The sun-drenched beach scattered with clumps of driftwood would have seemed deserted were it not for the tracks left in the sand from a seabird and a visiting opossum, or the occasional holes that told of the resident ghost crabs. The secluded beach hidden on the northern end of Sea Island gave no sign of the many mansions and resort properties located just a stone's throw away. As my sister and I followed Sea Island Naturalist Stacia Hendricks to inspect the remains of a recently hatched sea turtle nest, development seemed miles away.
Stepping between the driftwood, we stopped at an area marked by two stakes labeled #63. "The nest is between these two stakes," she said.
The nest she was referring to was that of a loggerhead sea turtle, the only species of sea turtle known to regularly nest in Georgia. Kneeling down, she pointed out a small depression in the sand, an indicator to naturalists that the eggs contained within have hatched. Naturalists are responsible for daily patrols of the beach, counting the number of turtles coming ashore, the number of nests laid, and the number of hatchlings to emerge. They also excavate the nests five days after hatching to count the number of eggs that hatched.
Hendricks began the excavation by scooping out a round hole about 1.5 feet deep and approximately 10 inches in diameter. Before she reached the eggs, she stopped and gave us a chance to peer in the hole. On the edge of the hole about halfway down, a tiny flipper poked through. The flipper belonged to a sea turtle hatchling that had been left behind but was still alive and desperately trying to make its way to the surface. We freed the tiny, sand-covered creature and set him on the beach. He instinctively began making his way toward the ocean, a trip that would be slow, awkward, and long. One of his flippers was bent at a funny angle, possibly from his recent ordeal of hatching and his escape attempt. But that didn't stop him from continuing on his long journey of crawling to the sea, leaving tiny tractor tracks in the sand behind him.
My sister was given the task of chaperoning the hatchling on his voyage, protecting him from any ghost crabs that he might cross along the way. It took a good 15 minutes for him to reach the water, resting every few minutes from the arduous crawl that led him down the beach in his anything but direct approach to the sea.
Upon reaching the water, he stopped for a second as the first wave lapped over him. He then plunged forward, and was tossed back up on the beach several times by the incessant waves before making any headway into the vast sea. Finally he was adrift far enough where the waves could no longer push him back on the beach. We watched him paddle along the surface where he could take frequent breaths, and gradually lost sight of the tiny creature.
He was the only turtle we found alive that day in nest #63 on Sea Island. The other 87 hatchlings, counted from the remaining empty and torn eggshells, had abandoned the nest a few days earlier. Seven eggs were found undeveloped, possibly because they weren't fertilized, and would not hatch.
The hatching of the eggs is just the beginning of a difficult and dangerous journey for sea turtles. Easy targets for predators, many hatchlings are consumed before they ever reach the water. Numerous others will be taken from the ocean by sharks, bluefish, mackerel, and other fish. Only one in every 1,000 to 10,000 will survive to adulthood.
Sea turtles evolved nearly 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period when their giant land turtle ancestors returned to the sea. They spend nearly all of their lives in the ocean, except to deposit their eggs on shore.
The loggerhead is one of seven species of sea turtles inhabiting the earth today. Six of these-the loggerhead, Kemp's ridley, olive ridley, leatherback, green turtle, and hawksbill-occur in U.S. waters and are protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. All but the olive ridley occur regularly in Georgia waters, though the loggerhead is by far the most common. The hawksbill has been spotted in Georgia on only a few rare occasions.
Populations of all species of sea turtles have declined steeply over the past several decades due to nesting habitat loss, drowning in shrimp nets and other fishing gear, poaching, and other human-related causes. Though historical numbers of sea turtles are virtually unknown, biologists across the world agree that the populations are in trouble.
According to Alan Bolten, a researcher with the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research, "There is no historical data from nesting populations in the U.S. because they weren't counted. Our best estimates indicate there has been a significant decline, but we can't really quantify that decline."
Over the past 10 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has been conducting a study on loggerheads targeting specific areas and monitoring with specific protocol to produce data that can be used in comparisons with other years. By placing controls on the number of people looking for sea turtle nests and the areas being searched, more precise data can be gathered to show trends in nesting. Gathering more data on sea turtles will help to answer many lingering questions about sea turtles and help provide greater protection for these endangered species.
Loggerheads (Caretta caretta) are not only the most abundant sea turtle in Georgia, but they are also the most common sea turtle in the southeastern United States. A member of the family Cheloniidae, the loggerhead is the largest hard-shelled sea turtle in the world with a carapace (shell) length of 31 to 43 inches and a weight range of 165 to 330 pounds as adults. The head of this sea turtle is rather large in proportion to its body size, especially when compared to other sea turtles.
The shell of a loggerhead is covered in scutes, or scales. The shells of older individuals may appear green or gray in color because of the covering of algae and barnacles that accumulates on their shells after years of life at sea. The carapace, head, and flippers of young adults, however, are reddish-brown to brown in color. The plastron, or underside of the turtle, and skin are usually a cream or yellow color.
Loggerheads are common around wrecks, underwater structures, and reefs where they forage on a variety of mollusks and crustaceans, including whelks, moon snails, blue crabs, spider crabs, and calico crabs. Juveniles often feed on insects and marine invertebrates.
An adult loggerhead female (Caretta caretta) emerges from the sea at night, builds her nest, and lays her eggs.
Female loggerheads come ashore at night to nest, dragging their 200- to 300-pound bodies out of the sea and up on the beach to the dry sand above the high tide line, leaving a distinctive track similar to that of a tractor. The female masterfully digs a deep round hole using her two rear flippers and lays 50 to 170 (120 on average) golf-ball-sized, leathery eggs in the hole. She may appear to sigh and cry while nesting, but the tears are actually part of a process by which the turtle rinses the sand from her eyes and excretes excess salt from her body. The turtle then covers the hole using her rear flippers and heaves her body up and down to pack the sand in over the hole. She scatters sand over the entire area, hiding the exact location of the nest from prowling predators. Finally, she makes her slow crawl back into the sea, leaving her young to never see them again.
The eggs will hatch from mid-July to early October after an average 60 days of incubation. Loggerhead hatchlings normally leave the nest at night and crawl to the ocean, usually in groups because there is "safety in numbers."
Turtles that hatch along Georgia's coast will head for the Gulf Stream. During a period known as the lost year, the turtles will follow the current into the north Atlantic. Studies show that the turtles will circumnavigate the north Atlantic including the Sargasso Sea for as many as 10 to 15 years before returning to the western Atlantic.
"Ninety percent of the turtles found in the northern Atlantic are from the southeastern United States; 10 percent are from Mexico," said Bolten. Genetic markers such as skin and blood samples are used to identify the turtles.
The juvenile turtles live a pelagic existence during this time, often thriving in sargasso weed, which floats on the surface. The sargassum rafts provide both shelter and food to the small sea turtles. Many other organisms that the turtles can feed upon also live in the weed.
Loggerheads are considered circumglobal, meaning they inhabit temperate, subtropical, and tropical waters across the globe in continental shelves, bays, estuaries, and lagoons of these waters. Their range stretches from Newfoundland to as far south as Argentina in the Atlantic. In the eastern Pacific, they occur as far north as Alaska and as far south as Chile. Southern Japan is the only known breeding area in the north Pacific. Occasional sightings of loggerheads have been reported off the coast of Washington, although most sightings are of juveniles off California's coast.
"The U.S. population represents about a quarter or a third-at a minimum-of the global loggerhead population based on information we have available," said Earl Possardt, International Sea Turtle Coordinator of the USFWS.
Loggerheads frequent Georgia's marine and estuarine waters in the spring, summer, and fall. They have also been observed on the surface as far as 62.4 miles offshore in the Gulf Stream. Nesting occurs on all of Georgia's barrier islands including Blackbeard, Cumberland, Jekyll, Little Cumberland, Little St. Simons, Little Tybee, Ossabaw, Sapelo, Sea Island, St. Catherines, Tybee, Wassaw, and Williamson islands. There is often a lot of overlap between the islands. Ossabaw Island, for instance, receives many of Wassaw and St. Catherines Island turtles, said Brad Winn, a biologist and sea turtle expert with Georgia's Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR)
According to Winn, the majority of nests are laid on Cumberland, one of the largest islands with 18 miles of beach. An average 200 or more nests are laid on Cumberland each year. Blackbeard and Ossabaw islands are also favored nesting locations and average 150 to 200 and 120 to 150 nests respectively. The south end of Jekyll is also considered a good nesting beach.
Turtles generally return to the same area of coast to nest again and again, though how they do so is still a mystery for the most part.
"We don't really know how they navigate. We know they are sensitive to magnetic fields, but whether or not they use magnetic cues to navigate we don't know," said Bolten.
Nesting occurs from mid-May to mid-July along the Georgia coast. Females usually have a shell length of 35 inches before they will nest, and they are thought to be 20 to 30 years old at the time of the first nesting. They don't nest every year, though.
"They nest three to four times a season, but they don't nest every season. It's more like every two to three summers," said Winn.
Georgia experienced an all-time nesting low in 1993 when a mere 475 nests were laid. The next year, however, 1,375 nests were counted. Biologists blame these dramatic fluctuations in nesting numbers on individual loggerheads only nesting every few years. The number of nests averages at about 1,000 per year. Approximately 1,100 were laid this year, said Winn.
Georgia's turtles are part of a distinct population that nests along the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and north Florida (as far south as Cape Canaveral). This population represents six or eight percent of the U.S. population of loggerheads and the northern tip of the loggerhead nesting range in the U.S. The population in south Florida makes up 90 percent, or the largest segment of the population. While the population that nests in Georgia and the surrounding areas is on the decline, south Florida's population has remained steady over the past few years, especially Florida's Melbourne Beach and Hutchinson Island populations.
"Our turtles are distinct from south Florida's population. There is very little overlap. It is unlikely that south Florida's population which is increasing and quite large would fill in the gap here for a very long time," said Winn. "Our population is very low, and currently not showing any signs of recovery."
The loggerhead population as a whole suffered dramatic declines before the species was federally listed as threatened throughout its range in 1970. More than 3,500 strandings have been reported in Georgia since 1980. Human intervention including commercial fisheries and shrimp trawling played a significant role in the decline of the reptile. The capture and drowning of loggerheads in shrimp trawls killed an estimated 5,000 to 50,000 each year before TEDs (Turtle Exclusion Devices), instruments that allow sea turtles caught in shrimp nets to escape before drowning, became mandatory in 1989.
"TEDs have helped, although some stranding continues," said Winn. "Without TEDs, stranding levels would be much higher."
Boat strikes have also contributed to the demise of the turtles, accounting for 15 percent of Georgia loggerhead deaths in 1996. The number of turtle deaths confirmed by the end of September in 1998 was 250. This number represents only 10 to 25 percent of the total number estimated killed, however.
Natural predation on eggs and hatchlings has affected the sea turtle population, as well. On some islands where there are large numbers of raccoons, ghost crabs, and feral hogs, the predation rate can reach nearly 100 percent. Feral hogs on Cumberland, Little Cumberland, Ossabaw, and St. Catherines caused major damage before their numbers were controlled.
The smallest and most endangered of all sea turtles is the Kemp's ridley (Lepodochelys kempii), which is second in abundance to the loggerhead along the Georgia coast. Kemp's ridleys may reach a maximum length of 30 inches though the normal range is 23 to 28 inches. Their average weight is a mere 90 pounds. In addition to their small size, other identifying marks include a flatter and rounder shell as compared to the more dome-shaped carapace of the loggerhead.
Adult ridleys are usually olive gray in color with a cream to white ventral side. The young are often much darker in appearance. They forage predominately on crabs including blue crabs, stone crabs, and spider crabs.
Though ridleys are found primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, juveniles can be found throughout the Atlantic Ocean and may occur in Georgia during the months of April through October. The first recorded attempted nesting in Georgia occurred in 1998 on Blackbeard. The turtle that came ashore, however, executed what is known as a false crawl, meaning it did not nest before returning to the water.
Kemp's ridleys normally nest along the North Caribbean coast of Mexico, almost exclusively along the beaches of Rancho Nuevo, from April to mid-July. They typically nest in the daytime, laying clutches of 51 to 185 eggs.
The number of Kemp's ridleys has declined dramatically over the past several decades due to the collection of eggs, killing of adults for meat and other products, and high levels of capture and drowning in shrimp trawls. In 1947 the largest nesting event ever recorded occurred when approximately 40,000 ridleys came ashore to nest in a large nesting event known as an arribada. A Mexican amateur film maker captured the nesting on film, and years later Archie Carr, a turtles researcher, used that film to discover the nesting location and estimate the number of nesting turtles at that time. By 1966, only 1,300 were recorded nesting there, and from 1967 to 1970 only a few arribadas of 2,000 to 2,500 were reported. By 1990, only 530 ridleys nested there throughout the entire season. Since 1990 there have been small annual increases in nesting at Rancho Nuevo, but there are still less than 1,000 females that nest there each year.
Georgia strandings of Kemp's ridleys begin in April and continue through the summer, peaking in June and July and tapering off in early November. Very few ridleys are found on Georgia beaches in the winter.
Leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea) are the largest of the sea turtles, capable of reaching shell lengths of 6 feet and weights of 1,400 pounds, though they average between 660 and 1,210 pounds and 53 to 69 inches. Leatherbacks are among the deepest divers of air-breathing animals, capable of reaching depths of 3,300 feet.
Leatherbacks are black in appearance with some gray and white spots on their ventral sides and the dorsal surface of their flippers. Unlike other sea turtles that have a solid shell with scales, the shell of a leatherback is covered with a firm, rubbery skin and seven longitudinal ridges or keels. The shell is flexible, composed of a mosaic of tiny bones. Leatherbacks feed primarily on jellyfish and an occasional octopus and squid.
Leatherbacks are possibly the most widely distributed reptile in the world, ranging throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. They can tolerate much cooler temperatures than most sea turtles and have even been found swimming in Arctic regions. In the U.S. they occur in the Pacific, in the Gulf of Mexico, and off the eastern seaboard. Leatherbacks pass through Georgia during migration in the spring and fall. Though they are considered ocean wanderers, they are regularly found close to shore and have been observed in the estuaries and sounds of several of Georgia's barrier islands.
Leatherbacks typically nest in the tropics and subtropics, primarily in the western Atlantic along Central and South America. They also nest occasionally in the U.S., usually in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Leatherbacks generally nest 6 times per season, but have been known to nest as many as 11 times in one year. They grow faster than other sea turtles with females reaching maturity at 13 to 14 years.
Five nesting attempts have been confirmed in Georgia, including one on both Blackbeard and Cumberland in 1981 and three on Sapelo and Sea Island in 1996.
Because they reach maturity quickly, leatherbacks are not as threatened as other species. However, leatherbacks continue to be federally listed as threatened, and their world nesting population is estimated at 34,500 individuals, less than two-thirds its size two decades ago.
The decline of the leatherback has been directly affected by poaching of eggs and harvesting of adults. The poaching of eggs in Malaysia has nearly decimated what was once the largest nesting population in the world. Many of these ocean wanderers become entangled in drift nets and snared on hooks from commercial long-line fisheries in the open ocean. At least 1,000 leatherbacks are killed each year in the Pacific from commercial fisheries. Many also drown in shrimp trawls because they are too large to fit through the TEDs that were originally designed to free the small Kemp's ridley and loggerhead.
Leatherbacks can be found in Georgia waters in early spring, fall, and early winter during their migrations to and from the tropics. They are most likely to wash up on Georgia beaches from March to June and October to December each year. Nongame Program personnel fly over the Georgia coast on a weekly basis to search for concentrations of leatherbacks during these periods. When the large sea turtles are located, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will warn commercial shrimp fishermen of their location to protect these turtles until they leave Georgia's waters. A total of 110 leatherbacks washed up on Georgia beaches from 1982 to 1997.
The green turtle (Chelonia mydas) is a medium- to large-sized turtle with a heart-shaped shell and small head. They average 200 to 300 pounds with shell lengths of 36 to 43 inches and vary widely in color. Adult carapaces are smooth without keels, and are usually light to dark brown with dark mottling. Their plastron is white to light yellow, and their heads are light brown with yellow markings. The biting edge of the lower jaw of these turtles is serrated.
Green turtles are generally found in the shallow waters of bays, reefs, and inlets where they feed largely on marine algae and grasses. They have also been known to eat small mollusks, sponges, crustaceans, and jellyfish.
The green turtle population has been reduced to less than 600,000 individuals worldwide. The decline of greens has been largely attributed to the commercial harvest of their eggs and meat. They have also been taken for leather and jewelry. Green turtles are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, except for breeding populations in Florida and off the coast of Mexico in the Pacific where they are listed as endangered.
Green turtles occur in Georgia periodically throughout the year. They have nested here occasionally, although no nests were found in 1998. The vast bulk of nesting in the continental U.S. occurs along Florida's east coast. Green turtles are distributed in North America from Massachusetts to Mexico and British Colombia to Baja, California.
The only other sea turtle species to ever occur in Georgia is the hawksbill, a small- to medium-sized species with a nicely colored shell and a hawklike beak. Two hawksbill turtles were found in 1998 for the first time on Cumberland and Jekyll. They are thought to be possible strays from the Caribbean or south Florida.
Efforts to protect sea turtles and ultimately recover their populations are being conducted on two fronts. The first effort occurs onshore and is a cooperative effort between the DNR, USFWS, NMFS, National Park Service, and private foundations to protect the nests and the turtles when they are on land. Both federal and state laws are in place to offer protection for the nests, eggs, hatchlings, and nesting adults. These laws extend to individuals, making it illegal to disturb nesting turtles or harm hatchlings in any way. It also makes poaching of eggs and turtles illegal.
In addition, beach monitoring is conducted on 12 of Georgia's 14 barrier islands to record the number of nests and false crawls. Salaried individuals and volunteers help with survey work. They also protect the nests from predators by installing wire screening around the nests or relocating nests to safer locations higher up on the beach when necessary. Predators may include feral hogs, raccoons, ghost crabs, and humans. On several of the islands, feral hogs are controlled by trapping and shooting. Nest patrols run from mid-May through mid-August with monitoring of the nests continuing into October.
DNR provides direct supervision of the turtle programs on Ossabaw, Sapelo, and Jekyll islands. DNR personnel work cooperatively with other islands on nest survey protocol. USFWS also helps coordinate and facilitate nest protection programs in addition to fostering the protection of nesting habitat and coordinating surveys.
The second front focuses on threats to sea turtles while they're in the water. The Georgia Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network is conducted in cooperation with NMFS and includes many of the same individuals involved with the nesting effort.
Ensuring TEDs are installed on shrimp nets, for example, is an important part of the network's objectives. "The habitat on the Georgia coast is one of the things that influences sea turtle mortality. The nesting grounds for shrimp are much more prevalent here than in Florida," said Hendricks. As a result, there are more shrimp fisheries here than in Florida, making enforcement of TEDs more important than ever. Possardt and Hendricks agree, however, that the fishermen have been good stewards of their environment for the most part and have worked to accommodate sea turtles. "Georgia fishermen have been some of the most cooperative," said Possardt.
Other issues, more international in scope, include marine pollutants and long-line fisheries, a problem the USFWS is "trying to get a handle on." International fishing fleets in the eastern Atlantic are impacting Georgia hatchlings, says Possardt.
In addition, the USFWS works with other federal agencies to ensure that its actions do not harm sea turtles. The agency works with the Minerals Management Service which controls oil and gas activities, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on dredging activities, the U.S. Navy on explosives testing, the Environmental Protection Agency on the designation of dredged material disposal sites, and others on issues ranging from nuclear power plant construction to scientific research.
Turtles found stranded, dead or alive, on Georgia beaches should be reported to the Nongame Program immediately upon discovery. External examinations determine any trauma sustained by the turtle that could have caused its death. Half of these turtles are also examined internally by necropsy, and any trends in sea turtle mortality are documented and reported to NMFS. The trends aid NMFS in setting management plans both regionally and nationally.
Since the mid-1990s, an average 200 to 250 turtles are stranded, or found dead, each year. The number varies depending on seasons and weather. Of the turtles stranded, about 85 percent have been loggerheads, most of which were subadults. Of the remaining turtles, around 10 percent were ridleys, and the rest were leatherbacks and greens.
A tagging program that allows researchers and biologists to track sea turtle movement and mortality is in place on three of Georgia's barrier islands, including Jekyll, Little Cumberland, and Wassaw. Two types of tags may be attached to a turtle. One is a metal tag attached to the turtle's flipper, and the other is an internal PIT (passive integrated transponder) which is inserted under the skin and will last for the life of the turtle. Scanners used during nesting season can identify turtles and their movements by reading codes inscribed on the tags.
Georgia's first sea turtle project began on Little Cumberland in 1964 and is "the oldest project of its kind in the United States and one of the oldest in the world," said Rebecca Bell, turtle project director and a property owner who has lived on the island for more than 25 years. Only one other loggerhead project led by George Hughes in South Africa is believed to be as old.
Little Cumberland is a privately owned island within the boundaries of the national seashore on Cumberland Island. Little Cumberland's sea turtle project is separate from the one run on Cumberland Island, though there is an overlap in nesting turtles. The 100 property owners on Little Cumberland have supported the project. Their financial support provides salaries for the two graduate students who work there during the summer. Volunteers assist with the project, though primarily with the administrative details. Children volunteer occasionally.
The project was started by Jim Richardson who was at that time an ecology student at the University of Georgia. Richardson tailored the program after a similar program for green turtles designed by Archie Carr in Florida.
The turtle project runs all night, every night, from May 20 until the first or second week in August when the turtles are gone. The graduate students patrol the 2.5 miles of shoreline on the hour throughout the night, leaving the beach dark for the turtles for long periods in-between runs. Turtles are tagged, and the numbers of individual turtles that come ashore are counted.
"We have a 90 percent success rate in encountering every turtle that comes on the island," Bell said. "We used to have 120 turtles seen in a season, though the number fluctuated. That number gradually decreased. We had 26 turtles in 1998, more than the last 2 years when we had 16 and 17," she said.
One green turtle also came ashore in 1998, but did not nest.
The rate of predation on the nests is extremely high on Little Cumberland due to the island's large number of feral hogs, raccoons, and ghost crabs. To protect the eggs, the island runs a hatchery where the eggs can develop and hatch free from predators.
One lesson the Little Cumberland Turtle Project teaches is the value of long-term research in identifying larger trends, said Bell. After several years worth of data, trends begin to emerge that would not be seen in shorter projects.
The project is also making a global impact. "Over the years we have trained a lot of people who have stayed with turtle research and continued to work with turtles throughout the world, in the Caribbean and Australia. There are some who are now involved in international conservation who got their start here," said Bell.
Jekyll Island's turtle program has not only impacted visiting sea turtles, but visiting tourists as well. The program offers Turtle Walks several times a week in the summer to island visitors. The walks are extremely popular and sell out quickly. The walks are available at $5 per adult and $3 per child and include a short video on sea turtles followed by a walk on the beach in search of nesting turtles. Approximately 1,000 people participate in the walks each summer.
"We look for turtle tracks, and if we find a turtle, we allow 2 to 3 people at a time to see her up close," said Stacie Knight, one of two biologists hired by the Jekyll Island Authority to manage the turtle program.
The Jekyll Turtle Program has a permit issued by the DNR so that their walk participants can view the turtles. Approaching a nesting turtle without a permit is against the law.
The interest of visitors in the sea turtle program underway at Jekyll and sea turtles in general is a bit overwhelming. Even during normal beach patrols, Stacie Knight and Andrew Jackson, the other biologist, are often approached by visitors, young and old, asking countless questions.
"A large part of our job is education," said Knight. Of course, the biologists are also very active monitoring the beach for nests, tagging nesting turtles, and keeping a close eye on nests until they hatch. One of the biggest problems Knight and Jackson face on Jekyll is the efforts of a Jekyll Island resident who has been poaching the eggs. The individual is believed to be selling the eggs illegally in Brunswick. Consuming turtle eggs is still part of some cultures, though it is illegal here in the United States. To thwart the poacher's efforts, Knight and Jackson must conceal the location of the nests. Normally, they mark with stakes the exact location of the nest, but they have been tricking the poacher by offsetting the stakes so the location of the nest is not obvious. In 1999, they will change the placement of the stakes once again to prevent the poacher from robbing the nests.
The only other predators of the nests on Jekyll include raccoons, dogs, and ghost crabs. When necessary, Knight and Jackson move the eggs to a nearby screened hatchery for protection.
Lights on Jekyll as well as other islands have also posed a problem for the turtles. Lights from hotels that shine onto the beach can hinder nesting efforts of loggerheads. The lights can prevent females from nesting and can disorient hatchlings, leading them into streets and parking lots instead of the ocean. DNR provides lighting guidelines to hotels facing the beach, but compliance is strictly voluntary because of safety concerns for guests that hotels must also address. One hotel has demonstrated a way to address both concerns and received an award as a "Turtle Friendly Hotel" because of its efforts. The hotel has protected its section of beach from lights by leaving the dune structure in place surrounding the hotel and allowing vegetation to grow up, naturally shielding the beach from light. In addition, only one small light was installed on their boardwalk.
Nonetheless, Jekyll had a good nesting season in 1998, like many other Georgia islands. A total of 117 nests were laid, more than 1997's total of 87. Of the turtles that nested in 1998, 27 were neophytes, or turtles that had never been tagged. A nest excavated on Jekyll on the same day my sister and I excavated the one on Sea Island had a much higher number of undeveloped eggs. There was also one hatchling that didn't make it out of the nest and was killed by fire ants. Normally, 60 to 80 percent of the eggs hatch out of Jekyll nests, though the exact numbers fluctuate somewhat.
Funding for the Jekyll Turtle Program is raised through fees for the guided turtle walks and an Adopt-a-Loggerhead program. Adult females, nests, and hatchlings may be adopted for prices ranging from $15 to $35. Adoptive parents receive a certificate and sticker. Parents of adult females will also receive a photograph, while parents of nests and hatchlings will receive an announcement regarding the success of the hatching. The adoption program raised $2,300 in 1998 and funded a vehicle used for patrolling the beach. Funding also provided night vision for the biologists to aid them in their work. "One flashlight can scare off a turtle a mile away," said Knight.
Education is also an important part of the turtle program at The Cloister Hotel on Sea Island, where 79 nests were laid this year. Turtle walks have been one of the most popular activities for kids for the past five years.
"We're gearing to educate the kids; it just blows them away," said Hendricks.
The walks are held at night and are similar to the ones on Jekyll. They include a discussion and a long walk, giving the guests as much time as possible to see a turtle.
The Sea Island Company's efforts to educate the public don't end with turtle walks, however. The company is involved with education on many levels. For example, information about the turtles, nesting, and lighting ordinances is provided in welcome packages to visitors staying in the many cottages on the island. A map marking all of the nests on the island is posted at the hotel for guests to view.
"The power of education is it gives people a better understanding of the animals so they can get a sense of the need for protection and conservation of these species," said Hendricks.
Conservation is also an important component of the program on Sea Island, where 1.5 miles of shoreline have been set aside as a sanctuary and will never be developed. The hotel also erects outdoor lights with red frequencies to avoid distracting the turtles. Flashlights with red lenses are used during turtle walks.
Sea Island homeowners have taken ownership of the program as well and are quite involved in the whole process. They have even been known to remind neighbors if they forget to turn off their outdoor lights.
Despite the efforts of so many private citizens and state and federal agencies, there has been no significant increase in nesting loggerhead populations in Georgia to date.
"We have been waiting for an incremental increase in nesting to show that they are recovering but have seen no increase," said Winn.
"In Georgia we provide a lot of protection on beaches and through TEDs, but it takes 20 years for females to reach sexual maturity," said Possardt. "Things look great with the Florida fishery, but we might not see an impact here in Georgia for a few more years."
"TED technology and compliance can still improve," he added. "We're not out of the woods yet."
So, how can the average Georgian help bring the loggerhead and other sea turtles out of danger? There are several ways to help, including making a donation to any of the turtle projects underway on the coast. There are also a few tips to keep in mind while you're on the coast.
By ignoring any of the above rules, you could prevent a nest from being successfully laid or hatching. It is critical that we not hinder the nesting efforts of these threatened species in any way. Without our help, they could become extinct.
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