Naturalist-guided kayak eco-tour of the salt marsh near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, leads to an unexpected sea turtle rescue mission.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Once in a while you recognize what will rank as one of the high points of your life while it’s actually happening, not only in hindsight.
On September 13, 2016 I had such an experience. I helped rescue a loggerhead sea turtle.
That’s the most dramatic part of this story, but it’s not the only thing that made the day so fun and memorable. So we’ll get to that, in due time.
The tour was scheduled to start at 9 a.m., from the “Oyster Shell Recycling Landing” three quarters of a mile north of the main entrance to Huntington Beach State Park on the ocean side of Route 17. A confirmation email offered detailed directions and even a Google Maps link; still I left my hotel early to be sure I arrived on time. I found the entrance, followed the puddle-riddled dirt road back to the beach and parked next to a truck. The South Carolina plate on that truck gave me some confidence that someone knew this part of the beach was unlikely to get submerged at high tide. That driver was nowhere in sight. Alone on the beach, I snapped a few photos, sent a few messages, and waited.
At about 8:30 a.m., a white pickup emblazoned with “Black River Outdoors” drove in then backed up to the water. I waved and headed toward the guide as she pulled two kayaks out of the back.
We greeted one another, and she said it would be just the two of us on the tour. That kind luck can happen when visiting during the slower tourism seasons of spring and fall. I signed the required paperwork, listened to the safety requirements (I’m an experienced kayaker—but novices are welcome and can get introductory instruction), and headed into the outgoing tide.
“Have you kayaked in a salt marsh before?” Mandy Johnson asked.
“Yes. It’s why I knew I wanted a guide!” My advice: NEVER kayak in a marsh without a guide, unless you are a guide. There are tides to contend with plus it’s super easy to get lost amongst the marsh grasses, no matter how great your sense of direction is. Besides, it’s more fun to go with someone with some expertise in the local ecosystem.
I learned more on this particular eco-tour than any previous eco-tour, and I’ve had some great ones. Mandy Johnson is an excellent guide with deep knowledge of the salt marsh ecosystem as well as local facts, trivia, anecdotes, history and legends. Plus she’s just fun to be around.
“That’s a saltmarsh sparrow,” she said excitedly, pointing to a little brown bird I’d otherwise not have noticed as being any different from little brown birds that flutter through my backyard. “That’s one for your life list!” she exclaimed, noting that serious birders keep a tally of all the bird species they’ve identified in their lifetime, and this sparrow is more rare and special than others since it’s limited to salt marshes along the Atlantic and upper Gulf coasts.
By this point in the tour, we’d already seen a jelly fish, hermit crab, blue crabs, great blue herons, egrets, sandpipers, snails, clusters of oysters spitting streams of water into the air, and more. Mandy rattled off the names of each creature we encountered, and also gave a detailed, more-interesting-than-it-sounds lesson on marsh grass. But I hadn’t brought my notebook or smartphone along since I knew my hands would be occupied with the paddle plus I didn’t want them to get wet. I’ve never tipped a kayak, but the day I bring my camera along it’s bound to happen, so I don’t risk it.
“Do you ever see dolphins?” I asked. They’re a common sight along the Georgia coast, but the Georgia marshes I’ve paddled are a brackish mix of fresh and salt waters whereas this marsh is pure salt water. “Yes,” Mandy said.
Mandy said that sea turtles are an infrequent sight in the area; most often, unfortunately, any that are spotted are injured. “I was on vacation last week,” Mandy said. “So I missed it when the loggerhead sea turtle named Magnolia was released.” That turtle had been rescued nearby, treated for shark bites and other issues at the South Carolina Aquarium, recuperated, and then released from Huntington Beach State Park on September 16. “Magnolia was covered in barnacles when they found her but by the time she was released she looked as shiny as a new penny—I saw the photos,” Mandy said. “They had a big send-off party. The gal who’d found her was there, as were lots of people. I would have liked to have been there!”
We chatted as we paddled. The tide was going out and the water was shallow but it wasn’t strenuous or difficult to maneuver the kayak.
It seemed we were the only people in the salt marsh that morning, until we passed a charter fishing boat parked near the edge of one channel. “Having any luck?” Mandy asked as we paddled past. “Lots!” was the reply. A bit later two guys in a jon boat puttered past, and I couldn’t help but think to myself that they seemed to embody more than one stereotype about what South Carolina coastal recreational fishermen might look like.
We floated around a bend inadvertently spooking white egrets and blue herons to wing overhead. A pink bird remained standing in the water, eating. “That’s a roseate spoonbill!” Mandy enthused. “That’s another one for your life list!” Two in one day: Suddenly, I was the envy of serious birders.
That roseate spoonbill, a bird I never knew existed until that moment, was quite a sight. Pink with a round-tipped beak to scoop food from water, it looks like some imaginative combination of a flamingo and pelican with a jerky stride that’s somehow awkwardly graceful. “It’s a South American bird,” said Mandy. “It’s migrating through here.” That bird was not shy. He (she?) kept an eye on us as we floated closer, but just kept on eating. He stood, pink and proud, ankle deep in brown water with green marsh grasses arched behind him under a sunbeam spotlight. It would have been a perfect picture.
Mandy and I both appreciated the sublime photogenic quality of the moment. “That would be an award-winning photograph!” she lamented. I agreed. Neither of us had brought a camera. We then consoled ourselves with what turned out to be a shared philosophy: Sometimes, just sitting and savoring the moment is the best way to seal a memory.
Mandy then remembered that she had her smartphone with her, pulled it out, snapped a few quick photos and short video, then put it away to continue savoring the moment. We hung out with the roseate spoonbill at least 15 minutes. He’d bob and rise, feasting and strutting around as we drifted closer. For a while I was about four feet from him, each moment one missed photo opportunity after another.
Initially, we’d watched him in silence, then whispered, then talked because nothing seemed to phase this guy. Mandy explained that the marsh grass grows in plough mud. “It’s pronounced pluff, like tough, rough, enough. The words are spelled the same.” It’s such a nutrient-rich mud, is it used by local spas? I wondered. “No,” Mandy said, “because it dyes skin gray for a few days.”
Since our tour was scheduled to end at 11 a.m., we eventually had to continue on and part from our pink feathered friend. As soon as we pushed away from the bank, that roseate spoonbill rushed over to the spot we’d vacated. “He must have thought, ‘They hung out there a long time. Must be good eating!’” I said and we laughed.
As we turned around, we battled a stronger current. But I’m training for a hike so was all for the physical challenge.
Mandy and my conversation drifted from ecology to sociology, as is apt among women. I was thoroughly enjoying my morning on the water.
Then, just as my eyes started to focus on a lump along the bank, Mandy exclaimed, “There’s a sea turtle!”
We paddled over and just as I started to fear it was dead, it blinked. It was alive, but lethargic. She (he?) was clearly in need of intervention. “It’s a loggerhead,” said Mandy. “It’s the state reptile of South Carolina.”
Loggerheads are considered an endangered species and are protected by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Since we saw one in distress, we knew to call for rescue. Mandy, of course, knew who to call. She whipped out her cell phone and started dialing frantically, angry at her waterproof phone for not cooperating with her wet finger. Ugh! She wiped the screen and her fingers with her shirt, called her boss and then several other folks, describing our location in the marsh. There’s a network of sea turtle advocates in the Myrtle Beach area and it seems Mandy has several such contacts programmed into her phone.
“Rescue is on the way!” Mandy reported after a few calls.
One of the people Mandy called had wondered if the turtle was indeed a loggerhead or a juvenile green turtle. “Does it have claws?” that caller had asked. It didn’t, it wasn’t a green. (All sea turtles are protected, so rescue was needed either way.)
Occasionally the turtle attempted to move her head, but it appeared to be a struggle. She sometimes seemed to gasp. She was covered in barnacles. She looked sick and tired. (Later, it was discovered she was bleeding.)
“Is there something you need to get to?” Mandy asked, worried about my schedule. Nope. I had time to save a life.
We paddled around in circles near the turtle. Time passed, the rescuers hadn’t arrived and we started to get anxious. Then we remembered the fishing boat. I felt like we shouldn’t leave the turtle alone. (See the tangent story below to understand why.) Mandy said that the turtle would be fine, but I said she could go ahead and I’d wait with the turtle. Mandy paddled away, disappearing around a bend.
Where were those rescuers? It felt like it was taking a long time. (In hindsight, things actually came together quite quickly.)
I didn’t think the fishing boat would be able to reach us, since the tide was still going out and the water was quite shallow. Then those two dudes in the jon boat came into view. I waved my arms. They puttered closer. I kept waving. They got closer and then both turned their backs to me, clearly uninterested in helping me, whatever my problem may be.
I watched them pass me and approach the bend just as Mandy returned to view. She paddled in front of the jon boat, yelling “Hey!” loud over their motor, waving her arms. They cut the motor and stopped. She persuaded them—we later learned their names, Slick and Carl—to turn around. Her plan was to put the turtle into their boat so they could shuttle it to rescuers on shore. Slick shrugged and said, “Well, we’re not catching anything else.” (I later told Mandy that those guys had turned their backs to me, so I was impressed she’d convinced them to help. “I can be formidable when I want to be,” she replied. The whole episode just solidified in my mind that she is one kickass kayak guide.)
Mandy pulled her kayak to one side of the sea turtle and Carl maneuvered the jon boat to the other side. Mandy climbed out onto the bank and sank several inches into the plough mud. She tugged on the turtle, dragged it into the water, and positioned it closer to the jon boat. “You’ll have to lift that side of the turtle,” she instructed Carl while the poor turtle struggled to breathe. Carl leaned over the boat and used one hand to lift, but then dropped the turtle.
“It’s 200 pounds!” he said.
“Use two hands,” Mandy suggested. “I can’t lift it up into the boat by myself!”
Turns out Carl has some pinched nerves in his back, so he felt that he could only use the one hand to avoid aggravating them.
They tried a couple more lifts. “Don’t bite me!” Mandy warned the turtle, keeping her hands away from its head. The turtle struggled, clearly not enjoying the handling process and mustering all its energy to resist.
Eventually, they ungracefully managed to get the turtle into the boat, Carl using one hand positioned near the center of the turtle shell on his side and Mandy hoisting the turtle with super-woman strength using both hands and I suspect every muscle she owns plus a hefty dose of adrenaline on her side. (I later told Mandy I was impressed that she could lift the bulk of 200 pounds! “It was 70 pounds at the most,” she said.)
With the turtle in their boat, Carl and Slick motored to shore. Mandy climbed into her kayak and we pushed away from the bank to paddle back to shore together. Knowing we’d arrive last, we begged the guys, “Don’t leave before we get there! Don’t let the rangers leave, either! We’ll get to shore as fast as we can!”
The wind picked up and the current gained strength. It was difficult paddling, but we were eager to get to shore. We arrived as Carl and Slick motored away in their emptied boat.
On the beach where I’d parked my car there were now three park ranger vehicles and a blue SUV. Several uniformed rangers stood under the shade of their hats. Several other folks in state park logoed T-shirts gathered nearby.
The on-shore portion of the rescue was a whirlwind (of 10 minutes?). I raced from my kayak to the group, eager to get names and photos of everyone involved, but before I could grab my notebook and camera the pros had already transferred the turtle from the jon boat to a pickup and were in the process of moving it into a padded blue plastic pool in the back of the SUV. A non-uniformed woman—a volunteer?—was the owner of that SUV. She would transport the turtle to the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program in Charleston, about an hour away.
It takes a village to rescue a sea turtle.
Nearly a dozen people chipped in, one way or another—of what I witnessed, no one more than Mandy—and dozens more will assist the turtle once it reaches the South Carolina Aquarium. (Though as I shared the details of events I’d observed with one ranger, I admitted that Slick didn’t do anything. “He never does,” she replied. In a small town, the odds of interacting with folks on multiple occasions runs high.)
It was not the SUV driver’s first rescue effort: One ranger told me that a previous turtle named Marsh had thrashed about so much during the drive to Charleston that it “trashed her car with plough mud and blood.”
Plough mud stains, remember.
So, if you’re in Myrtle Beach these next couple of weeks, you may recognize Mandy: She’s the woman with gray splotches on her face, arms and legs, courtesy of plough mud. The stains will slough off eventually; I suspect she’s wearing them as badges of honor in the meantime.
How will we know what happens to this particular turtle? As long as the turtle survives more than a few days, any news will be posted online. The turtle will be assigned a name by the South Carolina Aquarium; we can recognize it as this specific turtle by the date and location of its discovery.
Here’s hoping she (he?) makes it.
The SUV raced off to Charleston, the rangers thanked us and drove away, and Mandy moved her truck to the waterline to re-load the kayaks into it.
“Thanks so much! This was such a great day!” I said.
“This ranks as one of the best kayak trips I’ve ever had!” she said, which is saying a lot since she kayaks routinely.
It’s a shared memory we’ll both treasure, an unexpected adventure with heart.
Plus, “now we may get to go to a rescued sea turtle release party!” I said. “What a coincidence that you’d mentioned it earlier!”
I can’t guarantee that if you kayak with Black River Outdoors you’ll have this exact sort of experience—you more likely won’t, and, if you think about it, that’s good because it’s best for loggerheads and the earth’s ecosystem if turtles aren’t injured on a routine basis. Whatever experience you do have, however, is bound to be fun, educational and well worth your time, effort and investment.
It may even be worth the risk of losing your camera. Better yet, get a waterproof disposable one.
I once saved a great horned owl. It’s a great but lengthy story, so to sum up: I was a teacher and the first to arrive at the school each morning to unlock the building, turn down chairs, and receive any children who were dropped off early. One morning, dozens of crows were swooping around in the fenced playground. As I got a better look at the situation, I noticed a great horned owl was also in the mix, flopping around near the ground. It had a broken wing and the crows were pecking at the vulnerable owl. As long as I stood in the playground waving my arms around, the crows left the owl alone. The owl kept trying to escape over the fence, but couldn’t get enough lift with his (her?) one workable wing. Another teacher arrived, took over school duties so I could continue protecting the injured owl, and once the principal arrived she called the state Department of Natural Resources. After a few hours, help arrived. I was literally a scare crow for an entire morning. My arms were exhausted. So was the owl. Once the ranger got hold of the owl, it sat calmly on his arm. The ranger was even able to bring the owl into the school and show it to the students. “The wing is badly broken,” the ranger said as the owl blinked and looked around the classroom. “It’s unlikely this bird will fly again. But he’s beautiful. He’ll probably become an ambassador for us.” I imagine the owl spent his retirement going on tour from one school to another, sitting patiently on a ranger’s arm during lectures about birds.
– Photo Credits: Roseate spoonbill and sea turtle images courtesy Black River Outdoors; great horned owl courtesy Univ. of MN Raptor Center; beach © HSP Media LLC
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