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Turtle Talk teaches trivia to Holden Beach residents, visitors

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By Sarah Sue Ingram
Beacon correspondent

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Even Holden Beach residents who have watched more than 20 hatchings can learn some things at Turtle Talk, such as:
• Sea turtles can’t get their heads back in their shells the way land turtles can.
• A loggerhead’s nest resembles the shape of an upside-down light bulb.
• Sea turtles can’t crawl backward.
These and other tidbits of turtle trivia were devoured by a standing-room-only crowd in Holden Beach Town Hall on July 31. Turtle Talks are held every Wednesday at 7 p.m. until Labor Day.
A few of the island’s homeowners were scattered through the crowd, but the vast majority were vacationers. They came from as far away as New Jersey, Missouri and California.
“We have 63 nests this year — the second-largest number ever,” Holden Beach Turtle Patrol member and featured speaker Cheryle Syracuse said. “We had 73 nests in 1998.”
The laying season still isn’t over either, she added.
By Aug. 11, 69 nests have been laid on the island.
The first nest on the island has already hatched. On the night of July 26, 57 turtles hatched out of 130 eggs.
“Turtles tend to be born between Day 50 and Day 60 (after the nest was laid),” Syracuse said. “When they come out of the nest, we call it a boil because it looks like boiling water bubbling up.”
Around Day 50, turtle patrol volunteers put a black collar around the nest and dig a small trench from the nest toward the ocean. Other nests, not expected to hatch yet, just have orange tape around them.
Nests laid in May take a longer time to hatch than nests laid in July.
“The sand was a lot colder back in May, and it takes a little longer because the sand is cold,” Syracuse said.
The mother turtle can lay up to 160 eggs at one time, but the average is 120 eggs, according to a video on the Holden Beach Turtle Patrol produced by a student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Visitors were treated to another short video by National Geographic called “Tales from the Wild: Cara the Sea Turtle.”
Syracuse asked children sitting on the floor in front of the chairs if anyone knew what “extinct” means. One little boy said, “That means they’re all gone.”
Syracuse said he was right, noting loggerhead turtles are threatened, and leatherback turtles are endangered. In 2010, loggerhead, leatherback and green turtle nests all were laid and hatched on Holden Beach. It was a banner year for the Holden Beach Turtle Patrol.
Syracuse explained the word “instinct” means “the ability to know what to do without being told.” Female loggerheads have the instinct to come back to where they were born to lay their own eggs.
Once laying season starts, a turtle patrol volunteer rides the nine miles of Holden Beach on an all-terrain vehicle looking for tracks. The ATV rider measures flipper width and marks the nest site with a GPS.
A grate is placed over a nest to protect the eggs from foxes, dogs, cats, raccoons and other predators.
Around Day 50, turtle patrol volunteers start checking for a depression. When they find one, it means a few turtles have come out of their eggs and are moving around in the sand under the surface. It may be several days after a depression before the turtles come to the surface in a boil.
Oceanfront vacationers were told to turn off their ocean-facing lights because the baby turtles mistake them for the moon and crawl the wrong way.
Rental agencies and turtle patrol volunteers also give out red cloths and rubber bands to vacationers to cover their flashlights and not interfere with the turtles.
Once the turtles start to boil, turtle patrol volunteers pick them up and put them in a clear plastic box. Volunteers wear gloves to protect the turtles more than they do to protect themselves.
Volunteers count the turtles as they pick them up from the nest, place them in the trench for a quick crawl toward the ocean and count them again at the end of the trench.
“Babies swim for 36 hours straight,” Syracuse said, noting turtles like to eat crabs and lobsters but jellyfish are their favorite food.
Children at town hall received a turtle coloring-book pad and an “I attended Turtle Talk” certificate signed by the Holden Beach Turtle Patrol project coordinator.
Turtle Talk has played to packed houses all summer; once this summer, people had to be turned away because there was no more room, said turtle patrol volunteer Nan Rex. Vacationers were also told to pick up their trash, because a discarded plastic grocery bag already was eaten by one turtle who died from a blocked intestine.
Not all the trash on the beach comes from locals and vacationers. Syracuse said she found a helium balloon from the Kentucky Derby that ended up on the beach. To a turtle, that balloon looks like a jellyfish, she said.
Besides looking for and sometimes relocating nests and making sure baby turtles make it safely to the ocean, volunteers also help injured or stranded turtles.
Founded in 1989, the Holden Beach Turtle Patrol has 80 volunteers this year who work from early May to mid-October. Syracuse said the turtle patrol has received tremendous support from the town’s mayor, commissioners and police officers.
The patrol’s primary fundraiser is selling turtle T-shirts, which are available at the talks and at The Lighthouse store on the Holden Beach Causeway.
“They don’t make any money on the turtle shirts — it’s their contribution to the turtle patrol,” Syracuse said. “Also, they don’t take credit cards (for the turtle shirts).”
The finale at Turtle Talk was a short video clip of a loggerhead mother stuck under the steps at the end of a finger-pier coming from a beach house deck.
While the video played “Rescue Me,” four men and a couple of women from the turtle patrol worked feverishly to pull the 300-pound turtle back out of the steps.
“Turtles can’t crawl backwards,” Syracuse said, so when the loggerhead got stuck under the steps, she couldn’t escape without help.
Once freed, the exhausted turtle trudged her way toward the ocean with volunteers pouring buckets of saltwater over her as she crawled. Finally she made it.

Sarah Sue Ingram is a correspondent for the Beacon.