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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Midway through sea turtle season, and going strong!

Natalie, this year's sea turtle technician, with a Loggerhead she encountered on her way back to the sea.

As of June 20th, we are half way through the nesting season, and the busy period has commenced! We have had 29 new nests laid in the past two weeks. There are now 82 nests, with most on Rainbow Beach (south of where Mosquito Creek empties into the ocean). Forty-five of these nests have been relocated (54.9%), which is higher than the 30% guideline but acceptable for our beaches this year based on the large area susceptible to wash-overs as well as the sections of eroding dunes. 

We have had 126 false crawls thus far. As the number of nests laid per day has increased in the past week, there have also been fewer false crawls. This is probably in part due to the sand drying out after our long rainy period. The false crawl rates have been higher than normal this year on all of the Georgia islands due to the rain and heavy amount of wrack on the beaches.

Mark Dodd, sea turtle biologist with Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently sent out an update on the nesting season.  As of June 20th, we’ve had 1,043 loggerhead nests in Georgia, meaning that we may reach 2,000 nests this year! Here is a summary he included of loggerhead nesting in recent years:

Hatchlings should start emerging any day now! Only two nests on the Georgia coast have hatched, one on Cumberland (at 74 days) and one on Sea Island (at 67 days). Mark believes that the first couple of nests will take longer to hatch based on the rain and cooler temperatures of the early part of the season. 

Our first nest is at 67 days today, and we have three other nests that are past 60 days as well as 4 past 50 days, with 3 more joining the group tomorrow!

Stay tuned for hatching updates~

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