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Science & Environment

Loggerhead Sea Turtles Lay Record-Breaking Number Of Nests In The Southeast This Year

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Loggerhead turtles have lumbered onto beaches up and down the southeast this year and laid eggs in a record-breaking number of nests. This is really good news for scientists who have worked for decades to help the turtles.

Molly Samuel of member station WABE looks at what's gone right in Georgia for the threatened ocean animals.

MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: Breanna Sorg is shoulder-deep in the sand, digging into a sea turtle nest.

BREANNA SORG: What we're looking for is hatched eggshells, unhatched eggshells and then dead or alive hatchlings.

SAMUEL: She's a turtle tech working for the state of Georgia on Ossabaw Island. It's a nature preserve near Savannah with miles of quiet, sandy beaches. Part of Sorg's job is to excavate nests a few days after they hatch to count the eggs - there are a hundred or more in every loggerhead nest - and to see if there are any stragglers.

SORG: We have a live one. He's spunky.

SAMUEL: She pulls the tiny loggerhead turtle out of the sand. It's dark gray with big eyes, just a few inches long. It churns its flippers in her hand, ready to start its sprint to the ocean.

SORG: He's so cute.

SAMUEL: Loggerhead turtles live in oceans all over the world, but their biggest nesting population is here in the southeast. Florida has the most nests. But this summer, in Georgia and the Carolinas, there are more nests than researchers have ever counted before. The states broke previous records, all set in 2016, with a few more months of nesting season still to go.

MARK DODD: So you could see how these two nests are almost on top of each other. And then a third turtle came and crawled right across both of them.

SAMUEL: Wildlife biologist Mark Dodd coordinates Georgia's sea turtle program for the state department of natural resources. He says these crowded nests show what a busy year it's been.

DODD: It's not something they've seen in the past very frequently.

SAMUEL: In fact, at one point, Dodd was worried we'd lose loggerheads in Georgia. People first figured out back in the 1970s that something was going wrong with the turtles here. Dodd says there were a number of factors.

DODD: One was the shrimp trawl fishery.

SAMUEL: Adult turtles were getting caught by shrimp trawlers just offshore. They get scooped up in the trawls and then can't come up for air and end up drowning. Another problem - too many eggs getting eaten by raccoons and hogs. So they started protecting the eggs with heavy plastic screens over nests. For the shrimpers, a piece of equipment called a turtle excluder device that gives turtles an escape hatch from the trawl. And all along, people like Dodd and Sorg collect information about the nests and the genetics of the turtles to learn more about how they're doing and how to keep protecting them.

The turtle techs finish excavating the nest on the beach, and it's time to let the hatchling go. Sorg carries it down toward the water. It waves its flippers, ready to start swimming.

SORG: He's like, I want to go. He's like, but this is air not water.

SAMUEL: She puts the turtle down on the sand, and it scuttles down to the ocean. Once it hits the water, the tiny animal starts swimming hard, but we don't lose sight of it right away. We watch as the turtle paddles, sticking its head up for air every now and then.

DODD: We try and keep them as long as we can. He's going to come up in a sec - right there.

SAMUEL: Oh, yeah.

SORG: Yay.

SAMUEL: Dodd says the little loggerhead heading straight out into the Atlantic Ocean won't stop swimming for at least 30 miles.

DODD: And they have this life history, which is spectacular. They're going to go out on the high seas, and you think, what's the chance that something so fragile and small could ever grow up to be a 300-pound loggerhead?

SAMUEL: If this little one we're watching does live and if it's a female, it could be back here to lay eggs in a few decades.

As the hatchling paddles out, Dodd wishes it well.

DODD: Have a good life - see you in 35.

SAMUEL: Dodd says sea turtles will always need some kind of protection - from past threats or new ones, like human-caused climate change. Still, he says the success with loggerheads here has lessons for other conservation work. One moral of the turtle story is being proactive, to not wait until an animal is threatened with extinction to start trying to save it.

For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel on Ossabaw Island. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.