Tuesday, members of the St. Simons Island Sea Turtle Project discovered one of the eight nests on the island — No. 7 — hatched overnight, but many hatchlings from the “robust, otherwise successful hatch” crawled away from the ocean and instead died from exposure or from getting caught in beach gear that was left nearby, around the area of 9th Street, south of Gould’s Inlet.
“On our developed beaches, it’s something that happens pretty commonly — it’s really variable,” said Mark Dodd, director of the state Department of Natural Resources’ sea turtle program. “It depends on the season, (and) a lot of it has to do with where the nests are placed on the beach (and) how close they are to the artificial lighting.
“Surprisingly, on our undeveloped beaches, we still actually have a relatively small, but significant portion of nests where we have misoriented hatchlings, and it runs somewhere between 10-15 percent. In these cases, the hatchlings are misoriented by artificial light from skyglow from distant cities or industrial sites.”
Sea turtles, through their evolution, are accustomed to dark beaches and when they emerge from their nests, their instinct is to head to the brightest light on the horizon, which is supposed to be light reflected off the ocean. However, when that’s not the case, hatchlings can end up dying from exposure on the beaches and in the dunes, or eaten by any number of predators that roam the beaches, from ghost crabs to armadillos, raccoons and wild hogs.
“It’s an issue we deal with every year,” Dodd said. “We do lighting surveys on the developed beaches, and we identify houses, or businesses that have artificial lights that may be a problem for sea turtles, and we just ask them to retrofit those lights with turtle-friendly lights….”
Problems do arise, though, if a residence is unoccupied at times of the surveys and the lights aren’t on, but are turned on at other times during sea turtle nesting season, so it can be difficult to make completely sure the beaches are safe.
According to the SSI Sea Turtle Project, volunteers and DNR staff excavated three other nests Tuesday ahead of possible effects from Hurricane Florence. A post on the Sea Turtle Project’s Facebook page state Nest 5 had a 93.5 percent hatch rate and Nest 6 had an 86.3 percent hatch rate. Nest 4 was at day 69 of its incubation and was washed over several times during that period, without hatching yet. Sunday, Nest 3 showed a 97.8 percent hatch rate.
“We’re a little bit concerned about the storm surge,” Dodd said about the approaching Florence. “We’ve had some large tides over the last three or four days ... So, we’re monitoring that really closely.”