Record numbers of sea turtles have crawled onto Carolinas beaches to lay eggs this year, advancing the slow comeback of animals still threatened by extinction.
North Carolina tallied 1,628 turtle nests this season, which ended Wednesday. That’s a 25 percent jump from last year and a state record for loggerheads, which account for nearly all Carolinas nesting sea turtles. South Carolina recorded 6,357 nests, also a state record, and Georgia and Florida expect to reach new highs.
Biologists caution that one prolific year can’t begin to reverse decades of decline. But it offers a small victory for turtles and the thousands of volunteers who dedicate early mornings and late nights to their revival.
Each summer brings an up-close drama of struggle and heartache, a touch of the wild reaching shores lined with beach houses.
“It’s like he grabbed hold of our hearts and hasn’t let go since,” Deb Boyce said of her first turtle sighting at Ocean Isle Beach, just above the South Carolina line, 19 years ago. “If you can imagine a silver dollar with a head and four flippers, that’s about what they are.”
Soon after Boyce and her husband Jim moved from Belmont to the beach, she saw what looked like tractor-tire tracks from the water’s edge to the dunes. She learned they were left by a female loggerhead, dragging herself from the sea for one of the few hours of her life to lay eggs.
Now the Boyces supervise a volunteer corps that swells to more than 150 in summer nesting season. They call their unpredictable hours Turtle Time.
Volunteers begin hitting the beach in May for nighttime “turtle crawls” to locate new nests, mark them to prevent disturbance and cover them with wire to keep out predators. Early-morning helpers patrol the beach to look for fresh turtle tracks and nests.
Six to eight weeks later, assigned “nest parents” working four-hour night shifts wait for hatchlings to emerge and steer them toward the sea. The volunteers also keep gathering crowds a safe distance from tiny voyagers that even detached scientists call adorable.
State biologists estimate at least 1,500 North Carolina volunteers like the Boyces and 1,300 in South Carolina support their work. “They play a huge role and we couldn’t do this without them,” said North Carolina sea turtle biologist Matthew Godrey.
But the volunteers’ labor pales beside the long odds of survival that hatchlings face. Morsels to all manner of fish and crabs, they will try to swim 35 miles to the warm edge of the Gulf Stream and grow up among floating mats of sargassum seaweed. Maybe one in 1,000 will reach maturity.
Those that reach adulthood will wield large heads and powerful jaws to crush the horseshoe crabs and whelks they grab from the sea floor. Adults can reach 300 pounds with shells four feet long.
Biologists who work with sea turtles are cheered by this year’s records but cautious about what they mean for the species. They say it could take decades of growing numbers for the species to recover.
Loggerheads who live off the Southeast coast have been listed as threatened since 1978. As recently as 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported loggerhead nests dropping by 1.3 percent a year off the Carolinas and Georgia since 1983.
Among the criteria for declaring the species recovered in our part of the Southeast coast are when loggerheads regularly dig 2,000 nests a year in North Carolina, 9,200 in South Carolina and 2,800 in Georgia.
Godfrey said more nests don’t necessarily mean more sea turtles. Females, who may lay 120 eggs in each of several nests, might have simply laid eggs more frequently this year. Nearly 70,000 hatchlings marched toward the sea from North Carolina’s beaches this summer.
“We hope it means more turtles,” Godfrey said of the nest record. “But it does mean more hatchlings are back in the water, so we’re happy.”
Laying 500 eggs a year takes a lot of energy, so the increase shows that nesting females are feeding well, added Charlotte Hope, a wildlife biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Even so, females don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re 25 to 30 years old so the population increases slowly.
Turtles also face growing threats, she said: boat strikes; beachfront seawalls that wipe out nesting sites; and tiny, ubiquitous bits of plastic, mistaken for food, that can kill or stunt hatchlings.
But South Carolina, like North Carolina, has recorded elevated nesting numbers in four of the past five years. Data previously yo-yoed from one year to the next. What does that mean?
“It’s probably that we’re seeing recovery,” she said.