Sea turtles wrap up quality nesting season
- By WES WOLFE email@example.com
Even with a hurricane wiping out hundreds of nests, the Georgia sea turtle nesting season continued on pace as populations of the turtles grow and re-establish themselves off the coast.
“I guess we would characterize the season as above-average,” said Mark Dodd, coordinator of the state Department of Natural Resources sea turtle program. “So it was good, and we have a lot of high years and low years, but really, we’re interested in sort of the long-term trend in nesting. That’s what’s most important to us, in monitoring the population.
“Although nesting was down a little bit from last year, it was still above average, and we’re still looking at about a 2.5 percent increase each year, annually, over the 30-year period we’ve been monitoring nesting,” Dodd said. “So, we’re still in a recovery period, and things are still looking good for the recovery of loggerheads.”
The first and last nests logged for the year occurred on Cumberland Island — a loggerhead turtle laid her nest around May 1 to kick things off, and the last nest observed came courtesy of a green sea turtle Aug. 31. The first emergence, however, was a Kemp’s ridley turtle July 4 on Sea Island. The last emergence happened Sept. 8, from a loggerhead nest on Jekyll Island.
Along the Georgia coast, loggerheads laid 2,144 nests, followed by 24 green sea turtle nests, five from Kemp’s ridley turtles and one leatherback nest, along with 14 of unknown origin. The tides, and Hurricane Irma, did prove to be the most destructive force to nests this year, accounting for well more than half of all nests lost — an estimated 360. Wild hogs were the next most-responsible for nest loss, followed by raccoons and armadillos.
Research accounts for nearly half of all individual egg losses, followed by predation by raccoons, hogs, ghost crabs, armadillos and coyotes. Raccoons, because of their nimble hands, try to get under mesh covers researchers place over sea turtle nests in order to access the eggs.
“The season was certainly truncated at the end by the storm, by Hurricane Irma,” Dodd said. “And so at the very end of the season we lost — it was between 15 and 16 percent of the nests from the season were still in the ground, and we lost all those. But that’s something that sea turtles are used to. They evolved nesting on dynamic beaches, and certainly hurricanes are something they’ve had to deal with through their long evolutionary history.”
The green sea turtle nests mark a noticeable increase as they continue to move their nesting sites north. Dodd said 30 years ago there were not many green sea turtles in Florida at all, but that changed over the last 15-20 years, and now they are moving into Georgia. The Kemp’s ridley nests are unusual as well — they typically hang out in the Gulf of Mexico, nesting on the Mexican coast near Rancho Nuevo, which is around 234 miles south, by road, of Brownsville, Texas.
Turtles are not leaving yet, though — as long as the weather is good and ocean temperatures warmer than 55 degrees, they will stick around, Dodd said.
“We have relatively high concentrations of loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys and green sea turtles now feeding in the coastal waters — not just offshore in the ocean, but also up in the estuary,” Dodd said. “And then in the winter time when the water temperatures cool off and a lot of the hardshell turtles move offshore, leatherback sea turtles show up off the Georgia coast, primarily to feed on jellyfish species that are here.”