Nightly sea turtle parade leading to possible record season
The numbers are bananas. Or, to be more accurate, they’re turtles. Or still, embryos. Regardless, as of noon Friday the best-available statistics showed 1,857 sea turtle nests with more than 70,700 estimated eggs laid on the Georgia coast — a staggering number for this point in the nesting season.
And that’s not all. According to data posted to seaturtle.org, Jekyll Island leads all sites in all states for the most nesting season events, with 314. The second place location — Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, an area just north of St. Augustine, Fla., shows 135 events.
When the numbers came in for May, they were eye-opening, to say the least — 1,029 is simply staggering compared to the monthly numbers going back the last several years.
In writing to the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative at the beginning of June, state Department of Natural Resources biologist Mark Dodd said, “The average loggerhead nesting in May over the last 10 years is 339 nests. The previous high nest total was 596 nests in 2016. It’s important to remember that the May nesting numbers are not always indicative of the final nest total. We have seen seasons where nesting started strong early only to tail off quickly at the end.
“That said, 1,000 nests is nearly twice our previous high nest number and suggests a record year for 2019. That’s pretty exciting news given the hard work put into sea turtle conservation efforts by Coop members in the past. Hopefully everyone is prepared for a lot of digging in the sand this summer.”
Going back five years, May nesting totals included 598 (2016), 514 (2017), 453 (2015), 251 (2018) and 127 (2014). The total already for this year surpasses where 2018 and 2014 finished altogether. June could end with 1,600-1,700 nests, but nothing is certain. As Dodd said, nesting may have peaked early this year, but as of Friday noon there were 827 reported nests for June. Ending the month at 2,600-2,700 overall would overtake final numbers every year except 2016, going back to 2009, with July and August left to pad the stats.
While a number of state sea turtle experts went into the season optimistic for a big season, even one to rival 2016’s final 3,291 nests and estimated 335,834 eggs, watching it happen is a different kettle of fish — or bucket of hatchlings. One night recently, turtles laid around 20 nests on Ossabaw Island. Little St. Simons Island Ecological Coordinator Kate Tweedy noted in a tweet Tuesday that LSSI and DNR have worked to protect sea turtle nesting areas on LSSI for more than 30 years. She said staff on the island are seeing around four or five new nests a day.
Nests tend to be hard to come by on St. Simons Island because of the development and light pollution. But during this high-volume nesting season, chances are more likely for nesting on the island. For instance, SSI sported 13 nests during the 2016 season, and even though last year was a lower total for the state overall, St. Simons still had nine nests. There are four so far this season, and two showed up during one night during the first week of June.
According to the data posted to seaturtle.org, predation hasn’t been a major issue yet. However, sea turtle eggs provide a nice meal to a number of native and invasive coastal species. On the beaches closest to Brunswick, ghost crabs have been the main culprits, but it’s different in different places. Feral hogs, for instance, are a menace typically wherever they’re found, and barrier islands are no different.
Carleigh Quick reported to the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative that a feral hog on Ossabaw Island got into a nest and nearly wiped it out entirely.
“Out of the 84 eggs I counted, there was one remaining,” Quick said Wednesday. “I took it upon myself to relocate and to protect it in hopes that it’ll develop into the ‘Nemo’ of the turtles. I am very optimistic.”
She also noted Ossabaw hit 300 loggerhead nests by that time — as of 1:35 p.m. Friday, there were 315.
On other islands, there are unusual events like dawn nesting. Jaynie Gaskin, executive coordinator of the Georgia Southern Sea Turtle Program, reported one June 6 on St. Catherines Island. Breanna Ondich, research specialist for the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, noted at least three daytime false crawls June 5 on Jekyll Island.
How many of these eggs hatch to release turtles that make their way out of the nest is a bit of a roll of the dice — typically, mean emergence success ranges between 50 and 65 percent. But more nests mean more eggs, and more eggs mean a better chance for a larger amount of hatchlings to make their way into the ocean. The massive 2016 season had a mean emergence success of 58.5 percent, resulting in 206,727 hatchlings leaving the nest.