In the middle of last summer on Grand Isle — amidst the ongoing speckled trout bite, multiple fishing rodeos and daily boatloads of anglers crossing the bridge over Caminada Pass onto Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island — three unseen visitors stealthily paid a visit to the beach in the middle of the night.
They didn’t stay long — probably two hours at most — but their arrival was historic for the Louisiana coast.
On June 29 and July 3, two adult female loggerhead sea turtles dug a hole and each laid more than 100 eggs and returned to the water. Tracks in the sand, called crawls, indicated a third female came ashore, too, but did not make a nest.
“It’s pretty historic in that it’s the first confirmed sea turtle nesting on the coast of Louisiana in over 30 years,” said Mandy Tumlin, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) who serves as the marine mammal who coordinates the state’s sea turtle stranding and rescue programs.
The turtles, which can grow up to 3 feet long, weigh 200 pounds as adults and have a lifespan of up to 60 years, don’t reach sexual maturity until age 32 to 35. And typically, Tumlin said they return to the beach where they were born to nest, so it’s likely these females hatched on or near Grand Isle in the 1980s.
The nesting would likely gone unnoticed had it not been for the keen eye of Norris Esponge, Grand Isle’s resident beach sweeper. Tumlin said he saw the turtles’ distinctive crawls in the sand, and LDWF was notified.
Loggerheads are just one of five turtle species in the Gulf of Mexico, but they typically nest in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, Tumlin said.
“Approximately 80 percent of loggerhead nesting occurs in only six counties in the state of Florida,” Tumlin said. “Florida is definitely the hot spot for loggerhead sea turtle nesting.”
Aided by the crawls, biologists were able to locate both nests buried about 20 inches below the surface — the first on the west side of the island closer to Bridge Side Marina, the other on the opposite side of the beach east of the state park fishing pier.
“It’s not like a big lump or pile of sand that most people would picture in their head,” she said.
Biologists installed protective caging around the nests to keep predators like raccoons and coyotes from destroying the eggs and then waited. Typically, Tumlin said Florida loggerheads hatch after about 55 days in the egg chamber.
“Since this was the first time we had this in Louisiana, we started watching the nest on Night 50, hoping that we would see the babies,” she said. “But unfortunately, they came before Night 50, so we didn’t get to see them.”
The good news is that both nests appeared to produce baby turtles. Of the 112 eggs laid in the first nest, shell remains indicated 50 turtles emerged. From the second nest, of the 110 eggs there, it appeared 20 made it out alive. No one knows how many baby turtles made the trek down to the water’s edge safely.
“It’s hard to say exactly why some of them don’t hatch,” Tumlin said. “The second nest wasn’t as high up on the beach, so maybe the water level under the sand was higher and the eggs might have gotten wet.
“But we don’t have historical numbers to compare. We’re basically creating the history here, and learning from these creatures as they allow us to.”
Tumlin asked Grand Isle beachgoers this summer to notify LDWF if they found a turtle’s distinctive crawl in the sand.
And if you’re lucky enough to actually see a female turtle on the beach one night in the process of creating the nest and laying eggs, she said to give it plenty of room.
“They’re actually federally protected, so it’s a federal violation to harass the animals or the nest,” she said. “Just be happy that you’re getting to witness such an amazing experience, and stay back. They can hear, they can smell and they can see, so let her crawl up and find her right spot. You can kind of crouch down away from her and watch, but don’t use flash photography or shine flashlights at them.
“And don’t let kids approach them because they startle very easily, and she’ll simply crawl back to the water and not nest there. And please don’t cross the barricade that we employ around the nest, or throw things at the nest or let dogs dig near it.”
Tumlin is hoping at least one female will return to Grand Isle this summer, and would love to be able to deploy a satellite tracking tag on a turtle after it finishes laying its eggs. It’s not unusual for adults to travel hundreds or thousands of miles on long migratory or foraging stretches, she said.
“This is very significant information, and historically valuable data that we can utilize for the long term,” Tumlin said. “We’re very hopeful because sea turtles will typically nest every two to three years, but they can nest every one to seven years, depending on each turtle. But we do know we had that third turtle out there who false-crawled, but didn’t nest on Grand Isle where we were searching.
“So it’s possible that they could return this year, or next year or the year after.”
If you see a loggerhead turtle on the beach later this summer, or think you found a crawl or nest in the sand, contact Tumlin at (337) 962-7092 or (225) 765-2377.