June 2020

21 Faces of Lowcountry Hospitality: Amber Kuehn

Author: Special to CH2 | Photographer: M.KAT Photography

Amber Kuehn
Director of Sea Turtle Patrol HHI

Amber Kuehn had a life-changing experience while on a dive, 16 miles offshore Hilton Head Island, at the Eagle Nest reef. It was 70 feet below the surface where she encountered her first sea turtle face-to-face. Funny how a moment can turn into a calling. Now, Amber can be found most mornings at 4 a.m., searching the beach for loggerhead tracks and the nests they leave behind. Boasting a graduate degree in marine biology, she is the only one locally with a permit issued by SCDNR to train volunteers to mark, move and keep tabs on the hundreds of nests laid on Hilton Head’s beaches every year from May through October. At some point, you will probably see her and an army of volunteers filling in holes left by visitors or cruising the beach in a bright green truck with a turtle emblazoned on the door. She is an ambassador for the loggerheads and a wealth of information about what you can do to help as many hatchlings make it to adulthood as possible.

When did you move to Hilton Head Island, and what (or who) brought you here?
My great grandparents bought property in Bluffton on the May River in the 1950s. I grew up in their house when it was passed down to my parents.

What do you love most about living here?
I love teaching others on my boat tour about the dense web of life in the waterways of Beaufort County. I love their amazement of our natural environment. I experi-enced these things as a child but was able to explain them to others after graduate school. Growing up on the salt marsh estuary shaped my being, my passion.

What would you like our visitors to know about our loggerhead turtles, and how can they be sure not to impact them negatively while they are here?

1. There is an ordinance on Hilton Head Island that requires beachgoers to fill their holes, which can be no deeper than one foot. We have only three nests (as a press of time) on Hilton Head Island, and we have already had a situation where a nesting loggerhead slipped into a hole and turned back to the ocean without laying her eggs. Hatchlings fall into these holes, and their journey ends there.

2. Please pick up your trash. It may cause entanglement and drowning or be ingested by marine life. And, it is disrespectful.

3. Please remember that beachfront residences should extinguish exterior lights to prevent hatchlings from diverting their path away from the ocean and toward the light. LIGHTS OUT May through October in accordance with the town ordinance.

4. Red flashlights on your night beach walks to prevent distraction. Sea turtles see red light but generally don’t react to it.

When you aren’t up at 4 a.m. on the beach searching for newly laid turtle eggs, where can we find you and what are you doing for fun?
The Sea Turtle Patrol HHI is all volunteer. I dedicate the days that I am not working to patrol. Pre COVID-19, I gave a turtle talk five nights a week in season. This year will be a little different. When there is the odd free day, I spend time on the river in my Boston Whaler—the same boat I have had since I was 12. If it could talk….

What is the number one question our visitors ask you, and what is your answer?
How can we volunteer? There is a permit issued by the SCDNR that allows the sea turtle patrol staff to work with the endangered sea turtles. These individuals have years of experience. Five years ago, I, along with a resident of Sea Pines, created a group called Turtle Trackers. This group focuses on community outreach and beach preparation during the nesting season. They fill holes at the end of the day, pick up trash, raise money to distribute educational literature and signage, and act as beach ambassadors to educate the visitors. There are six chapters on the island in every beachfront community.

If you could advise our visitors to do just one thing while they were here, what would it be?
Leave the beach as pristine as you found it.

Favorite annual event or festival?
The Mayfest in Bluffton was my favorite as a child and it still is today. It was renamed Bluffton Village Festival in recent years, but locals still call it Mayfest. It’s always the weekend before Mother’s Day.

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