The Start of Sea Turtle Nesting

The 2015 sea turtle nesting season is off to a busy start on Little St. Simons Island and along the coast of Georgia. As of June 4 we have already found 35 sea turtle nests on LSSI and 545 nests have been recorded statewide this season.

A loggerhead sea turtle nest

A freshly laid loggerhead sea turtle nest on LSSI. Photo Credit: Elise Diehl

 

Female sea turtles emerge from the ocean to lay nests above the high tide line from May until July. Eggs hatch two months later, and turtle hatchlings crawl from the nest to the ocean under the cover of night. On the Georgia coast, most of the nesting that occurs is from loggerhead sea turtles, but green and leatherback sea turtle nests have also been documented.

On Little St. Simons Island, 123 loggerhead nests were recorded in 2013 and 53 in 2014. These high and low emergence years are normal since loggerhead sea turtles mate every 2-3 years. This year is predicted to be a very active and successful season due to the population rebounding after being protected by the Endangered Species Act and fewer turtles breeding last year (with the mating cycle this should be a higher year).

Elise Diehl is returning for a second season as LSSI’s sea turtle technician. . Elise’s position is part of a long standing, close partnership with Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Sea turtle nesting and hatching has been monitored on LSSI since 1987. Elise bikes the seven miles of beach each morning at sunrise searching for turtle crawls. When a crawl is located she determines if the female turtle laid a nest, or decided to return to the ocean without nesting, known as a false crawl. A turtle false crawls when she feels threatened or does not find the site suitable for nesting. She will often return to the same area within the next few nights to attempt nesting again if this is the case.

Elise marks each nest with a numbered stake, and protective screens to keep predators, like raccoons and ghost crabs, from digging into the nest. If a nest is laid too close to the tide line, Elise relocates it to a higher site to prevent overwashing from tides. Tidal overwash can drown eggs and hatchlings waiting to emerge from the nest.

LSSI's Sea Turtle Technician, Elise Diehl, next to a staked and protected nest.

LSSI’s Sea Turtle Technician, Elise Diehl, next to a staked and screen protected nest.

If you would like to keep track of this season’s sea turtle nesting on LSSI or in Georgia, please visit seaturtle.org. We are hoping for a record year!

-Lauren Gingerella, Ecological Technician

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Sea turtle season is underway!

Turtle Tech, Elise Diehl

Georgia Nongame DNR Sea Turtle Technician: Elise Diehl

We are happy to announce the beginning of sea turtle nesting season here on the Georgia coast. Each year from May to August, female sea turtles laboriously crawl out of the ocean under the cover of darkness to deposit their eggs in dry sand. There, the eggs will incubate for about 60 days then hundreds of tiny turtle hatchlings will make their way out to sea.

Most of the nesting sea turtles on Georgia’s coast are loggerhead sea turtles, but so far this year Cumberland and Sapelo have each had a green sea turtle nest, and Blackbeard has had a leatherback nest.

On Little St. Simons Island, we found our first loggerhead nest on May 18th, with a total of 167 eggs! We are now up to seven nests, and are hoping to see nesting activity pick up in the next couple of weeks. Last year, we documented 119 nests!

Each year, LSSI works with the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative to monitor and protect turtle nests, and we are happy to have Elise Diehl as our sea turtle technician. Elise rides the entire length of the beach at dawn each day looking for the tracks of nesting females. She documents each crawl and nest she finds, and if necessary will relocate the nests that are in danger of being washed over by the tides too often during their incubation. Each nest is marked and screened with plastic mesh to deter predators, as well. As part of a coast-wide long term genetics project, Elise also takes a sample from each nest.

Elise is originally from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan but has been in Georgia since she was 16. Once she moved to Georgia, she was introduced to sea turtles and wanted nothing more than to work with them one day. While earning her B.S in Wildlife Sciences at the University of Georgia, she worked in the lab analyzing the genetic information being collected from each nest on the Georgia coast. Last summer, Elise monitored nesting turtles on Ossabaw Island. After spending a few months at the Georgia Aquarium, she is excited to be back on the coast for another season!

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Naturalist Fact: Leatherback Sea Turtle

Adult leatherback. Photo: Virginia Herpetological Society

Adult leatherback. Photo: Virginia Herpetological Society

The leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is the largest of the world’s seven species of sea turtles, and in terms of weight is the largest reptile on the planet as well. This impressive animal can reach 6 feet in length and weigh 900-1,000 pounds, with the largest leatherback ever recorded tipping the scale at over 2,000 pounds.

While the most common nesting sea turtle on the Georgia coast is the loggerhead, leatherbacks have nested on nearby islands a few times over the years. Blackbeard, Cumberland, Jekyll, Ossabaw, Sea Island, St. Catherines, St. Simons, and Sapelo have all had leatherback nests in the past five years.

To add to their list of superlatives, leatherbacks are the most widely ranging sea turtle in the world. Leatherbacks’ major nesting sites are in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Africa, southeastern Asia, and the South Pacific Islands, but their migrations can take them over 3,000 miles from their nesting grounds each year.

Leatherback hatchling. Photo: Laura Early

Leatherback hatchling. Photo: Laura Early

The leatherback’s diet consists mainly of jellyfish and other soft-bodied invertebrates, and because of special adaptations, leatherbacks are able to follow their food sources into much more frigid waters than other turtles are able to tolerate. A countercurrent heat exchange system and layers of fat help leatherbacks retain a warmer body temperature in cold waters. Special adaptations in their lungs also enable leatherbacks to dive deeper than any other turtle and most marine mammals—as deep as 4,000 feet, and these dives can last for up to 85 minutes.

The unique nature of their carapace also helps the leatherback complete these long, deep dives. Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback’s ribs and vertebrae are not fused to create a rigid shell, but instead are integrated into a cartilaginous layer. The layer of skin covering the matrix of bones and cartilage gives the turtle flexibility, hydrodynamics and protection in addition to its common name.

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Sea Turtle Update: Hatching begins!

Hatchling crawls across the wet sand in the early morning. (Photo: Laura Early)

Hatchling crawls across the wet sand in the early morning. (Photo: Laura Early)

Remember from our previous Sea Turtle Update, that Carol Anne Nichols, a sea turtle technician with Georgia Department of Natural Resources, has been hard at work all summer monitoring and protecting the sea turtle nests on Little St. Simons Island.

So far 2013 has been another great summer for sea turtle nesting on the Georgia Coast. Last year, previous nesting records were blown out of the water with a total of 2,244 nests. There was no lull this year–we have already surpassed that with 2,286 nests! Although nesting is slowing down, before it’s all over with we could add even more to that number.

Little St. Simons Island broke our own record last year with 116 nests, and we are dangerously close to breaking that record again this year. Our most recent nest was laid on July 30th, but since then we have found two undetected nests (nests that we missed when they were laid.)

Plastic screens protect these side-by-side nests from predators like racoons. (Photo: Laura Early)

Plastic screens protect these side-by-side nests from predators like racoons. (Photo: Laura Early)

As nesting winds down, hatching is taking off! We are having a couple nests hatch each evening. The hatchlings prefer to emerge from the sand under the cover of darkness to begin their treacherous journey out to the open ocean. When the tiny turtles crawl to the surface of the sand, they look for the light of the moon reflecting off the ocean to guide them in the right direction. Acting solely on instinct, they set out on a journey–a journey, for the females that will eventually lead back to this same spot.

Male Loggerhead sea turtles will never come up on a beach again in their lifetime, but females will go through the same process their mothers have, crawling out of the ocean and into the dunes to lay her own eggs. Because of a genetics project that has been going on in Georgia and neighboring states for the past several years, we are able to get a better picture of each individual’s nesting habits and the relatedness of the nesting females. We’ve had four females that have used our beach in 2009, 2011, and have come back again this year (2013). To learn more about the genetics research, click here.

As nests hatch, we dig each one up to take an inventory of hatched versus unhatched eggs. Some guests have been lucky enough to participate in these excavations, and even lucky enough to find a few live hatchlings. This morning, we watched five healthy hatchlings crawl to the ocean! Of the nests that have been excavated thus far we have had a hatching success rate of 72.5%.

Loggerhead wiggles out of its leathery shell. (Photo: Laura Early)

Loggerhead wiggles out of its leathery shell. (Photo: Laura Early)

In the coming weeks, we will have many more nests hatching and inventoried. Stay tuned for the final tally of this year’s sea turtle season.

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Sea Turtle Update: 2013

False crawl: Often turtles will come onto the beach, but turn back to the ocean without laying a nest. Photo: Carol Anne Nichols.

False crawl: Often turtles will come onto the beach, but turn back to the ocean without laying a nest. Photo: Carol Anne Nichols.

As many of you know, we are well into sea turtle nesting season here on the Georgia coast. Each year from May to August, female sea turtles (mostly Loggerheads) crawl out of the ocean under the cover of darkness and lay their eggs in the sand. The female scoops out an inverted lightbulb-shaped nest in the sand and drops an average of 120 eggs into her nest before covering them back up. During the nesting season, a female lays an average of four nests, with about two weeks between each nest.

Coordinated by the Nongame Section of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, members of the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative work together to monitor and protect sea turtle nesting along Georgia’s coast.

This year, Little St. Simons Island has 101 nests on our beaches. Two of these were Green Sea Turtles, and the rest were Loggerheads. This year’s sea turtle technician, Carol Anne Nichols, has relocated a little over half the nests this year (54 nests) because they were laid too close to the high tide line. If a nest gets inundated by the tides too many times during incubation, the eggs can actually drown.

Sea turtle nests have an incubation period of about 60 days, and with our first nest laid on May 18th, they should begin hatching any day now. Wassaw had the first nest to hatch on the Georgia coast on July 15th, and our neighbors to the south on Sea Island had their first nest hatch just two days ago. Each morning, Carol Anne is checking the nests for a depression in the sand which indicates that the hatchlings are moving around beneath the sand and are ready to make their journey to the ocean.

Sea turtle eggs after they had been relocated and are ready to buried in the sand once more. Photo: Carol Anne Nichols.

Sea turtle eggs after they had been relocated and are ready to buried in the sand once more. Photo: Carol Anne Nichols.

We have also been lucky this summer to encounter a few adult turtles on the beach as well! On one of our evening turtle walks, a group of guests were able to experience an enormous female Loggerhead crawling back into the ocean! We were also able to rescue a female who was stranded at Main Beach this June. She was successfully transported to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll where she was put on an antibiotic regimen after tests revealed her red blood cell count to be very low.

The Georgia coast is having another great year with 1,923 nests. Last year was a record-breaking 2, 241 nests! Stay tuned to see how many more nests are laid in the next couple of weeks.

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Sea Turtle Update: Coming to a close

Loggerhead sea turtle hatchling crawls to the ocean. (Photo courtesy of Natalie Folsom.)

Sea turtle season is wrapping up. Our last nest was laid on August 3rd, and all but 20 nests have hatched and been excavated. As the nests began to hatch, we discovered a few “wild” nests, ones that weren’t detected or marked right after they were laid, the only evidence being several tiny turtle tracks spread across the sand.  This brings our total to 116 nests–a record for Little St. Simons Island!

As the beach changed throughout the summer due to winds, currents, tides, and other factors, we accumulated a thick line of wrack (dead Spartina grass) at the base of the dunes. Most of the nests laid in the latter part of the season ended up in this wrack line and therefore had to be relocated, resulting in a high relocation percentage of 60% (70 of 115 nests). However, we are also experiencing a high hatching success rate. The average hatch success rate so far is 73%, and the majority of nests have had 60% success or higher. One of our nests that was relocated this season had 100% hatch success, which is almost unheard of for a relocated nest or ones left undisturbed!

Sea turtle technician, Natalie Folsom, carries hatchlings down to the ocean. (Photo: Britt Brown.)

Five days after we see the first signs of emergence, we will excavate the nest and take an inventory of hatched eggshells, unhatched eggs, dead hatchlings, and live hatchlings. This data is used to determine the hatching success rate for our beach. These excavations also provide a great opportunity to see live hatchlings that may have been unable to make it out of the nest on their own.

We have also had several sea turtles stranded on our beach this year. Two of which were large Loggerheads with splits in their carapace, possibly results of boat collisions. A smaller Loggerhead was found alive and transported to the nearby Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island for rehabilitation.
This sea turtle nesting season has been a busy one for the entire Georgia coast, with a total of 2,226 nests. For more nesting data for the Georgia coast, check out SeaTurtle.org.
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A rare visitor…

Several days ago I set out with a small group of guests for what I expected would be a routine day of seining and surf fishing. While I pulled the seine net along the shoreline, I expected to bring in an assortment of small fish, crabs, and marine invertebrates.  I was hoping for something special like a bonnethead shark or a large redfish. The last thing I expected to hear when I finally dragged the net ashore were shouts of  “A turtle! A turtle!”

Sure enough, a small juvenile sea turtle was kicking and straining against the net. He was only slightly larger than a dinner plate, making him just a few years old (Loggerhead Sea Turtles can take up to 35 years to reach maturity). Everyone enjoyed an up close look at the very surprised turtle, and I quickly returned it to the water, where it rapidly swam back to deeper water.

Juvenile sea turtles of several species routinely visit Georgia’s inshore waters during the warmer months, foraging in our nutrient rich creeks, rivers, and shoals. It therefore wasn’t a complete shock to find one so close to the beach, but it was still unusual – turtles typically would be expected to shy away from such a slow moving net, and in fact, this was the first time one had been captured in years of seining on Little St Simons Island.

So imagine my surprise when, just a few days later, on another seining excursion, the net was hauled in to reveal another juvenile sea turtle! On closer inspection, it turned out to be the same individual. By now ‘puzzled’ and ‘concerned’ joined ‘surprised’ on the list of emotions running through my head.  Catching the same turtle twice in a short period of time didn’t strike me as a promising sign. A closer look at the turtle revealed several scrapes and cuts on the shell, some of which were still lightly bleeding. I also made a discovery that had escaped my notice the first time around. In my haste to return the turtle to the water, I’d completely overlooked that the little guy was no loggerhead at all, but a rare Kemp’s Ridley.

The Kemp’s Ridley may be the rarest sea turtle in the world. It certainly has the most restricted nesting range – until recently, just a single beach on the Gulf coast of Mexico. As recently as the mid-20th century, they nested in spectacular events called arribadas (Spanish for “arrival”), where thousands of turtles would simultaneously nest in broad daylight. However, as word of the location of the nesting sites spread, poaching of eggs and adults took a toll, leaving as few as 200 adults nesting a year – down from as many as 42,000 in a single day in 1947! Now, the population is slowly recovering, with around 8,000 nests per year.

Unlike our more familiar loggerheads, the Kemp’s Ridley is not know to nest in Georgia, though a handful of nests have been recorded in the Carolinas and Atlantic coast of Florida. The vast majority of the population may never leave the Gulf of Mexico. However, juveniles will often get carried by offshore currents out of the Gulf and into the Gulf Stream, where they arrive in Georgia’s nearshore waters. These young individuals will stay in our area for some time, feeding on crabs and other marine life before returning to Mexico to breed.

Given the condition of the individual in our hands and the overall rarity of the species, we decided to take no chances with its health. Fortunately, nearby Jekyll Island is home to a state-of-the-art sea turtle hospital and research institute. After a couple phone calls, the staff of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center arranged to meet us on St. Simons to take the turtle to their facility. After quick truck and boat rides, the turtle was soon in the capable hands of the Turtle Center.

At last report, the turtle was doing well and seemed to be in good health. He was eating readily and soon should be ready to be returned to the ocean. We’ll keep everybody updated on his status as we hear more from Jekyll!

Photos courtesy of Robin Lacey

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Enter Our Turtle Nest Contest to Win A Free Night!

The first reported loggerhead turtle nest of the 2011 season was found on Jekyll Island this week!  We haven’t seen any activity on Little St Simons Island’s beaches yet but we are so excited for the beginning of turtle season.  To celebrate, we are launching a contest and an opportunity for our facebook friends to win a free night’s stay on the island!  To participate, click on the Contest tab on our facebook page, and then enter a prediction for the total number of sea turtle nests that we will find during this year’s nesting season.

 Loggerhead sea turtles are the most common nesters on Georgia beaches, but occasionally we’ll also see Green sea turtles and Leatherbacks.  Nesting season typically runs from May thru August, with the peak activity between mid June thru mid July.  A female sea turtle comes ashore to nest an average of 2-3 times a season, although some may produce more nests.  During the night, the turtle pulls herself from the ocean, up the beach to the primary dunes, digs a cavity with her back flippers and then deposits her eggs.  She lays an average of 120 eggs, which are about the same size and shape as a ping pong ball but with a soft leathery shell.  She buries the eggs, tries to disguise the area by flinging sand, and then returns to the ocean.  After approximately sixty days of incubation the eggs hatch, and, during the night, the hatchlings emerge and rush to the ocean where they’ll spend the rest of their lives.  Males are rarely seen out of the water, and females only come ashore to nest.  We patrol and monitor our beaches daily, and help protect the nests by laying a protective screen over them to deter predators like raccoons and ghost crabs.

 On Little St Simons Island, the total number of nests varies considerably year-by-year.  The chart below shows our nesting trends since 2004, and may help you make a more accurate prediction!  We’ll keep you updated as the season progresses.  Additional information can also be found on the website www.seaturtle.org.   This contest, which just launched this morning, will run until 5 pm EST on June 3rd, and we’ll announce a winner when the season concludes in September.  Good luck and please let your friends and family know about this fun opportunity to celebrate our nesting sea turtles!

Year Number of Nests
2004 25
2005 50
2006 58
2007 36
2008 113
2009 68
2010 111
2011 ?
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Sea Turtle Hatchlings

Sea turtle nests on Little St. Simons Island are now beginning to hatch, and new nests are still being laid as well. The total number of nests on LSSI is 106. To date, there have been 154 additional emergences of females who did not nest.  Of the 106 nests, 33 have hatched already (31%). 2402 live hatchlings have been accounted for in the hatched nests. The mean incubation period for the nests this season is 52 days.

Island guests have had the opportunity to accompany our naturalists and the turtle intern to inventory hatched nests. The nests are dug up; hatched and unhatched eggs are counted, and occasionally there have been a few live hatchlings in the nests that were put on the beach to return to the sea! To watch a baby sea turtle  make its way to the shore then dive in to catch its first wave and come back up for air, and keep paddling vigorously out to sea is possibly one of the best images of summer on our beaches! What else can compare?

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Busy Weekend for Loggerheads

The past two nights have been incredibly active for Loggerhead sea turtles on Little St. Simons Island, relative to the number of emergences typically seen on our beach. On Friday morning, our turtle intern Kristina Hammond spent the morning exploring 10 turtle activities from the previous night; there were two nests and eight false crawls, bringing our totals to 17 nests and 23 false crawls for the season.

Today naturalist Abby Sterling rode the beach, and was astonished to find that last night was even busier for turtles. She discovered a total of seven nests and eight additional false crawls! The totals as of June 5 are now 24 nests and 31 false crawls! This is shaping up to be one of our biggest turtle seasons, if things continue at the present pace. The highest year so far on LSSI was in 2008, with 113 nests.

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