Meet three women who have devoted their lives to our shore’s most fascinating visitors.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
As the nesting season returns to Hilton Head Island, our thoughts once again turn to our area’s most fascinating visitors: sea turtles. Sneaking in under cover of darkness, these mammoth creatures accomplish the impossible, dragging their 300-pound-plus frames across the sand and digging nests using flippers better suited for water than earth, all in the hopes of continuing their species.
Impossibly fragile, these nests sit just below the sand, often mere feet away from jubilant tourists basking in the sun. After a couple of months these nests erupt into a swarm of babies who must return to the water at their most vulnerable state. It is a delicate ballet of life, one where anything can go wrong and cut off a lineage of sea creatures that stretches back 80 million years. Preserving that line is critical. Thankfully, there are locals like these who have made it their mission.
Turtle Lady of the Lowcountry
Given the time of year and the recent upswing in sea turtle nests on Hilton Head Island, it’s amazing that Amber Kuehn had time to be interviewed for this story.
She is, after all, largely the face of preserving sea turtles on the island. While she is quick to defer credit to the army of volunteers that comprise Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island and Turtle Trackers, she was the one who brought them together. The Turtle Trackers group began with Kuehn and five women from Sea Pines sweeping the beach for holes and trash four years ago. There are now seven chapters across the island, representing nearly 350 volunteers.
And she’s not leading from behind – you’ll find her and her Sea Turtle Patrol volunteer staff on the beach at 5 a.m. during the nesting season, searching for tracks that lead from the ocean to the dunes and marking nests to protect them against beachgoers.
It’s something she’s been doing for the last 14 years, and this year you’ll find her profile as the island’s “turtle lady” only rising. That’s thanks to a new town effort to educate visitors on measures they can take to protect turtles.
We used to think we were doing well if we broke 100 nests a season,” she said. “Now, it’s not out of the ordinary for us to get between 300-400.”
“They’re going to put an educator on the beach from noon to 5 p.m., five days a week, going zone to zone talking to people about the consequences of leaving holes on the beach,” she said. “And that person will be me.”
A fourth-generation Blufftonian who was piloting a boat on the May River at the age of 12, Kuehn is uniquely qualified for her new role as educator. Beyond a Master’s Degree in marine biology and a career that took her from Florida to Maui and back to the Lowcountry, she exudes an enthusiasm for the sea creatures that call our area home. She’s also put in the hours, starting out in the ‘90s on four wheelers as she meticulously combed the beach for tracks and nests, May through October.
These days, Sea Turtle Patrol HHI has upgraded to a Jeep Commander and coordination through GPS technology, thanks to an outpouring of support from the community. It’s also expanded its focus, with the help of Turtle Trackers, to help craft town policy on protecting sea turtles and setting a new standard for sea turtle-friendly homes. Her group recently did a makeover on a Forest Beach house to show homeowners how a few simple changes could help keep turtles safe.
“(The house) used to be the worst offender on the beach,” she said. After a few new light fixtures, bulbs, dimmers and shields, the popular rental property still allows guests to enjoy a night on the oceanfront terrace without distracting hatchlings from returning to the sea. “We’ve had no misorientations at that property since, and it’s been a year.”
It’s a good example to set, especially now as the number of nests begin to increase.
“We used to think we were doing well if we broke 100 nests a season,” she said. “Now, it’s not out of the ordinary for us to get between 300-400.”
A tireless sea turtle educator
The first step in protecting the sea turtles that call our area home is learning more about them. And for many of our local youngsters, that education begins with the programs at the Coastal Discovery Museum.
“We see lots of kids; around 8,000 school-aged kids either here or at their school,” said Dawn Brut, curator of education at Coastal Discovery Museum. Under her watch, the museum’s educational programs have expanded throughout Beaufort County, with in-school workshops teaching conservation and public programs at the museum taking a deep dive into the threats facing our local turtles.
“Kids learn about things that directly and indirectly affect turtles,” she said. “They learn about how trash winds up in our water, but they also do trash collection, and make art out of trash.”
That art will be on display in the museum’s gallery during July and August, marking just a few of what Brut calls the “ooh and aah moments” that define a child’s understanding of our native sea life. “We have these life-sized cutouts in the Discovery Lab, and during the education program, the kids see just how big these sea turtles are.”
I absolutely fell in love with the coast,” she said. “It’s a whole new world of life.”
It’s a career that was first sparked when Brut was at summer camp in her native Pennsylvania as a child. During one of the environmental education programs the camp put on, Brut found her calling. “The ‘Nature Lady’ was amazing and was so excited about it,” she said. “I just wanted to be her, and when I grew up, I just stuck with it.”
That passion took her from the Steel City to the shores of North Carolina, where the ecosystem of salt and sand became her new home. “I absolutely fell in love with the coast,” she said. “It’s a whole new world of life.”
From there, the unique ecosystem of the Lowcountry beckoned, and Brut answered. She now enjoys one of the rarest privileges on earth – doing something she absolutely loves. “I’m such a nature nerd. When I’m not at work, I’m outside doing something,” she said. “I was traveling with a friend and kept looking for fun outdoor things to do. My friend told me, ‘You’re the only person I know who does the same thing with their free time that they do as work.’”
But it’s not all exploring the salt marshes, streams and shoreline of the Lowcountry. Equally important to Brut is educating others. Whether it’s in a classroom, at the museum or in private events for clubs and organizations throughout the region, the message is the same.
“It’s important for people to know they can do something that can make a difference. People feel overwhelmed by all the things they’re being asked to do,” she said. “Saving the planet seems very big. But if people pick small things to do, it becomes very easy. One small change at a time, that’s what I leave them with. Pick one small thing you can do to protect the environment.”
A pioneer in turtle conservation
There are moments that shaped Sally Murphy’s journey to becoming one of the living legends of sea turtle conservation. Some of them are clearly defined, singular moments that signaled the next step for her. Some of them evolved at an almost imperceptibly slow pace, echoing the generational gap between saving a hatchling sea turtle and seeing that same creature return to the shore to dig its own nest 30 years later.
The first of those clearly defined moments came in April 1970 when Murphy experienced the first Earth Day. Prior to that, she’d been just another kid raised along the Georgia waterways, swimming and playing in the Vernon River at Rose Dhu, just outside of Savannah.
“I guess the term nowadays is ‘river rat,’” she said. “We all were.”
And then came Earth Day, and the love she had for our native ecosystem came into sharper focus. “I was a biology and chemistry teacher at Jenkins High School,” she said. “There were lots of magazine articles about things that were happening to the environment at the time, such as rivers catching fire. I took my chemistry class to that first celebration, and that’s where it started.”
I was hung in effigy by shrimpers in Beaufort County.”
Her journey from there is beautifully documented in her memoir, “Turning the Tide,” published by Evening Post Books in Charleston. As far as the pivotal moments, however, you have to acknowledge what she achieved just a few years out of school. Following undergraduate work at Armstrong State and earning her master’s degree from University of South Carolina, she worked for the South Carolina wildlife department as an environmental education specialist working with schools. “The thing is, I didn’t want to live in Columbia. I wanted to be back on the coast. So I asked the director of the Marine Division if he would create a job for me in Charleston,” she said.
Her request was granted, and her rise was accelerated by the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, which provided funding to the state for endangered species work. Moving to the coast, Murphy started the first sea turtle program in the state. Across the country, anyone in conservation shortly knew about the work she was doing to save the turtles.
And that brings us to a moment that could easily be lost in the shuffle of listing Murphy’s many accolades and achievements. That singularly magical moment was when she saw her first sea turtle in 1977. “It was a 300-pound female on the beach nesting. She was so heavy out of the water, just dragging herself up the shore. She looked like she was crying, but it was really salt excretion. But she had that aura,” she said. That aura was bio-luminescent plankton on her shell. “It was just a twinkling, starry night on her carapace. If you rubbed your finger down her shell, it just made a glowing trail down her back.”
Not all moments are as magical. When Murphy was among the first to identify trawler nets as a major hazard for turtles, the requirement she pioneered to add turtle excluder devices (TEDs) to nets was met by, let’s say, resistance. “I was hung in effigy by shrimpers in Beaufort County.”
Good or bad, these moments weave together the story of a true pioneer in saving our sea turtles. She is now retired, but as we see more sea turtle nests protected, we can truly appreciate her efforts.
(click on gallery thumbnail for larger photo)