This summer hasn’t been entirely filled with doom and gloom for ocean life, as it turns out.
Case-in-point: the giant loggerhead sea turtle, which is shattering nesting records this summer across the beaches of the southeastern U.S.
Researchers are saying that the turtles are laying eggs all along the coast of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, making about 12,200 nests—breaking through the previous record of 11,321 nests in 2016.
The rare turtles emerge from the Atlantic Ocean before crawling ashore to dig their nests in the sand along the southern Atlantic coast, laying around 100 pingpong-ball sized eggs at a time. The nesting season runs from May through August, with volunteers cataloging new nests and covering them with screens to protect them from predators. And the efforts have already seen the previously highest count outpaced in mid-July.
University of Georgia professor Joe Nairn, who studies adult female turtles using the DNA extracted from eggshell samples, told AP News:
“My laboratory is almost floor-to-ceiling in samples right now.
It’s pretty obvious to us that this is a big year.”
Giant loggerhead sea turtles were declared a threatened species in 1978, causing states in the region to take up measures to conserve the species and monitor and protect their nests. Since 1987, shrimp boats trawling coastal waters of the U.S. have been required to equip their nets with escape hatches.
Now, three decades later, the measures are bearing fruit in large part because female loggerheads don’t become fully mature and begin nesting until they reach the age of about 30.
The nest counts have been a crucial tool indicating the overall health of the loggerhead population. Female loggerheads typically lay eggs only every three to four years, so nest counts tend to fluctuate. Yet scientists are excited about the leap in total nests over the last fifteen years.
In Georgia, over 3,500 loggerhead nests have been recorded—surpassing the previous record of 3,289 in 2016. State biologist Mark Dodd, who heads the Georgia sea turtle recovery program, believes that the final count could reach 4,000 by the end of August.
Loggerhead nesting along the 100-mile coastline of Georgia plummeted to less than 400 nests in 2004. Dodd sees the rebound as the result of conservation measures taken decades ago.
Michelle Pate, who leads the sea turtle program for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said:
“They’ve been able to survive to maturity and reproduce and come back to lay eggs.
It’s been a long haul, but I think we’re finally seeing it pay off.”
This year in South Carolina alone, over 7,100 nests were counted on its beaches—over 600 more nests than the previous record from 2016. In the meantime, North Carolina has reached a nest count of over 1,640. “Based on what we’ve seen so far, we are confident in saying that Florida is having a robust season,” Beth Mongiovi, a sea turtle researcher for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, said by email. “As to this being a record year for loggerheads, it is too early to say.”
Florida has seen such abundant sea turtle nesting that the state doesn’t even keep a survey during the nesting season, with final tallies being completed typically during the fall.
Beth Mongiovi, a sea turtle researcher for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, commented:
“Based on what we’ve seen so far, we are confident in saying that Florida is having a robust season … As to this being a record year for loggerheads, it is too early to say.”