Photos courtesy SC Aquarium | The S.C. Aquarium’s Turtle Care Center rehabilitates injured and ill marine turtles from all along the state’s coast

Turtle nesting season has begun, and after the first sea turtle nest was spotted on Seabrook Island, the turtle teams with South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other conservation organizations are combing state beaches for sick, injured or lost turtles in need of assistance.

But, one turtle rescue group based in the Lowcountry with a reach that spans the globe says for them, it’s always turtle season. 

“For the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), since we work around the world, the work never stops,” said TSA outreach coordinator Jordan Gray. “But as far as the acute turtle season in the Lowcountry, we’re definitely in it. We’ve been getting different calls about turtles crossing the roads and hatchlings being found in people’s pool drains and yards.”

While turtle nesting season primarily refers to marine turtles — like the loggerheads, found on Seabrook Island — the TSA typically deals with land-based and freshwater turtles. Turtle season runs the gamut for species, meaning even residents far from the beach may find nests in their yards and hatchlings in the streets.

Not all of these turtles are in need of as much care or assistance as some may think, Gray said.

“We get a lot of calls or emails about turtles who aren’t injured, and people are just wondering what they need to do,” he said. “We treat every call on a case-by-case basis and try to help them have the best end result — whether that’s getting the turtle back to its native habitat or coming up with another best-case scenario for the life of that turtle.”

As with many wild animals, more times than not, the best thing someone can do is to leave the turtles alone.

“That mother turtle came up and laid eggs in your yard, or near your home, for a reason,” Gray said. “Just release any hatchlings back into your yard, at the edge of the marsh — wherever you found them. Because you’re talking about animals that have evolved over millions of years, these animals know very much what to do without human intervention.”

But sometimes, intervention is necessary, especially in cases of injury, illness or other harm due to human influence in the first place. That’s where organizations like the TSA and the S.C. Aquarium’s Turtle Care Center (TCC) come in. 

Marine turtles are often found in more precarious situations than their terrestrial counterparts, due to the conditions of the shores they hatch on. Disturbances near sea turtle nests in the sand, trash left on beaches and even bright lights from nearby buildings can lead to injury or disorientation.

“When they hatch, the turtles are looking for the reflection of the moon on the water, and if people are behind them with brighter lights, they could go in the wrong direction,” said TCC manager Melissa Ranly. “And aside from hatchlings, a nesting female wants to find a spot where there’s nothing that could endanger her young.”

When marine turtles do end up in trouble   the TCC is equipped with a full rehabilitation center.

“We help rehabilitate sick and injured sea turtles from all over the state,” Ranly said. “We’ll get a call from the DNR and they’ll let us know about the animal so we can get prepared for intake. It’s sort of what you would consider a triage — we have to examine the animal and get a feeling for the extent of the injuries. Those first moments are critical, so we just jump into action.”

Their equipment allows the team to get instant results, and they can even run blood work in-house. Most of the time they find debilitations like dehydration or malnutrition, which can disrupt the turtle’s immune system. So, the first steps usually involve antibiotics and vitamins. 

In more extreme cases, like being hooked by a fisherman or hit by a boat, the turtle may need surgery. In these cases, it’s even more important for those who discover the injured turtle to leave it be and contact someone who can help. Moving a turtle that may have a fracture or internal injuries can cause more harm than good. 

No matter what kind of turtle you may have come across, whether it be sick, injured or healthy, there are a few crucial steps to follow:

Call an expert. Turtle rescue organizations like the TSA usually have direct contacts. The TSA can be reached at (843) 724-9763 or at info@turtlesurvival.org; in the case of marina turtles, the TCC recommends contacting the DNR’s 24-hour hotline: 1-800-922-5431.

Stay with the turtle. Beachgoers who find sea turtle hatchlings are the first line of defense, Gray said. So after calling the DNR, it’s important to remain where you are to help guide their turtle teams to the turtle in need.

Listen to instructions. When calling an expert, oftentimes they may give you instruction on how to best handle the turtle you’ve found. In these cases, it’s important to listen to those who know better than you as far as caring for these animals.