It’s been a banner season so far this year for loggerhead turtle nests, with statewide totals exceeding 1,000 for the fourth time since the mid-1990s, and Bald Head Island noting a five-year high.
“The last time we saw numbers like this (110 nests to date), it was the last century,” said Suzanne Dorsey, director of the Bald Head Island Conservancy, which runs turtle protection efforts for the island. Sea turtles are generally sexually mature at age 30, the same anniversary celebrated this year by the conservancy.
Dorsey said some of the same turtles that swam precariously to the ocean three decades ago are coming home to nest where they were born.
“They’ve really closed the circle,” Dorsey said. “That’s rare, and the community should really get the credit.”
Dorsey noted that long-term data points to declines but said she hoped a strong season this year might be “a plateau of decline…. It’s a really good data point to have, and we hope we’ll see an increase.”
Other recent years with big numbers for Bald Head Island were 1998, with 108 nests, and 2008, with 104.
Bald Head Island, Caswell Beach and Oak Island participate in a DNA program that samples one egg from each nest. This can allow for tracking individual females to monitor nesting trends. It’s common for females to nest in more than one place for a season or two, then take a summer “off” and rest or lay only a single clutch. False crawls are when females come ashore but do not make a nest.
Dorsey said the DNA testing helped determine that the North Atlantic population of loggerheads is a distinct subset, one of nine worldwide.
Oak Island Parks and Recreation Department director Kellie Beeson said the town was on pace to see 90 nests this summer, with 87 currently. The first nest was laid May 12 and there have been four hatches, Beeson said.
One Oak Island nest was dramatically sheared from a dune by the strong storms with high tides and southwest winds. Extreme high tides were the cause of nearly all relocations reported at area beaches.
Turtle volunteers said predation by foxes or raccoons has not been a significant problem this season. They do ask, however, for visitors to help the turtles by picking up litter and taking chairs and other gear off the strand after dark. It’s also important to fill in holes to protect turtles—and people.
Caswell Beach’s six teams of volunteers put cages around nests as a precaution. There are 53 nests, and the beach has seen two hatches and 65 false crawls, reported Lynda Smith, who has worked as a volunteer for 14 years.
“It’s a typical year for us and it started slowly,” Smith said.
She urged visitors to dim their lights and pay attention to the volunteers who watch over the nests.
Nesting usually tapers off in August and generally ends by September in North Carolina. Comprehensive monitoring started in the mid-1990s. The other three big years were last season—2012, with 1,074 nests; 1999, which saw 1,140 nests and 1994, when 1,021 nests were reported.
Dorsey noted that the increase at Bald Head Island and statewide could be part of the usual cycle. She said it’s also possible that this winter’s beach renourishment provided more nesting habitat.
“The end result is fantastic, and it’s good news for sea turtles and good news for the communities that try to protect them,” Dorsey said