Sea turtles in Georgia had a successful nesting season in 2023, with an estimated 159,143 hatchlings emerging from 3,479 nests, according to Georgia Sea Turtle Research Manager David Zailo. While this is a decrease from 2022’s record high of roughly 266,452 hatchlings and 4,089 nests, Zailo considers it a “much more successful year than expected.” The growth in nesting has been steady, with a 3% to 4% annual mean increase since data collection began in 1989.
Cumberland Island in Camden County had the most sea turtle nests and emerged hatchlings in Georgia, with 1,082 nests and 38,431 hatchlings. Ossabaw Island in Chatham County followed with 466 nests and 22,104 hatchlings. Jekyll Island saw more than 70 mother sea turtles this year, compared to the usual 50, with each laying multiple nests.
Long-term conservation and management actions have contributed to the success of the species in Georgia, according to Zailo. The Georgia Sea Turtle Center’s public education programs have also raised awareness of the threatened species, with guided sea turtle tours on Jekyll beaches drawing 1,035 people. Of these, 70% of vehicle tour participants and 40% of walking tour participants encountered nesting mothers or hatchlings.
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. Researchers found three mothers – Rogue, Justice, and Dos Equis – returning to Jekyll to nest for a second straight year, which was surprising. Researchers also encountered Chaos, a sea turtle spotted 12 times on Jekyll.
Zailo notes that although sea turtles in Georgia are not yet approaching historic levels, the species is on the road to recovery. Demographic models suggest that it will take another 15 or 20 years to reach historic levels. Georgia’s growth in nesting is not constant year-to-year, as sea turtles follow cyclical patterns in their nesting. Mothers typically take a few years off to build up needed fat reserves for the arduous nesting journey.
Sea turtles face many threats, including habitat destruction, poaching, predators, and fishing nets. They are also a threatened species under federal law. Conservation efforts, such as those in Georgia, are critical to their survival.