Stretching from May through September, Bald Head Island’s 2019 sea turtle season was more of a sprint than a crawl. According to Paul Hillbrand, Sea Turtle Program Coordinator for the Bald Head Island Conservancy, the record-breaking activity had the program’s staff, interns and volunteers on their toes all summer.
During a typical year on the island, the program expects an average of 75 nests. In 2019, 170 loggerhead nests resulted from 437 nesting activities. “It was definitely the largest number of sea turtle nests documented in our patrol area since the program began in 1983,” said Hillbrand.
The season also saw an unusually high number of females who were new to Bald Head Island. In an average year, the Conservancy documents 15-35 females in total. In 2019, they identified 83 unique individual females (including both nesting females and false crawls), with approximately 73% of those new to Bald Head Island’s beaches. After all excavations were completed, these mothers gave life to 9,579 hatchlings.
Asked about possible reasons for such a banner year, Hillbrand explained that nesting activity varies, often significantly, from year to year. Activity was below normal in the two previous years (52 nests in 2018 and 39 in 2017), but above average in 2016 with 102 nests.
“There are a few theories in the turtle community as to why the number was so high this year,” said Hillbrand, adding that activity was up all along the East Coast. “Some say it is due to the conservation efforts, while others point to the number of natural disasters we have had— at least three category 5 hurricanes— with Mother Nature responding appropriately.”
Hillbrand said he thinks hormones hitting at the same time played a role, as well. “I think it’s a combination of all three of those theories,” he concluded.
A seasoned sea turtle expert, Hillbrand began working with the Bald Head Island Sea Turtle Program on April 8 of this year. The program had six interns this summer, “all of whom were incredibly exhausted by season’s end,” he said. “We had everyone working all hours of the night for more than 100 days to keep up with all the activity and to keep predators at bay.”
The sheer amount of activity also provided a lot of opportunities for the public to encounter sea turtles and to interact with Conservancy staff.
“It was nice to talk to people about the turtles, and to educate them about things like the need to prohibit white lights on the beach,” said Hillbrand. “Hatchlings are attracted to the light and will move toward land instead of out to sea. Many people didn’t know there is an ordinance against white lights, and most were cooperative once they were educated about it.”
In reflecting on the incredible joys and challenges of Bald Head Island’s 2019 sea turtle season, Hillbrand concluded by saying, “I have never worked with a more passionate, dedicated, hard-working group of people than I have on this island. The interns had the time of their lives, and I’m sure none of us will ever forget this remarkable season.”
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