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To the rescue

A closer look at the unique vehicles of Sea Turtle Patrol HHI.

Photography by Lisa Staff

Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island monitors local beaches for sea turtle nesting and hatching activity. They also transport injured turtles to rehabilitation centers and document marine mammals that wash up on local beaches. Here are two vehicles they use to get the job done.


Sea Turtle Patrol Jeep

The Sea Turtle Patrol jeep is owned by the Sea Turtle Patrol HHI nonprofit organization. It was purchased with a donation from Springer Farms in 2018. “Some people joke that chickens and turtles have nothing in common, but I will say that these chickens are very generous every year,” sea turtle advocate Amber Kuehn said. The Jeep is a 2008 Commander that has been modified to incorporate a small truck bed. It is 4WD, lifted, undercoated and is very recognizable.

“The Jeep allows us to patrol the beach one way and exit the beach for a street ride back to base, Islanders Beach Park,” Kuehn explained. “We have a second vehicle, a four-seat 4×4 John Deere Gator that patrols the four miles between the Folly and the north end of the Island. The Jeep covers Folly and South (10 miles). This strategy is the most time efficient and a necessity, even though we start patrol at 5 a.m. More visitors to Hilton Head Island result in a more crowded beach earlier in the day. More sea turtle nesting requires more time to get through the route, but we no longer double back on the beach, avoiding the crowds. As an added bonus, we get less wet when it rains, and it has AC!”

The Jeep is stocked with

  • Probes
  • Buckets
  • Vials for genetic sampling
  • Latex gloves
  • Digging tools
  • Mallets
  • Poles
  • Measuring tape
  • GPS
  • iPad to record data
  • Pit tag scanner
  • Stranding kit for dead sea turtles
  • Turtle taco for transporting live turtles

The Jeep will

  • Run 10 miles of beach every day beginning May 1 each year. It is used for official business after the season is over. Sea turtle education programs do not stop when the sea turtles leave in October.
  • Carry two or three volunteers to monitor the nesting beach (May-October).

Stranding Response Ambulance

Kuehn purchased a retired ambulance with 92,000 miles for $6,000 in 2017. “Best thing I’ve ever bought,” she said.

The ambulance was tricked out and now transports injured sea turtles and helps raise community environmental awareness, thanks to a fund created by the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry in 2016. The graphic pictured was created last year by Adams Outdoor Advertising and was sponsored by Palmetto Electric to promote the “Lights Out for Sea Turtles” campaign.

The ambulance is stocked with

  • Towels
  • Water
  • Pit tag scanners
  • Vials for sampling
  • Tools
  • Personal protective equipment for necropsies
  • A small pool and cushion
  • A turtle taco (sling with velcro to secure front flippers of large stranded sea turtles, allowing for 4 people to carry the injured animal)
  • Report paperwork
  • Educational equipment
  • Props and printed materials

The ambulance will

  • Meet Sea Turtle Patrol HHI near the beach to carry injured sea turtles to South Carolina Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Care Center in Charleston for rehabilitation. Kuehn is permitted by the state to transport live sea turtles protected by the Endangered Species Act. Because reptiles cannot regulate their body temperature, they cannot be transported in the back of a pickup in the intense sun for the drive to Charleston. In the winter, cold and stunned sea turtles must maintain their cold state until the veterinarian can raise the internal temperature, incrementally. The back is equipped with a separate air conditioner.
  • Carry marine mammal tissue samples.
  • Recover and necropsy stranded marine mammals. Since 2014, Kuehn has tended to dolphins, manatees, pygmy sperm whales and pilot whales that wash up in Beaufort County. Marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Their demise is federally documented. A necropsy is performed on site and the frozen organs and head are also transported to Charleston.
  • Attend outdoor events. You might have seen the colorful ambulance stationed outside of Skull Creek Boathouse restaurant, at the Clean Water Festival, at The Sandbox for family fun nights or at the Boat Show in Windmill Harbour. The ambulance sets up an informational booth out of the back that explains the biology of sea turtles and what is done on turtle patrol. Two televisions are mounted to display pictures of the patrol in action.
  • Act as a moving billboard for sea turtle awareness. It carries equipment (screen, projector, props, sound system) for nightly turtle talks. June, July, and August were cancelled this summer due to the pandemic.
  • Serve as a mobile office when nighttime sea turtle patrol is required during renourishment projects on Hilton Head Island beaches during the nesting season (most recently in 2016 and 2017).