Welcome sea turtles looking to nest. The odds are stacked against them, yet conservation efforts prove that hope still lives.
By Tanner Latham
It is the dead of night. Waves gently lap the shore. Suddenly, a pregnant loggerhead sea turtle, weighing somewhere between 200 and 350 pounds, emerges from the surf, and heaves herself onto the sand of a barrier island in Georgia. With her flippers, she struggles to shuffle up the beach. The only time she comes ashore is to create her nests, and that can happen, on average, two to three times in a season (May through August). Every other minute of her life is spent in the water.
She chooses her perfect spot for the egg cavity. Often, it’s the base of the dune line. Her back flippers act as shovels, and she falls into what can best be described as a trance, while she digs a 2-foot-deep hole in the sand. At the surface, the hole measures only 5 inches in diameter, but down at the base, it spreads out to a foot wide.
“Picture an upside-down light bulb,” says Kristen Morris, the naturalist at Sea Island.
The turtle digs for about an hour. The length of time depends on experience—how many nests she’s created in her life. She reaches sexual maturity late—between 20 and 35 years old. And she could be reproductively active, nesting once every two or three years, for at least another 30 or 35.
She lays between 100 and 150 leathery eggs that look like pingpong balls. With her back flippers again, she covers the nest with sand and camouflages the area. She throws sand in all directions, essentially disturbing a broad area around the nest. It’s a trick to throw off predators, a way to keep them from knowing exactly where to dig. Each island has a different set of predators, from raccoons to ghost crabs.
After the turtle is finished, exhausted, she turns around and crawls back to the ocean in efforts to mate and lay additional nests along the coastline.
Sea turtles capture the public’s imagination, says Mark Dodd, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “It’s mostly because they are charismatic creatures,” he adds. Dodd coordinates Georgia’s Sea Turtle Conservation Program, based in Brunswick. But the cuteness of these creatures is not the only thing that fascinates us.
On a scientific level, they are important for the ecosystem, Dodd explains. They are a good indicator species, which means that the health of sea turtles directly correlates with the health of the environment.
Their sheer longevity induces amazement. Sea turtles have survived for more than 200 million years, since the late Triassic period—but surviving does not mean thriving. All seven species —loggerhead, flatback, green, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, leatherback, olive ridley—are categorized as endangered.
Dodd believes that sea turtles have a story to tell. “What they are saying is that some of our human systems have had a negative impact,” he explains. “We are overharvesting food resources. There is too much pollution in the environment.” Any effort made to save sea turtles, Dodd believes, is positive for the environment as a whole. “Helping the turtles will, in turn, help us.
On any given day, 15 or so sea turtles fill the tanks at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island; most of them are working through various stages of recovery and rehabilitation. Their names often reflect where they were rescued (Fern from Fernandina Beach, Fla., for instance). The turtles are commonly hit by boats or entangled in fishery nets, says Terry Norton, the director at the center.
“We’re developing novel techniques for wound care and shell fractures,” Norton says, such as honey bandages (the honey has therapeutic enzymes) and vacuum therapy, which is used to seal a wound—particularly a break in the shell—until it can heal.
Norton maintains a simple and focused motivation: “It would be a shame for a species like that, [which] has maintained itself for this long, to not be around.”
In addition to the daily work at the center, several programs throughout the state’s barrier islands focus on conserving sea turtles—especially their nests.
On Sea Island, for example, a naturalist goes out around 6 a.m. every day to patrol the beach in search of female turtle tracks and new nests. If a nest is found, the naturalist gathers one of the eggs and sends the shell to the University of Georgia for DNA testing. That maternal DNA information populates a database that helps track sea turtles as they are nesting up and down the East Coast.
The naturalist then delicately places wooden stakes around the nest and monitors it until the baby turtles hatch. In some cases, nests need to be moved (perhaps the female has laid her eggs too close to the water, or it is in proximity to known raccoon highways—routes where raccoons are commonly seen coming and going in search of food).
“Moving them is not ideal,” Morris concedes. “But it increases the chances of the hatchlings’ survival.”
With programs and measures like these in place, Dodd still remains cautiously optimistic. “We’re in what we consider to be the early phases of a recovery,” he says. “But we’re not at a point where we feel it’s entirely safe.”
Sea turtle conservation in Georgia isn’t a new concept; monitoring and protection programs began on Little Cumberland and Blackbeard Islands in the mid-1960s. That was almost 10 years before sea turtles were officially listed as endangered species.
Of the seven species, five of them—loggerhead, leatherback, green, Kemp’s ridley and hawksbill—have been found off the Georgia coast. And of those, the most common is the loggerhead, particularly drawn by the state’s undeveloped, barrier island beaches.
Last season, more than 2,000 sea turtle nests dotted Georgia’s shoreline, 102 of them being on Sea Island. The season was a milestone for the state and great number for the island. And the turtles continue to infatuate those, like Dodd, who have been charged with taking every possible step to ensure their safety. “They live in a world we can’t spend time in,” he says. “But every year, when it gets warm, they find their way to our beaches.”
Sea Turtle Excursions
Sea Island offers two
opportunities for guests to spy
sea turtles and their nests.
A Sea Turtle Expedition: This private tour for a family of four invites guests to tag along on the 6 a.m. sea turtle beach patrols. Encounters can include females finishing up their nests, newly laid nests, nests that hatched the night before and even some straggling hatchlings.
A Sea Turtle Walk: Up to 25 guests can join a guide for beach walks that begin at 9 p.m. Outfitted with red-filtered flashlights (so as not to disturb the turtles), the tour surveys the beach for females coming ashore and even hatchlings emerging in the later summer months.
Into the Sea
After about two months of incubation, the clutch of eggs begins to move. The hatchlings break from their shells and actually begin working together to climb out of the nest. They shuffle sand on top of the shells to create a makeshift stepladder to the surface.
The group takes about two to three days to fully hatch. They sleep throughout the day and work into the night—when they are ready to emerge from the cavity.
“The sand looks like it’s boiling water,” Morris says. “It’s amazing to see that first one peeking its head out.”
Between five and 105 hatchlings—measuring roughly the size of a human adult’s pointer finger—can emerge at the same time. At this point, they are fiercely independent. There is no leader. Each begins scurrying to the brightest point on the horizon. If the moon is out and reflecting on the water, it serves as a guide. But even if the sky is dark, the ocean is still generally the brightest point. (Artificial lights on and around developed beaches can disorient hatchlings, and many of Georgia’s barrier island beaches have imposed light ordinances during the nesting season to help remedy this.)
They scoot as quickly as they can—inch by inch—to the water. At this point, it’s a numbers game; 10 to 20 percent of hatchlings that make it out of the nest are eaten by predators—those loitering raccoons, ghost crabs and any other creatures that might happen upon these defenseless turtles. The other 80 percent make it to the ocean, but almost all are eaten by fish or other predators within their first two or three days in the water—they’re easy catches, floating right at the surface. In fact, it’s estimated that only one in 10,000 hatchlings actually make it to adulthood. And since a female loggerhead won’t begin reproducing until she is between 20 and 35 years old, she has to survive decades in the water, feeding on a wide variety of invertebrates, including blue crabs, horseshoe crabs, whelks and jellyfish. By the time she reaches her sexual maturity, she will have grown to be 3 feet long and weigh between 200 and 350 pounds.
Her male counterparts—that grow to be roughly the same size—live rather solitary lives, and she’ll only interact with them during the mating season (March and April).
If the female turtle reaches this point after all that, by May, she’ll start to heave herself onto a beach and struggle to shuffle to what she believes is a perfect spot to start digging a nest.