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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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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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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