CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- Sea turtles have begun hatching across South Carolina beaches and officials are releasing some tips to help protect the species.

According to SCDNR, hatchlings emerged from the first nest laid on Lighthouse Island at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge on July 3. Cape Romain is one of the densest sea turtle nesting locations along the East Coast.

Metal cages keep burrowing predators (such as coyotes or raccoons) out while still allowing the safe passage of hatchling sea turtles. (Photo: Abigal “AK” King)

During the nesting season, which begins in May, four species of sea turtles lay eggs on South Carolina beaches. After about two months, hatchlings emerge from their eggs and scurry toward the ocean.

“The emergence of hatchlings from nests reported so far is well under the average 60-day incubation period,” Michelle Pate, a wildlife biologist with SCDNR said. “This shortened incubation period typically happens with nests laid early in the season.”

Pate added that hot temperatures could also affect the incubation period’s duration, leading to an early hatch.

July marks the halfway point of the season which typically lasts until the end of October. SCDNR officials report more than 5,600 nests have been counted so far this season, surpassing last season’s total nest count.

“While the numbers we’re seeing are still slightly below the trend we saw in the record 2019 year, when we counted a minimum of 8,796 nests by the end of the nesting season, these are still huge numbers, which is overall very encouraging for this protected species,” Pate said.

During nesting season, beachgoers are reminded to keep artificial lights off the beaches at night to avoid disorienting hatchlings, keep the coast free of litter, and fill in any holes left in the sand.

Sea turtles are protected by federal law under the Endangered Species Act. Disturbing, harming, or interfering with sea turtles or their nests can result in fines of up to $25,000 and up to a year in prison.

Individuals can report nest disturbances and sick, injured, hooked, or dead sea turtles to SCDNR at 1-800-922-5431.