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Wayback Lowcountry: Sea turtle eggs: From snack to sacred

STORY + Artwork by Michele Roldán-Shaw

If your building is visible from the beach, turn off your outside lights and close your drapes at 10 p.m., May 1- October 31, the nesting and hatching season for Loggerheads.

It’s summer and the nights are hot and thick. A full moon rises over the glittering Atlantic. All along the beachfront, residents flick off their lights in deference to the epic struggle of hundreds of tiny hatchlings making a mad dash to the sea. Following the guiding celestial light, rather than getting confused by artificial ones leading back toward civilization and death, baby turtles get a better start to life thanks to the care of local citizens. 

But it wasn’t always like that. As nesting season ramps up for endangered loggerhead sea turtles — as well as green, leatherback and Kemp’s Ridley turtles that on rare occasions make their nests along South Carolina coastline — we should consider how far we’ve come.

A generation or two ago, people used to dig up the eggs and eat them as snacks. Or, it was rumored, as an aphrodisiac. Now such poor taste could get you fined or even locked up. Earlier this year, two Florida men were sentenced to federal prison for robbing 93 loggerhead eggs off a beach under cover of darkness. In 2015 a Georgia egg thief was sent back to prison less than two years after completing a six-month sentence for the same crime. Under the Endangered Species Act, it’s illegal to mess with loggerheads or their nests at all. 

While cases of egg-poaching are rare in the U.S., a robust black market exists in Latin America and the Caribbean, where a combination of economic necessity, culinary tradition and the aphrodisiac thing combine to make it nearly irresistible. (Apparently fishermen used to see mating turtle pairs glued together for hours on end, which is how the rumor got started.) When not slugged back as a shot and chased with cerveza in a beachside shack amid whispers and sly glances, a single egg could fetch as much as $100 to $300 on the international market. It’s such a persistent problem that researchers in Costa Rica actually designed a decoy egg-tracking device and launched the InvestEGGator Project, which aims to strike a blow at illegal trafficking by gathering location data transmitted by the fake eggs after they’re swiped from nests. (Not kidding.)

But back to the Lowcountry. One imagines that coastal tribes here must have esteemed turtle eggs as a welcome addition to summer fare. But then came centuries of degradation: slaughter for meat and shells, habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, and fisheries in which sea turtles are a beleaguered bycatch. Today six out of the seven species worldwide are threatened or endangered. Teams of dedicated volunteers patrol our beaches at dawn looking for turtle crawls (tracks left by mothers in the sand) so they can mark off the nests as protected. But once upon a time in the Lowcountry, folks would stroll the shoreline with a pointy stick trying to locate caches of the ping-pong-ball-shaped eggs for a different purpose altogether. 

In his book Tales of the Barrier Islands, Beaufortonian Pierre McGowan writes a tender eulogy to two lifelong friends, Zoo Von Harten and Buddy Lubkin. They had a fish camp on Pritchard’s Island where, over a half-century, they ate an obscene amount of sea turtle eggs. McGowan writes: 

Zoo and Buddy became very skillful at locating the eggs within the nesting area regardless of how carefully the female turtle had concealed them. With no more than two punches of a sharpened stick into the sand, they could locate the nest. And they ate them raw! The skin or shell on the loggerhead turtle egg is quite soft and pliable. They would simply pinch a hole in the skin of an egg, put it to their lips, and give it a squeeze.

Times have changed, Buddy and Zoo. If you were around now, you would be flicking off the hurricane lamps at your fish camp and finding other ways to please your wives. You might even champion our formal turtle conservation efforts as they move into their fourth decade and begin to yield results: 5,560 nests counted by the close of South Carolina’s 2020 season, compared to the 3,324 averaged over the last ten years. There’s reason to be optimistic, thanks to the efforts of researchers, volunteers and conscientious citizens who long ago found adequate substitutes for their turtle egg soup recipes. And there’s still the oyster for whoever needs an aphrodisiac. LL