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Turtle nesting season has begun along Georgia, South Carolina beaches

Volunteers with South Carolina's Department of Natural resources have already started making...
Volunteers with South Carolina's Department of Natural resources have already started making their rounds looking for potential nests to flag.((Source: Live 5))
Published: May. 3, 2021 at 4:37 AM EDT|Updated: May. 3, 2021 at 1:10 PM EDT
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BRUNSWICK, Ga. (WRDA/WAGT) – Nesting season for loggerhead sea turtles in Georgia has started on schedule.

The annual cycle of these massive turtles returning to beaches in the Southeast to lay their eggs began in Georgia with a nest found Saturday morning on Little Cumberland Island. Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative members reported a second nest Sunday on Sea Island.

Georgia Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Mark Dodd said the first nests are always around the first of May.

“It’s kind of like clockwork,” he said.

This year’s first also has historical ties. While nesting has been monitored on all Georgia beaches since 1989, the network took root in 1964 when former University of Georgia professor Dr. Jim Richardson started the Little Cumberland Island Sea Turtle Project. That loggerhead monitoring effort is the oldest in North America and shares the status worldwide with a program started in South Africa the same year.

Georgia's first loggerhead turtle nest of the season was found May 1, 2021.
Georgia's first loggerhead turtle nest of the season was found May 1, 2021.(WRDW)

Little Cumberland Project Director Russell Regnery documented the nest on Little Cumberland on Saturday. Hundreds more will follow on Georgia barrier islands, with nesting season for the state’s leading marine turtle and a protected species hitting full stride by June.

Predicting a total is anyone’s guess, according to Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. But one question is whether 2021 can top the 2,786 nests last year, or better yet, the 3,950 in 2019, the most since comprehensive monitoring began.

The state’s previous record was 3,289 nests in 2016. The total in 2019 also marked the first time the chunky-headed marine turtles had topped a Georgia recovery benchmark of 2,800 nests.

The loggerhead population has been increasing at approximately 4 percent a year since the early 1990s. However, a new population model developed by the University of Georgia and the U.S. Geological Survey indicates the population will plateau at current levels for about the next 20 years. If current protections remain in place at least through that period, the model suggests loggerhead numbers would then start to increase again, possibly reaching levels not seen since the late 1950s.

Like other marine turtles, loggerheads – named for their large heads – crawl ashore on barrier island beaches, dig a hole at the base of the dunes and lay their eggs, usually at night.

To prep for the season, Dodd and staff have been training interns, working with volunteers, partner agencies and organizations, and teaming with DNR’s Law Enforcement Division, all while navigating social distancing and other requirements involving the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile in South Carolina ...

Volunteers with South Carolina’s Department of Natural resources have already started making their rounds looking for potential nests to flag.

“The passion is the protection,” Folly Beach lead coordinator Teresa Marshall said. “They’re lovely, wonderful creatures and we just want to do our best to take care of them.”

With travel ramping back up and more people returning to Lowcountry beaches, Marshall says it’s more important now than ever for volunteers to stay on top of conservation efforts.

“That is one reason why we want our volunteers out here first thing in the morning so that we can address tracks, nest relocations as soon as possible,” Marshall said.

Marshall said another challenge along Folly Beach is ongoing construction of the Pier, but crews are working with turtle nesting teams to keep bright lights and distractions down.

“We’ve got protocols in place for them to check in with us on a daily basis,” Marshall said. “They are actually going to be watching out for tracks as well.”

Melissa Ranly, manager of the Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium, said the number of nests fluctuate every other year, making this year not just busier for beachgoers, but loggerheads alike.

“Two years ago was a record-breaking year, so it’s a definite possibility that this is going to be a high year,” Ranly said.

A record 8,802 nests were found across the South Carolina coast in 2019.

“I am sure there’s going to be some more people on the beaches,” Ranly said. “Right now, we really want to give people some good positive ways that they can make sure it’s a safe environment for the animals to come up and nest.”

A few things people can do to help the turtles this summer is first, pick up litter and fill in any holes left on the beach.

“This is something that people from out of town might not think about ‚” Ranly said. “But a nursing turtle that’s crawling up in the middle of the night might not see a hole and might fall in that and become trapped.”

Also, turn out any bright lights as they can become dangerous distractions.

“For a female that is crawling up on the beach she can be distracted by that and crawl back into the water without laying her eggs,” Ranly said.

What you can do

Minimize beachfront lighting during sea turtle nesting season. Turn off, shield or redirect lights.

When walking the beach at night, don’t use flashlights and flash photography. They can deter turtles from coming ashore to nest or cause them to abort nesting.

If you encounter a sea turtle on the beach, remain quiet, still and at a distance.

Leave turtle tracks undisturbed. Researchers use them to identify the species and mark nests for protection.

Properly dispose of your garbage. Turtles may mistake plastic bags, Styrofoam and trash floating in the water as food. After ingesting trash, it can kill them by clogging their intestines.

Protect beach vegetation: It stabilizes sand and the natural coastline.

When boating, stay alert and avoid turtles. Of the sea turtles found dead or hurt in Georgia last year, 26 percent suffered injuries consistent with being hit by a boat. Boaters who hit a sea turtle are urged to stand-by and immediately call DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363).

Also report any dead or injured sea turtles seen at 800-272-8363. (If the turtle is tagged, include the tag color and number in the report if possible.)

From reports by WRDW/WAGT and WCSC