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Now arriving at the terminal: Lights Out Myrtle the Turtle

By Carolyn Males

It’s not every day that you step off a plane, go pick up your bags, and get greeted by a giant loggerhead sea turtle. Myrtle the Turtle is a serious traveler. She and her steamer trunk stamped with travel stickers have arrived at Hilton Head Airport in time for sea turtle season May 1 through October 31. Titled “Lights Out Myrtle,” the colorful fiberglass turtle has brought along an informative slide show about our seasonal reptilian visitors and their hatchlings’ perilous journey to the sea.

Marine biologist Amber Kuehn of Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island wants airline travelers to get acquainted with these endangered creatures before beginning their island vacation. Through vivid images, Myrtle’s slide show lets us see mother turtles emerging from the ocean to lay eggs and their hatchlings later digging out of sandy nests, making tracks to the water. It also offers glimpses of Sea Turtle Patrol volunteers monitoring and protecting nests while documenting turtle activity.

Above the video screen sits a blue cutout turtle detailing preventative steps we all can take to help ensure the safety of these vulnerable creatures. “Lights Out Myrtle” highlights the importance of turning off beachfront outdoor lights between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. when baby turtles first begin venturing out. Kuehn explains that hatchlings naturally head toward the brightest horizon, like moonlight on the water, so a light on a balcony or a porch can disorient hatchlings, sending them wandering inland to die under pilings of a house or on roadways, or be eaten by a raccoon or gull. Fewer than one per hundred will make it to the Gulf Stream.

The real life Myrtle is a “super mom” loggerhead that was first documented on Hilton Head beaches in 2011, a year after the first turtle study began. She would have spent her first twelve months swimming to the Azores and hanging out there for fifteen to twenty years. Then she’d return to the Carolina and Georgia coasts, navigating through tricky spots like the Sargasso Sea, dodging dangers like sharks, boat propellers and plastic bags that may have tempted her to think they were food. Once here, she’d forage until she began laying her first eggs around age thirty.

Artist Mira Scott has painted colorful images illustrating Lights Out Myrtle’s long journeys on the sea turtle statue’s head (the moon), flippers (stars), and large shell (ocean waves, dune grass, and hatchlings she’ll give birth to). Turtle Trackers of Hilton Head volunteer Renea Hushour hand-built Myrtle’s steamer trunk base from reclaimed materials sourced from friends, thrift shops and scrap wood.

Over the years Myrtle and her sister turtles have been tracked by DNA sampled from single eggs collected from each nest by the Patrol and analyzed by Dr. Brian Shamblin and his staff at the University of Georgia. Myrtle’s superstar status was sealed when researchers discovered she makes up to eight nests holding as many as 150 eggs on each visit compared to the four to six nests of 120 eggs laid by other turtle moms. Kuehn estimates Myrtle’s age to be sixty or so. That’s because DNA trackers have discovered two of her daughters, both at least thirty years old, have come to nest on Southeast beaches.

Lights Out Myrtle is the second in what is now a three-Myrtle series. The first Myrtle, painted by Scott as a stylized real life turtle, highlights the DNA project and now stands at the Sandbox Children’s Museum in Lowcountry Celebration Park. A third Myrtle is in process, her location has yet to be announced. Meanwhile, Mira Scott and Bill Borg have created an illustrated book, Myrtle the Loggerhead Turtle, which will be published this fall.

So, next time you fly in or out of Hilton Head Airport, check out
our far-traveling turtle visitor. Then you’ll return to the beach with new understanding of these magnificent creatures and their precarious life cycle.