LISTEN: An expected drop-off after last year's record high was not as low as anticipated, as about 160,000 hatchlings emerged from their nests. GPB's Benjamin Payne reports.

A Georgia Sea Turtle Center researcher holds a baby loggerhead sea turtle on Jekyll Island.

A Georgia Sea Turtle Center researcher holds a baby loggerhead sea turtle on Jekyll Island.

Credit: Jekyll Island Authority

Sea turtles waddled their way to a banner year in Coastal Georgia, as the 2023 season which ended Tuesday saw an estimated 159,143 hatchlings emerge from 3,479 nests.

Although down from 2022's record high of roughly 266,452 hatchlings and 4,089 nests, this year's count marked a “much more successful year than expected,” according to Georgia Sea Turtle Research Manager David Zailo.

“It just shows to me that dedicated long-term conservation and management actions can pay off,” Zailo said, attributing the species' success to work that began more than 30 years ago. “We're not approaching historic levels yet. We likely won't for another 15 or 20 years, according to some demographic models. But it's a sign that we're on the road to recovery.”

Georgia has seen a 3% to 4% annual mean increase in nesting since data collection began in 1989, according to Zailo. Because sea turtles follow cyclical patterns in their nesting — as mothers typically take a few years off to build up needed fat reserves for the arduous nesting journey — the growth is not constant year-to-year.

A graph of sea turtle nests in Georgia since 1989 shows an overall increase.
Credit: Jekyll Island Authority

Cumberland Island in Camden County accounted for the most sea turtle nests and emerged hatchlings in Georgia — 1,082 and 38,431, respectively — followed by Ossabaw Island in Chatham County with 466 nests and 22,104 hatchlings.

On Jekyll Island, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center's public education programs have raised awareness of the threatened species: according to the center, its guided sea turtle tours on Jekyll beaches drew 1,035 people, with 70% of vehicle tour participants encountering nesting mothers or hatchlings, and 40% of walking tour participants doing so.

Jekyll usually draws about 50 mother sea turtles each year, with each laying multiple nests. However, Zailo said that the island saw more than 70 mothers this year, indicating a possible improvement in survival among adult sea turtles.

The Georgia Sea Turtle Center is able to track adults throughout their lifetime using tags and microchips, as well as skin samples for genetic testing. The oldest turtle encountered was Survivor, who was first tagged in 1992.

To their surprise, researchers found three mothers — Rogue, Justice and Dos Equis — return to Jekyll to nest for a second straight year.

As for the sea turtle encountered most often on Jekyll? The aptly named Chaos, who was spotted 12 times.