Loggerhead Sea Turtles on the Georgia Coast

August 10, 2012 at 7:09 pm (Georgia, Nature, Photography, Wildlife) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

Loggerhead sea turtles are one of those “awwww….” creatures.  They inspire protective instincts in many of us, especially those who are aware of the sad state of many of earth’s species such as these, fighting for survival.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Georgia Sea Turtle Center, Jekyll Island, Georgia

I went to Georgia’s Jekyll and St. Simons Islands this week in hopes of seeing at least one of these amazing animals.  I knew that the females come ashore only to lay their eggs.  I knew they come at night and leave a trail in the sand, and that volunteers and biologists check every night and morning to see where new nests are.  I knew the babies generally hatch at night and make their desperate break for the sea, hoping that they make it before gulls or crabs snatch them from their destiny.  Only one in 4,000 of these babies will make it to adulthood and reproduce.  These marine reptiles, on the Endangered Species List,  grow up in the North Atlantic and around the Sargasso Sea, then the females return to the beaches where they were born, drag their 200 to 300 pound bodies up past the high tide line, scoop a hole in the dunes, deposit a clutch of 60 to 100 or more eggs , cover them up, smooth out the sand, and drag themselves back to the sea.  Males never come ashore, unless they are sick or injured.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Females may return up to five times in a season, laying eggs two weeks apart, then they take a two year break before doing it all over again.  They face hazards such as beach chairs, bright lights that disorient them, vehicles driving on the beach, and excited beachcombers shining flashlights at them.  Their babies, too, can become disoriented by lights as they hatch two months later and try to find their way to the lightest horizon.  They can also fall into holes dug by children for sand castles, and be unable to crawl out.

Many of these signs are along the Georgia Coast where Loggerhead turtles nest

Sometimes the nests aren’t high up enough on the shore to avoid the tide, and biologists relocate the eggs.  This must be done within the first 24 hours, before the yolk sac attaches to the shell.  An upturned egg may cause deformation or death of the developing embryo.

Nest marked by date of laying and protected by mesh

All nests are marked with sticks and the date the eggs were laid.  A sturdy wire mesh is laid over the nest to deter predators such as raccoons, which will dig up an entire nest.  The mesh holes are wide enough to allow the babies to escape.  When the due date nears, volunteer nest sitters will stand guard, recording the number of babies who do emerge.  Then later the nest will be excavated to find any babies that were unable to emerge and release them, and to count the hatched shells.

A depression in the nest usually indicates the eggs have hatched and the babies are now out to sea

Tybee Island to the north announces the excavation dates on its Facebook page, and visitors gather around by the dozens to see what they unearth.  One recent nest had 16 babies that were released.

Exhibit in 4-H Tidelands Nature Center on Jekyll Island shows how a Loggerhead turtle nest looks (cutaway view)

This year is showing a record number of nests on the Georgia Coast (2106 as of Tuesday).  Two recent years (1993 and 2004) showed only a few hundred nests.  Perhaps 30 or so years earlier there was a hurricane or a storm that wiped out the nests, and there were fewer adults to return to lay eggs.  Or perhaps the storms were 60-70 years ago, affecting the grandchildren returning. (According to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, the last hurricane to make landfall on the 90-mile long Georgia Coast was Floyd in 1979.  Others were in 1911, 1940, and 1947.) Natural forces can’t be helped, but increased efforts to protect the sea turtles are having a positive effect.

The count isn’t over yet!

In the 1960s a shrimp fisherman named  Sinkey Boone didn’t like seeing turtles and other marine bycatch dying needlessly when caught in nets meant for shrimp, so he developed a Turtle Excluder Device (TED) that allows turtles to escape the “cod end” where the shrimp are trapped when the net is dragged through the sea.  It wasn’t until 1987 that use of TEDs became federal law.  Additionally, federal law stipulates that foreign shrimpers who sell to the US markets must also use TEDs.

Ghost crabs are major predators of the newly hatched babies, or of the eggs themselves

I never did see a turtle, not even one little stray baby.  But I did see their nests, and the volunteers who check on them, and I visited the turtle hospital at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and saw the injured sea turtles on the mend.  I know the babies will be hatching through September, and I want to return.  Jekyll Island has a Ride-Along program, or perhaps I’ll explore Cumberland Island and observe one of the 200 or so nests there hatching by the light of the quarter moon.  If I’m lucky.    Above all, I wish for safe passage for the sea turtles.

Hospital tanks for injured sea turtles, Georgia Sea Turtle Center

Caton, a 70-lb female injured sea turtle on the mend – living at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center since June 2009.

1 Comment

  1. Bob Zeller said,

    Fantastic post, Cindy. Very entertaining and informative.

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