There are so many sea turtles nesting on Georgia’s coast so often, sometimes you can see them in the daytime. In that same vein, on special days, beachgoers might discover turtle tracks preserved in the late morning light, heading from the tide and into the dunes. Several days ago, Georgia topped its all-time nesting record, and as of late Friday afternoon, there were 3,550 nests. That’s 259 more than the 2016 record.
And hatchlings are already heading out into the ocean.
“It’s been a really hot summer so far, so we have a lot of nests that are actually emerging quite a bit quicker than that right now,” said Mark Dodd, head of the state Department of Natural Resources sea turtle program. He was speaking at one of One Hundred Miles’ Naturalist 101 presentations. “The sex of the hatchling is actually determined by the temperature of incubation. Sea turtles don’t have sex chromosomes — or, at least, we haven’t found them — and so their sex is determined by temperature.”
Incubation averages around 60 days, but some of these nests are hatching around 50 days, which statistics indicate a higher female to male ratio. Cumberland and St. Catherines islands had their first hatchings around July 2, Ossabaw Island had its first nest emergence around July 4.
Different areas across the state are in the process of breaking their individual nesting records. Cumberland eclipsed its highest number Wednesday with the discovery of nest No. 868, according to the data on seaturtle.org. At press time Friday, there were 892 nests. Little Cumberland had 106 nests in 2016, and as of Thursday was as 123. Jekyll Island had 182 nests as of Friday, topping 2016’s 170. And it’s not over yet.
“They generally lay between one and eight nests a season — the average is about five and a half or six nests a season,” Dodd said. “They’re like clockwork — every 12 days, they’re on the beach, once they start nesting. They lay approximately 115 eggs per nest, but can be variable — the most I’ve seen this year is 185 a nest, and the lowest about 55.”
As it is, sea turtles nest in a fashion to deal with a lot of threats, hence the high number of eggs.
But turtle conservation teams try to help the best they can, which includes the mesh nest covers and other methods to handle predators like raccoons, wild hogs and coyotes.
“As recently as two years ago, we lost 70 percent of the nests on St. Catherines Island because the hog population goes out of control,” Dodd said. “We had to go in there and remove quite a few hogs. This year on Blackbeard, we got one hog that figured it out and took 26 nests in two nights…. So, it’s a pretty big issue that we spend a lot of time on.”
While this year appears to be the best ever since sea turtle conservation began in Georgia, there remains work to do. Between set goals and other matrices, it’s estimated to be around another 10 years before sea turtles in this area can be considered recovered.
“They’re really one of the iconic species of the coast,” Dodd said. “They define who we are, they’re a part of who we are. If we lose them, which we were really concerned we were going to do in 2004, we lose a part of ourselves.”