Every morning from May through October, some 45 Fripp Island residents set their alarms early in order to be on the beach at daylight. They aren’t joggers or dog walkers. They are volunteers who willingly give up their mornings to make a difference in our lowcountry area. They are the Fripp Island Loggerhead Patrol.
“The first thing I did when I got here in April 2004 was to sign up with the turtle patrol.” says Janie Lackman, “I had seen a hatchling and I was hooked! When Tony and Karen Natoli retired as leaders five years ago I was the only one crazy enough to take it over and I have been the team leader ever since.” The official term is Project Leader or Nest Protection Leader but as serious as Janie and the turtle patrol members are about their mission, they don’t stand on ceremony. Or as Janie says, “Just call me the Crazy Turtle Lady!”
Janie speaks very highly of her dedicated team. “This is the best team environment possible and we all came together for one reason- the turtles. We really are a very close knit team and a family. Team members agree. Martha and Dickie Blanchard have been patrolling for eleven years. They say, “It is a part of us, we can’t not do it. It is absolutely a great team with a wonderful leader.” Kathy Agee says “I’ve never met a more passionate and dedicated turtle person – I don’t know how she does it!” Pat Earl said, “She’s awesome. It was my first year (on the patrol) and Janie took me under her wing, and it has been a great experience.” Sam Taylor has been on the team for five years and says, “It is still as exciting now as it was the first year”.
The team patrols the beaches at Fripp Island looking for signs that a mama sea turtle has laid a clutch (batch of eggs) during the night. The most common sea turtle in our area is the Loggerhead Sea Turtle, a massive reptile that weighs between 250 and 350 pounds when mature. The Loggerhead females return to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs, and so the female turtle hatchlings born on our sea islands will return to us when they are 25 to 30 years old to lay their eggs. Each mama turtle lays from four to six clutches per season, and each clutch contains around 100 eggs. In a perfect world, nature wouldn’t need human assistance but due to development of the sea islands, turtle teams have their work cut out for them.
The Fripp Island Loggerhead Patrol’s mission is to find the nests and mark off the area, or relocate the nest if it is in danger due to tidal activity. The team is well trained in spotting the signs of a nest and how to locate the egg chambers. The patrol monitors each nest daily for months, at first for any signs of disturbance, and then for signs of emergence (when the hatchlings leave the nest).
At the end of the season, Janie and the turtle team watch for signs of the hatchlings emergence. When it looks like a nest has hatched during the night, they follow up in three days by doing a physical inventory. When all the hatchlings have left the nest, the left over eggs and broken eggshells are counted and recorded. Occasionally a hatchling may still be in the nest, under all the broken eggshells, and the team ensures that the tiny turtle gets to the sea. Beaufort Lifestyle was with Janie and her team on Fripp to inventory three nests and we were lucky enough to have multiple hatchlings out of all 3 nests.
Janie and the team find teachable moments at every opportunity, letting children get close but not too close, and reminding adults that as tempting as it is to pick the tiny turtles up and put them in the sea, we need to let nature run its course and allow the hatchlings to make their own way. The turtle team efficiently manages the crowd that gathers to watch, ensuring that the interested observers don’t impede the hatchlings race to the sea.
It is profoundly moving to watch these tiny newborn hatchlings as they struggle to the surf and set off on their perilous journey. The first time observers and the “turtlers,” who may have seen this many times before, both fall silent with wonder at being able to witness nature at its most joyous and courageous.
Educating the public about sea turtles is as important as the patrol and monitoring work. Janie says, “There is so much we can do to save our turtles. When you are at the beach pick up after yourself, fill in any holes you made in the sand, and lights off! It’s real simple and it all makes a huge difference in helping the turtles.” Another crucial issue is to “Give the turtles space”. As Janie says, “It’s not a zoo, this is nature and we all need to respect where we are in our surroundings. If you run up to a nesting female, you will bother her and she may go back out to the water and we then lose over a hundred hatchlings. Everyone means well and they have good intentions but we have to be careful.”
Friends of Caroline Hospice
Janie, who graduated from Wake Forest University with a BA in Psychology, has been the Development Director at Friends of Caroline Hospice located in Port Royal for the past three and a half years. She says, “Overall I wanted to give back to hospice, for what they did for my family. That’s what drew me to this work. You lose a little piece of yourself but it’s worth it.” Janie says, “FRIENDS is very unique in that it is totally dependent on donations and support from the community. We don’t accept money from insurance, Medicare, Medicaid or our patients. We want to, and are able to, help anyone who needs our help.”
FRIENDS’ events include the Festival of Trees, Cheeseburgers in Paradise and Bands, Brew & BBQ. When asked what her favorite event is, Janie laughs and says, “I love all our events! Each one is special in a different way.” Regarding the upcoming Festival of Trees she says “It involves everyone from the Head Start kids who come to see Santa to our older residents who come to see the trees, which are wonderful because each tree represents someone in our community.”
Elvis, Pet Therapy Superstar
Janie says, “I got into hospice work through my basset hound Elvis, who is a therapy dog. It started when Elvis was a puppy and we would visit my dad’s parents at a retirement community. We were visiting my grandmother at Memory Care and we walked by a resident who turned and looked at Elvis. This resident hadn’t talked in years, but seeing Elvis brought out full sentences from her. Elvis and I visited this lady until the day she passed. That type of connection really got me hooked on pet therapy. It is such a special connection. “Elvis is now 13 years old but she (yes Elvis is a girl) still comes to the office with Janie most days and continues her pet therapy work. Janie also has another dog at home, a chow named Harvey, who is “the sweetest dog in the world”. Janie laughs and says, “I guess you can call me the Crazy Dog Lady too!”
Janie says “I am who I am because of my family. My love of the outdoors comes from my mom and my 92 year old Grandma is a true inspiration. My dad helps to keep me grounded and is a frequent “volunteer” at both FRIENDS and Festival of Trees events. My sister Laura and her children are great and I love spending time with all of them.” Although Janie grew up in southwest Pennsylvania, her family has since all settled in the North Carolina mountains. After visiting her family’s beach house here for years, Janie says “I always knew I wanted to be in this area and I have been lucky enough to end up here.” A resident of Fripp Island for the last eight years she says what drew her was, “The ocean, because I have always loved the beach. Now I cross the bridge and I am home.”
The turtle season is over until next spring, and Janie will add to her knowledge by taking the ten month Lowcountry Master Naturalist Class. She says,” I am really looking forward to it. “When asked what else she is going to do in the “turtle off season” she says “Sleep late! I am not a morning person at all!” But she says she couldn’t imagine not being a “turtler”. “It’s the first egg, the first tracks on the sand, the first hatchling. Then it’s the last nest of the season and I have empty nest syndrome!” She pauses a moment and concludes. “Nature and animals have always been an interest of mine, but at the same time, I love working with people and I love being here at Friends of Caroline Hospice. And I can’t see myself ever leaving Fripp Island and the turtles.”