Against All Odds

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Kris Williams motors our Kawasaki Mule over the bumpy trails, past freshwater ponds, over densely forested hammocks toward the sugary beach of Wassaw Island.  As we crest the dune and move from shade into bright white light, she announces, “Welcome to my office.”  She laughs as we take a right onto pristine sands.

Kris is the director of the Caretta Research Project, a nonprofit organization that has pioneered loggerhead turtle research and conservation.  Debbi Hanibal, a semi-retired naturalist with the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is Kris’s assistant.  The rest of us are eager volunteers hoping to see an elusive, endangered sea turtle lay her nest.

For the better part of an hour, we secure reflective markers every 100 feet along the southern part of the beach.  These will come in handy for locating nests.

We also take stock of potential threats.  We find a rat snake’s shed skin, some broken turtle eggs from a previous season and fresh paw prints from a raccoon and some other creature, which knows just as well as we do that sea turtle season is here.

“A fox?” one volunteer surmises.

“We’ve seen some around here, but these prints look bigger,” Kris says.  “Maybe a coyote.”  She squints and looks north, then south, noting how much the beach has eroded since last fall.

“This might be a problem at high tide,” she warns.  It’ll be harder to navigate the Mules between the wrack line and dunes, and it might also signal a need to relocate nests so that they don’t get washed away.  It helps that the spring tide has already passed, she says.

As we putter along, we spot cannonball jellyfish washed ashore.

“That’s a good sign,” says Kris.  “Loggerheads love those.”

I get a feeling deep in my bones we’ll witness the first nest of the season tonight.

We return to camp by early afternoon.  Kris and Debbi encourage us to take naps until dinner, when we’ll share cooking chores.

“It’s taco night,” Kris announces, just before she ducks into her room.

It’s the first night of turtle season.  After dinner, the real work will begin.

Courtesy of the Caretta Research Project

Nature Calls

From May through August during the annual 16-week nesting season, the Caretta Research Project sends two leaders and six volunteers each week to Wassaw Island National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Skidaway Island and accessible only by private boat.  The team sets up camp in two rustic buildings on an outparcel that has been held privately by a New England family since 1866.  Only the main cabin has electricity, so it naturally becomes the gathering spot for training sessions, meals and marathon games of Boggle.  The other cabin sleeps six, has a small restroom and an outdoor shower.

The project, named Caretta for the higher classification of the loggerhead, has been studying and protecting these sea turtles on Wassaw since 1973.  Kris, a marine biologist originally from New York, has been its director for 18 years.

Debbi has been with Caretta since 2000—first as a volunteer, then as a seasonal employee.  She tells me that they found three nests on the first night of turtle season last year.  By season’s peak in late July-early August, she and Kris were shuffling among seven mothers on one night alone and tending to the hatchlings just breaking from those first clutches.

“You just never know,” she says, attempting to prepare me for the capricious nature of these mysterious beasts.  This year, the waters have been cold through late spring, and the new moon just two nights ago doesn’t leave much celestial light for navigation.

Two turtles made dry runs on the beaches of Ossabaw and Cumberland islands earlier in the day, so I’m hopeful that we’ll have as much activity as they did in 2012—a banner year for loggerheads, the predominant species of sea turtles to nest on Georgia’s barrier islands.  On Wassaw alone, there were 138 nests laid by 101 individual females—the most ever recorded.  Sixty-eight of those delivered their first clutches.  More than 10,000 hatchlings crawled into the sea.  Mother Nature being the Darwinian wench that she is, however, only two or three of those babies will make it to adulthood.

Courtesy of the Caretta Research Project

Joe Pfaller, Caretta’s research director and a Ph.D. candidate in marine biology at the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida, assures me that we would be overrun with sea turtles if they all survived because they can live 60-plus years.

“We’ve learned that females nest up to seven times in a season,” says Joe.  “They lay their first clutch in mid-May and return in two weeks to lay their next one.”

At 100-plus eggs per nest, that’s a lot of shells.

Joe says they’ve also discovered that turtles take up to three years off between breeding.  During this time they are rebuilding their energy reserves, feeding and riding the North Atlantic gyre for a little vacay along the Azores.  But, Joe cautions, we humans haven’t exactly helped their numbers, and that’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has classified all species of sea turtles as either endangered or threatened.

Commercial fishing nets were once the main threat to loggerheads, leatherbacks and other sea turtles that nest along the Southeastern coast of the United States.  When shrimpers and other commercial fishermen pulled in their hauls, they’d often find pre-adult turtles ensnared among the catch.  Regulations requiring shrimpers to use nets equipped with Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs)—basically escape hatches—have helped reduce the number of casualties.

Plastics represent another danger.  Carnivorous sea turtles mistake plastic bags, which float around for 20 years or more before decomposing, for jellyfish.  They eat the bags, then choke to death.   Coastal development, sea-level rise, climate change and beach erosion are ever-growing threats.

Joe tells me that the saturation tagging Caretta has done for more than 40 years has produced some solid evidence that conservation efforts are finally paying off.  Long-term trends show sea turtle populations holding steady.

And that’s good news to Jane Griess, the project leader for the USFWS’s Savannah Coastal Refuges, which includes Wassaw.  “(Caretta) is a godsend to us,” she says.  “We’re so short-staffed anyway and they’ve got such a long history … one of the earliest and longest running partnerships” with USFWS.

In this age of sequestration, when Jane can’t afford to hire seasonal help or supervisors to oversee volunteers, partnerships with organizations as skilled and science-based as Caretta are essential to helping the USFWS fulfill one of its key congressional mandates: the recovery of endangered species.

Courtesy of the Caretta Research Project

Good Juju

Just before we head out at 9 p.m., we rub the bedazzled shell of the Bling Turtle, a talisman given to Kris by her goddaughter, and ask for good juju. Though late spring, it’s cold and wet outside.  We don layers and rain jackets.  I ride with Kris again for the first couple of runs.  We move at a snail’s pace, without headlights, ever vigilant of tree stumps, soft sand, tide pools and turtles.  After the first run, we stake out a spot on the southernmost tip of the beach and turn our gaze skyward as Kris points out constellations.  Every 45 minutes or so, we make another run and repeat.

At midnight, we take a break and return to the cabins.  On our way, we catch a juvenile alligator—about four feet long—by surprise.  It skitters into a culvert, escaping into a pond.  Kris shines her flashlight over the marsh, and we can see the red eyes of three adult gators glow as they skulk silently across black waters.

While everyone else catches a short nap, I stay up, afraid that if I even dare close my eyes, I won’t be fit for tracking.  I’d hate to miss the turtles, so I stay awake by reading a grisly paperback I’ve pulled off the shelf—a library built by volunteers over the years.  This isn’t the wisest choice—reading a murder mystery in the pitch-black wilderness by flashlight.  Every sound makes me think of Friday the 13th.

We make our last two runs before dawn.  This time I go north with Debbi and two other volunteers.  To guard against chilling wind and rain, we huddle under acrylic Neat Sheets donated by one of the board members.  Debbi drives, steering  gingerly through the Bone Yard, an eerily beautiful garden of mangled trees sculpted by wind, water and salt.

The moon and stars are all but gone because of the storm moving overhead, and I’m forced to constantly adjust my focus in different degrees of darkness.  I swear I see a loggerhead in every lump of wrack lumbering in on the tide.

“Nope,” says Debbi, just as disappointed as I.  “It’s just that you want to see a turtle so badly.”

Courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Mother’s Day

We don’t see any turtles.

After the sun rises on Mother’s Day, Kris takes me to the dock to await transport back to the marina.  While we watch deeply hued purple martins and vivid painted buntings flit around the dock, Kris offers multiple apologies on the loggerheads’ behalf, as if she’s responsible for their bad manners.

Although logic dictates that nature moves at its own pace and it cares not one whiff that I have a deadline looming in the distance, I’m a little—no, a lot—disappointed.  Nature has always been my church, and everyone I have spoken with who has witnessed the life cycle of these mysterious creatures describes it as life changing.  Without the opportunity to play midwife, I feel as if I’m missing an experience that will deepen my understanding of and connection to the whole.  All is not lost, however; there will be other seasons.  Boarding a boat home piloted by a generous Caretta board member, I’m weary but hopeful for the loggerheads.  With kind, intelligent and devoted people like Kris, Debbi and Joe, Georgia’s sea turtles, at least, have a fighting chance.

Two nights after I leave Wassaw, Kris sends me a Facebook message:  “Hey Amy!  We got our first nest last night!  She was a turtle that had been originally tagged on Blackbeard in 2003 and hasn’t been seen since!  So sorry you missed her—she was just beautiful.”

Courtesy of the Caretta Research Project

I bet she is stunning—all 300-plus pounds of her.  Sitting at my putty-colored cubicle and reading Kris’s message for the umpteenth time, I can see Mama turtle in my mind’s eye as a hulking mass emerging from a faint line of surf—her behemoth shell outlined by starlight.  I imagine the slap of her muscular flipper against the tightly packed sand and the pull of her hard shell across the wet, gritty surface—making a migration so ancient and hard-wired that it’s at once awkward and heroic.

During the volunteer training, Kris told me that sea turtles drift into a trance as they dig their nests and lay eggs—sometimes more than 100—the size of golf balls.  I wonder where the turtle goes mentally—is it pure reptilian mind or something more existential?

It’ll be 60 or so days before her babies dig their way out of their nursery—probably sometime late at night when the moon and the stars will light their way to a watery horizon.  I’ll be pulling for every last one of them.

Courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Turtle Tracks

Get to know your loggerheads by the numbers.

2 = inches of the carapace ridge at hatching.

36+ = inches of the carapace length at full growth.

25 = years at which a female loggerhead reaches sexual maturity.

29 = the temperature in Celsius that determines the sex of the hatchlings.  A nest consistently above 29° C will produce females.

100 = average number of eggs per loggerhead nest.

3 = average number of nests one female turtle lays each season.

1 in 4,000 = number of loggerhead sea turtles that will reach adulthood.


Many people helped make this article possible: Ann Ramee, president of the board of directors for the Caretta Research Project; volunteer boat captain Al Townsend for getting us to Wassaw Island safely; board member Catherine Gussler and her husband Dr. Joseph Gussler for a ride back to the mainland.  And the many volunteers who come from all corners of the world to work around the clock to make sure sea turtles don’t go the way of the passenger pigeon, among them Barbara Vater, Sue Vater Olsen, Sue Bark and Christin Schoettle.  Keep doing the Big Mama Dance!