own, he knew it was time to step back. But he didn’t want to let it go entirely. He’s still making an important contribution.”
Though they aren’t planning to retire anytime soon, McClary and Brabson are also looking out for their eventual replacements.
“There’s still a stranding component to the work, and it’s one thing to be 29 or 30 years old to be dragging a 200-pound sea turtle down the beach to bury it,” McClary said. “Doing it at 63 feels a lot different.”
For Mary Schneider’s part, she has already pinpointed her replacement. The process of picking the next generation is bittersweet, she said, knowing it means her time with the organization is winding down. But she’s relieved to see new, younger volunteers come aboard, developing a passion for the work and ensuring its mission will continue. She believes the future lies in today’s children, and she encourages parents to bring them to inventories so they can see firsthand what S.C.U.T.E. is working toward.
“If we can get the children enthusiastic about what we’re doing, we can get the next generation going,” Schneider said. “But with the kids, the parents and grandparents are also being educated. And it spreads.”
The public can learn more about S.C.U.T.E., the work of its volunteers and inventory schedules on the group’s Facebook page. The DeBordieu/Hobcaw group also has a website with photos and daily reports at www.debordieuscute.org.
Jackie Broach is a former journalist who currently works in public information. She lives in Georgetown with her husband and four spoiled cats.