June 2019

5 Drinks with: Amber Kuehn

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

The island’s resident expert on sea turtles shares what you can do to help.

She’s drinking: Water (in her defense, she was just getting over the flu, and water is kind of her thing).
I’m drinking: Café Americano

On the day we met up with fourth-generation Bluffton local, marine biologist and passionate sea turtle advocate Amber Kuehn, sea turtles were on the front page of The Island Packet. A group of volunteers from Turtle Trackers had flooded the previous day’s Town Council meeting, calling on town leaders to enhance protection of the animals. Mentioned in the story was a sea turtle ordinance Kuehn had drafted. Kuehn would make the newspaper again several days later when a rare Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle came ashore on the island.

The point being, this interview happened right as Kuehn was getting ready for the busiest time of her year. All signs were pointing to a very busy nesting season, putting her in front of a wave of incoming sea turtle nests. Plus, with the launch of Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head as a federal 501©(3), Kuehn was diving deep into community involvement in her ongoing efforts to save the sea turtles.

So, this is your last week before everything goes nuts. What’s a typical morning like for you during nesting season?
Patrol starts at five in the morning, so we’re up by four, and we get to Islanders Beach Park by five to monitor 14 miles of beach. It takes three hours just to run the beach. If we find anything and have to move it, that takes 30 minutes, so you never know.

What are you looking for?
We’re looking for tracks. As soon as we find a track, we follow it to the top, then we locate an egg chamber and mark that. If it’s below the spring high tide line, we’ll move it above that line just so it doesn’t get overwashed during the 60-day incubation.

And then you mark it?
Yeah, so no one builds a sandcastle on it or puts a tent pole through it. We’ll find it before most people do because we’re out so early, but it’s no question that it’s a nest. It’s got an orange placard on it that says, “federally protected species; do not tamper.” So, they should know.

Speaking of tent poles, that was among the laundry list of things that your volunteers brought up in the Packet this morning. What should we be doing better?
I’ve been doing this for over 21 years. Every turtle season, I’ve been on some beach or another. I have noticed in the last three to four years that the holes are tremendous. They’re big enough to swim in. The problem with that is when you excavate a hole and leave it open, the tide comes in and takes the excavation away. Now you have nothing to fill the hole in with, so it stays there for weeks.

We just spent $20 million renourishing our beach in 2016. It’s very disrespectful to destroy something that’s public land. Leaving your litter behind is disrespectful; it can entangle sea turtles and trap hatchlings. Hatchlings fall into the holes and can’t get out. Nesting females will fall into the holes, since they come out in the dark and can’t see it. And the other thing is abandoned property. People come to town; they buy the tent—they buy the things that didn’t fit in the car to bring back home—and they leave it there on the beach instead of putting it in an appropriate spot.

You’d think people would be on board with cracking down on that. It bothers us, too.
Well it’s completely obvious to us, but I guess it’s not to them. There’s an issue with the trash cans, and that’s starting to be resolved by [the Town of] Hilton Head. The Turtle Trackers, a group formed in every beachfront community except for Port Royal Plantation, go out each night and fill in these holes, pick up trash, educate the public, plus they give out red film stickers to people who have flashlights. They’ve been a tremendous help. That group started three years ago.

What changes would you like to see town government make?
A lot of our homes are beachfront rentals. There’s a clause in the previous ordinance that prohibits any light reflected on the beach, which doesn’t really make sense because that’s not the only light turtles can see, you know? They can see lights that you can see from the beach. It doesn’t necessarily have to reflect on the sand. There’s that, and then there are advancements in LED bulbs. Sea turtles can see red light, but they aren’t attracted to it. It might hinder females from nesting, but it won’t attract the hatchlings, which is a huge problem for us.

We have 15 permitted patrol staff, and we all have real jobs. This is all volunteer. We don’t have time to go out every evening, and some of us don’t live on the island. So, they are doing their best to approach Town Council about this ordinance that might be implemented that would restrict the size of shovels on the beach. Because you can’t dig a six-foot diameter 10-feet-deep hole with this (mimics a tiny beach shovel).

I’m sure that will take a while to implement. But the lighting ordinance, which is what I’ve been working on for the last three years, is a revision of this ordinance that was implemented in 1990. The current one is super old and doesn’t reflect any new sea turtle biology. I’ve had it revised, and the Town Council is pushing it forward with the planning committee and will hopefully have that in the ordinance by hatching season, which is July 1.

What have been some positive changes?
We have a lot of projects going on for the public to see. We’ve only really been focusing on this public education for three years. This year will be exciting, because we have some artwork that will show up at Coligny Beach; we have a retrofit of a beachfront home at 20 Ibis [Street] where we’re replacing exterior fixtures, putting in appropriate bulbs, shielding things and taking the boardwalk lights down and away from the beach. It’s going to be something I’d like the whole community to be aware of so maybe they can follow suit.

And this year is our largest population. This population coming back is the largest population. We had very low nesting numbers last year (179 nests), which is ridiculously low, because of the snow. The snow killed a lot of the organisms the turtles would eat to get robust enough to nest. This year, those girls are coming back in addition to the large population, so it’s going to be a huge year. Hopefully, people will be respectful of how many there are and what they’ll see.

Find out more about Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island at SeaTurtlePatrolHHI.com.

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