Amber Kuehn, a fourth generation Blufftonian, sent us the following letter about what being local means to her. She manages the Sea Turtle Patrol HHI.
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We walk on the ocean floor every day on Hilton Head Island. Beachfront property was in Columbia before the Ice Age, approximately 3 million years ago. Hilton Head Island was a flat sandy bottom at the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. I grew up navigating the Lowcountry waterways, the fingers of the ocean to the palm of its hands, the sound. I was not allowed to be in the sound with my 15-foot Boston Whaler, but I did it anyway. I was fearless on the water, for the most part, with the exception of the open ocean. It was the daunting body that I had no access to until my introduction to scuba diving.
Venturing out through the Port Royal Sound on the dive boat to find 70 feet of water, 16 miles off shore opened a door that once opened, could never be closed. The path had been there all along, and its discovery launched me toward my calling. My first encounter with a sea turtle in the ocean was at this very spot, a life-changing experience that matriculated into a master’s degree in marine biology, a captain’s license, and a passion that would exhaust me in the most fulfilling way. My captain’s license enhanced with a dive instructor certificate made me employable in the diving industry for several years. The clear waters of South Florida, the Caribbean and the Pacific surrounding the Hawaiian Islands presented sights that are emblazoned on my psyche, but they can never replace the mystery and the exhilaration teetering on the edge of fear that came with those experiences past the beaches of HHI.
There is something about that first encounter, which forever haunts to revive the excitement. The beaches of Hilton Head have given me updates over the years, like letters delivered from an unforgettable mentor and friend. She visits the dry sand to lay her eggs, and returns to the realm where I first encountered her. Her tracks reveal a missing flipper, her long walk at low tide tells me of her determination, and her clutches remind me that she is intending to stay for generations to come. Her resilience is tested by fishing gear, boat strikes, plastic ingestion, and disease creeping out from the fingertips, to the palms, to the arms and body of the ocean.
For 20 years, I have been reading her “letters” in the sand, and when she visits. She never calls. I have seen her in her home, I know when she has visited, and I know when she is suffering. She washes in with the waves when she is too sick or injured to stay. This is my calling. I have been monitoring her nests to keep her babies safe, and when she washes in, I take her to the Sea Turtle Center at the SC Aquarium in Charleston for rehabilitation.
She rides behind me as I drive the sea turtle ambulance … No time to catch up. I can visit her in the hospital, but she cannot see me through the one-way glass. When she is released on a strange beach, I know that she will come to Hilton Head when she is ready to nest again. I’ll be waiting and preparing the beach to welcome her back.
LIGHTS OUT at 10 p.m.! Fill holes! Pick up litter! She’s coming home!