Watching Annalina, a Loggerhead Sea Turtle on Jekyll Island, GA

July 11, 2013 at 4:38 am (Georgia, Nature, Wildlife) (, , )

It was a bittersweet moment.  A rare thing was happening on this beach in Georgia.  A loggerhead sea turtle obeyed the call of her kind and rose from the buoyant sea to the burdensome sand.  This alien, waterless stuff under her flippers would soon shelter her eggs.  If only she could get above the high tide line.  If only she could make it to the powder-soft dunes.  It was not easy.  She was very large, very heavy, and it was low tide.  But darkness was her ally, and it was time.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle laying eggs on Jekyll Island - photo from GSTC Facebook page

Loggerhead Sea Turtle laying eggs on Jekyll Island – photo from GSTC Facebook page

She finally found the right spot and began digging her nest.  Her hind flippers created a womb in the still-warm sand, two feet deep, large enough to hold 120 or so round, rubbery eggs.  Then she eased herself over the hole to release the eggs, and  the people watching in darkness came up to her.  Red lights played across her carapace.  Alien hands touched her.  No matter what these people did to her, she would not leave until the last of the eggs were secreted away in their chamber.

Ten of us came upon this scene in darkness.  She was surrounded by red lights –  votives in a church nave –  touched by whispering priests giving the Last Rites,  by surgeons performing a delicate life-saving operation.  In a way it was all of that.

Annalina had been here before.  It was her destiny to do so, to travel thousands of miles in her lifetime, to start another generation on its perilous journey from land to the sea and briefly back again.  With luck, she would return again this season, and for years to come.  Annalina was at least 35 years old.  She could live to be 100 if she could avoid boat collisions, ingesting plastic trash or balloons, oil spills, and drowning in a trawler net.

Her babies will have many more hazards to face, from the time they slide into the warm sand as embryos, to when they run for their lives to the sea two months from now, to when they seek the sargassum forest 70 miles offshore.  Their chances are one in 4,000 that they will survive to reproduce at age 30.    The people ministering to Annalina know this.  They know the survival of the species is precarious.  That’s why they measure her, take DNA samples, draw blood, tag her, make notes.  They—we–are on her side.

Annalina sighs softly every now and then with the effort of birthing.  Her only focus is the eggs.  She may not even realize she is not alone.  Annalina cannot stop what her destiny has called her to do on this beach in Georgia.  So the technicians finish their work and move away, and after awhile the sea giant turns and begins to scratch the sand.  The precious treasure is buried, the spot erased.  But not the wide tracks she left in the sand.  That’s how we know she was here.

It is a long night for everyone.  Annalina rests.  Then she begins the long trek back to the protection of the Atlantic.  Twenty feet at a time.  She ends each stretch with a sigh, rests, then goes again.  Three of us walk behind her.  Lightning flashes far to the east.  The sea breezes have died away.  We saw her lay her eggs.  We want to see her disappear into the warm, gentle waves of the comforting sea, completing the cycle.  We want to know she made it.  She is only a dark shape on this moonless landscape, and then she is gone.

It’s 2 am now.  We walk back.  We whisper, so we can hear the scrape scrape scrape of another loggerhead if she chooses to come ashore.  And soon we do.  She is moving fast, with purpose.  I call the patrol, but then she is turning back.  A false crawl.  They tell me to see if she has a flipper tag, and if so to read the number.  We would never approach so close without this permission.  She does have a tag on her right flipper.  With only the weak light of a cell phone, and the frenzied movements of a frightened turtle, we cannot read the number.  She is already in the water when the patrol arrives.  The men jump out, run, scoop her up, read the tag.  We are mesmerized.

The primordial call of their birthplace has brought these sea turtles back for thousands of years.   There may be only a few decades left.  Humans have not been gracious about sharing Mother Earth with its inhabitants.  Of the seven species of sea turtles in the world’s oceans, (five of them in Georgia’s waters) two are critically endangered.

12,500 loggerhead babies ran to the sea on Jekyll Island last year.  If the current odds continue, three will make it back.  Only one or two will be female.  That is not a sustainable reproduction rate.

The people of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, the volunteers and staff and interns, know that sea turtles need us to save them from us.  We want to increase the odds of survival.  Educating you and you and you about the obstacles we put in their way is one way we do it.  Come join us on a night walk to see this increasingly rare ritual, this sacrament, for a species that, God willing, can beat the odds.

Support the Georgia Sea Turtle Center or to adopt a sea turtle being rehabilitated in the hospital.  You can sign up online for the nightly Turtle Walks (through July) and for the early morning Nest Walks in August and September.

Text copyrighted by Cindy McIntyre

Feel free to reblog!

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