SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Following a disappointing 2014, sea turtle nests along the North Carolina coast are making a comeback. At the end of the nesting season last summer, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission reported a 58 percent decline in nests on the state’s beaches with only 565 recorded. The previous year had seen 1,303. But this summer, local beaches are reporting quite the opposite.
Patrick Amico, a ranger with the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, said nesting numbers along the 7-mile stretch of beach he oversees at the southern tip of New Hanover County are at a record-high 83 as of this week. “So far, we are 31 nests higher than our previous record within last 30 years of data collection,” he said, noting they expect to see a few more before the season is over. Each year, sea turtle nesting is a cyclical occurrence, when nest numbers vary from years of diminished numbers followed by dramatic turnarounds. “Last year was very low, so we expected a rebound,” Amico said. “But we are definitely surprised by how much of a rebound we have seen.” Eileen Ramsdale with the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program said the Brunswick County islands have seen 96 nests so far this season and nearly 40 have already hatched. That number is reminiscent of 2013, when Oak Island saw 93 nests, and is more than triple the 31 nests seen last year. “It is a banner year and a record year for us,” Ramsdale said. “But it is not outrageously high compared to the year before last. It comes in cycles.”
The fluctuation in nests can, in part, be attributed to female turtles’ tendency to reproduce every two to three years, causing some years to be less fruitful than others. This summer Carolina Beach has seen 14 nests — already a dozen more than the New Hanover County town saw all of last year, said Nancy Busovne, coordinator of the Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project. Kure Beach, meanwhile, has seen 11. On Topsail Island’s 26 miles of coastline, Terry Meyer, director of the island’s nesting program, said they began this year with a bang and brazen prediction that they might hit 100 nests after only seeing 53 last year. As of Wednesday, they had 64.
While that is up from last year, Meyer said DNA results from the nests have shown that some of their local turtles are sharing their nests with other beaches. “The DNA results have been interesting,” she said. “Each turtle nests multiple times, but some use other habitats.” She said there have been indications that turtles nesting at Topsail Island have also nested at Camp Lejeune, Wrightsville Beach and Cape Lookout.
And it isn’t just loggerhead turtles that are visiting the Tar Heel State’s beaches. Just adding to their record year, Amico said Fort Fisher played host to a Kemp’s Ridley nest this summer and tests show it had a 100-percent success rate for its hatchlings. Kemp’s Ridleys are the smallest marine turtles in the world, and one of the most endangered. “That is rare for North Carolina and we think it is the only confirmed nest of its kind this year,” Amico said.
Female sea turtles have returned in force to the state’s beaches in 2015. Here are the number of nests recorded at some local beaches so far this year:
Fort Fisher State Rec.
2015* – 83
2014 – 18
Bald Head Island
2015* – 98
2014 – 33
2015* – 96
2014 – 31
2015* – 14
2014 – 2
2015* – 11
2014 – 3
2015* – 64
2014 – 53
*Nesting season generally runs through August
Sources: N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission; local turtle nesting projects; Bald Head Island Conversancy
Star News: Hunter Ingram
Photo Courtesy Tobi DeFalco