SAVANNAH — Rare loggerhead sea turtles spent a busy summer laying eggs on beaches in Georgia and the Carolinas, where nest counts this year smashed previous state records by double-digit margins.
"We thought we'd have a lot of nests, but we didn't expect this big of a jump," said Mark Dodd, the state biologist who heads the sea turtle recovery program in Georgia, where volunteers since May have counted more than 3,250 nests dug in the sand by giant loggerhead turtles.
That's a whopping 40-percent increase from Georgia's previous record of 2,325 nests tallied a year ago. And neighboring states on the Atlantic coast are reporting peak nest counts of their own.
Preliminary figures for the nesting season, which runs from May through August, in show South Carolina and North Carolina each saw loggerhead nests jump 21 percent above their prior state records set 2013. The biologist who oversees nest counting in Florida, by far the busiest U.S. state for sea turtles, says 2016 is on track to be a record-breaking year there as well, though it's too early to say for sure.
"We have a pretty good feeling," said Anne Meylan, sea turtle nesting program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. "What we're seeing so far is indicative of a really good year."
Loggerhead sea turtles, which can grow up to 300 pounds, are protected by federal law as a threatened species. Each summer, adult females crawl from the surf of the Atlantic Ocean onto Southeastern beaches to dig nests for their ping-pong ball sized eggs.
During the nesting season, volunteers from North Carolina to Florida comb the shoreline each day around sunrise to catalog new nests and cover them with protective screens to keep out wild hogs and other predators until the eggs hatch.
Dodd said he suspects loggerhead nesting has taken a big leap in recent years because there are more female turtles reaching sexual maturity, thanks to conservation efforts that began three decades ago such as shielding nests from predators and requiring shrimp boats to use nets equipped with built-in escape hatches for turtles.
"Loggerheads are a very long-lived species and don't start reproducing until they're 30 years old," Dodd said. "If you let a population like that decline, it takes a lot of effort, time and money to recover those populations."
The work appears to be paying off. With only a few days left until nesting season officially ends Wednesday, preliminary numbers from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources show a statewide count of more than 6,300 loggerhead nests — easily topping the state's prior record of 5,193 set three years ago.
Likewise, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has reported 1,580 loggerhead nests this year. That beats the state's previous peak of 1,304 nests from 2013.
Unlike other states, Florida doesn't keep a running tally of sea turtle nests because of overwhelming numbers. Last year, 89,295 loggerhead nests were counted on more than 200 Florida beaches.
Those beaches aren't required to report their nest counts to state officials until the end of November, Meylan said. But Florida also tracks a smaller sampling of its overall nest count — using numbers from 36 beaches — to get an idea of how busy the overall nesting season looks. Meylan said counts from those sample beaches from May through July look promising enough that she suspects Florida might surpass its record of 98,603 loggerhead nests from 2012.
Even if Florida joins its neighbors in having their best nesting season on record, Meylan said she wouldn't draw any grand conclusions about the recovery of loggerhead turtles. She noted loggerhead nest numbers have fluctuated wildly since counting began in 1989, while other species such as leatherback and green sea turtles have shown steady increases.
"I'm nervous every year," Meylan said. "I don't feel like we know enough to say now we're on firm ground and the population is robust."