SAVANNAH - Conservationists anticipate another strong year for nesting by rare sea turtles on the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas after nest totals last year neared or surpassed record numbers.
As of Monday, preliminary numbers showed at least 62 nests filled with loggerhead sea turtle eggs had been recorded on beaches in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina since the nesting season began May 1. The giant turtles, a federally protected species that can grow to weigh up to 300 pounds, typically lay eggs through the end of August.
Sea turtle experts in all three states said the nest counts for the past two weeks don't give many clues about whether the final 2016 numbers will be high or low. But based on past trends, there may be reason for optimism.
"We would expect to see an above average year this year," said Mark Dodd, the wildlife biologist who coordinates Georgia's sea turtle recovery program for the state Department of Natural Resources.
Because sea turtles don't lay eggs every year, nesting in the region often fluctuates in three-year cycles - two strong years followed by a decline, Dodd said. All three states saw numbers dip in 2014, only to rebound last year. Georgia counted a record 2,292 nests in 2015, with South Carolina and North Carolina reporting numbers just shy of their state records.
Turtle nests began popping up a week to 10 days earlier than normal in the Carolinas this year, likely because of warmer ocean temperatures.
"That might signal that we could get more nests this year," said Matthew Godfrey, sea turtle program coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. "But it's still pretty early."
The vast majority of loggerhead turtle nesting in the U.S. takes place in Florida, which counted 89,295 total nests last year. With 216 beaches reporting nest numbers statewide, Florida doesn't keep a running tally, said Anne Meylan, statewide nesting program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
As of Monday afternoon, Georgia and South Carolina had reported 27 loggerhead nests apiece this year, while North Carolina's count was eight.
During the sea turtle nesting season, federal and state wildlife agencies and a small army of volunteers comb beaches in the region each morning for freshly dug turtle nests filled with eggs. The workers catalog each nests and typically put up a protective mesh to foil predators.
For the third year in a row, Georgia's first nest of 2016 was found on federally protected Cumberland Island, where National Park Service biologist Doug Hoffman and his interns recorded a whopping 583 nests last year.
It's a sign of progress, Hoffman said, considering Cumberland Island averaged about 225 nests per year from the 1990s until 2009.
"If we continue our trend, we could have 600 nests this year," Hoffman said. "You just can't tell until it's over."