Dispatches from Turtleland

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WHEN THE CALENDAR FLIPS TO MAY, sea turtle nesting season officially starts in Georgia.

With its arrival comes a barrage of activity in the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative Facebook group. The 2,600-plus members — who affectionately refer to themselves as turtle folk — follow along from near and far for dispatches from the coastal region (a.k.a Turtleland).

The group is primarily composed of volunteers, researchers and agency employees who patrol beaches daily during nesting season to mark, monitor and protect sea turtle nests. One egg from each viable nest is extracted and sent to the University of Georgia research labs for further study.

Nesting Loggerhead on Ossabaw Island. / Photo by CALEIGH QUICK // Courtesy GEORGIA DNR

This year, the return of nesting season comes with cautious excitement. Last year, the state’s loggerhead sea turtle nest count hit a landmark high of 3,960 — eclipsing the 3,950 nests in 2019, the previous record since comprehensive surveys began in 1989.

According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the region’s population of loggerheads, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, has been increasing by an average of 3 to 4% each year since the 1990s.

While the numbers are promising, loggerheads’ path to recovery is long and not without obstacles.

“In 2004, we were down to less than 400 nests in the state. We almost lost them as a species,” says Mark Dodd, coordinator of the Georgia DNR’s Sea Turtle Program.

“We ask people to modify our behavior so we can have this really cool, iconic species continue to nest on our beaches and use our coast,” he says. Common examples of this are minimizing beachfront lighting during nesting season and using turtle excluder devices in fishing gear. “They leave for 30 years, travel the whole North Atlantic, and ultimately come back. We think of them as our turtles — they are Georgia loggerheads.”

The first nest of the 2023 season was spotted at the Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge in McIntosh County, according to the Georgia DNR.

Soon after, the roll call begins. On Facebook, people from Tybee Island to Cumberland Island eagerly share reports of turtle sightings and nest egg counts along with grinning, seaside selfies.

Dodd serves as an administrator of the cooperative’s Facebook page. Today, the co-op continues the critical work that began on Little Cumberland Island in 1964 — one of the first sea turtle conservation programs in the country — by Dr. Jim Richardson, then a student at the University of Georgia.

Hatchlings make their way to the ocean. / Photo courtesy TYBEE ISLAND MARINE SCIENCE CENTER

“When he first got out there and started tagging turtles, he became pretty concerned very quickly that the population was declining and reproductive success wasn’t high enough for the population to sustain itself,” Dodd says. “He started enlisting help from people on adjacent islands — writing to people and talking to them about what nesting levels were like.”

Of course, social media and smartphones greatly speed up the spread of information across 13 organizations and agencies along Georgia’s 110 miles of coastline, which includes 15 barrier islands on the Atlantic Ocean — only four of which are accessible by car.

The need for a cooperative is not just because of the expansive geography, however, but due to the variety of land owners within the region. There are state-owned islands, such as Sapelo and Ossabaw, which are overseen by Dodd and his team. There are also private entities, such as Sea Island and Little St. Simons Island, which provide staff to survey the beach and count turtle nests. Volunteer programs, such as the one run by Tybee Island Marine Science Center, help fill in the gaps.

“Everyone has their place,” Dodd says. “All the islands are different. They are similar in a lot of ways with the habitat, but they have different cultural histories and life on them.”

Wassaw Island is home to the Caretta Research Project (CRP), the oldest continuously run turtle tagging project in the United States. While Kris Williams Carroll has served as the project’s director since 1996, she credits the recovery process to those who came before her.

“When I first got to CRP, there were way fewer turtles,” Carroll says via email. (During the season, she is patrolling the beach all night?with volunteers.) “It takes 25 to 35 years for hatchlings to reach sexual maturity, so back then, we were still waiting to see if past conservation efforts had worked, and thank goodness they were hugely successful.”


“We ask people to modify our behavior so we can have this really cool, iconic species continue to nest on our beaches and use our coast. They leave for 30 years, travel the whole North Atlantic, and ultimately come back. We think of them as our turtles — they are Georgia loggerheads.”
— Mark Dodd


Named after the scientific term for loggerheads, Caretta caretta, the nonprofit’s origins trace back to 1973. Founders Charlie Milmine and the late herpetologist Gerry Williamson followed the example of what Richardson started nine years earlier.

At the time, Milmine was the director of the former Savannah Science Museum. He is also part of the family who transferred some of ownership of the land to form a National Wildlife Refuge on Wassaw Island in 1969.

“We were using cattle ear tags, which worked very well. We realized the turtles were coming back to the same beaches, and there was a pattern developing,” Milmine says. “I remember right at the beginning, Gerry was very insistent that we had continuous data and, of course, now I understand why.”

First nest of 2023 found, marked and covered with a protective screen on Blackbeard Island. / Photo by KAYLA REEVES USFWS // Courtesy GEORGIA DNR

The perpetuation of CRP is possible through a partnership with Wassaw Island, LLC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy and an army of volunteers who pay a fee to spend a week working alongside biologists during turtle season. In its first 50 years, CRP has identified 2,065 individual loggerheads nesting on the island, protected nearly 5,800 nests, released more than 400,000 hatchlings and contributed to 60 scientific publications, all with support from 3,660-plus people from all 50 states and six countries in hands-on sea turtle research and conservation.

“Long-term tagging datasets are proving invaluable for helping coastal managers and government agencies develop long-term management plans,” adds Carroll. In addition to flipper tagging and passive integrated transponders, CRP will also soon utilize two satellite tags to attach to two females, after they finish nesting in July, to monitor their migratory movements and identify their foraging areas.

A loggerhead sea turtle hatchling braves the surf off the coast of Georgia. / Photo by CALEIGH QUICK // Courtesy GEORGIA DNR

Thanks to data from CRP and the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative at large, UGA and the U.S. Geological Survey have established models that indicate the population will plateau at current levels for about the next 20 years before loggerheads fully regain their role in the ecosystem.

“We see a lot of annual variability in nesting,” Dodd says. In other words: there’s not necessarily a need to panic if this year’s total number of nests doesn’t surpass the 2022 numbers. “Sea turtles don’t nest every year. They will come and nest five to seven times during the course of a three-month period. Each nest is 115 eggs on average. That’s a lot of protein, so it takes them a while to get back into reproductive condition. Some turtles come back every two years, some every three, and they switch around.”

While technology advances, knowledge accumulates and the population strengthens, Williams describes the overall experience of CRP as not changing much since those early days. The cabins are still very rustic with limited electricity, the bugs are horrific, the heat and humidity are stifling, and there is no privacy. Sleep-deprived teenagers and retirees patrol side by side, from dusk to dawn, motivated by the hope of finding a turtle laying eggs before a raccoon, crab or wild hog interferes, or a king tide washes the nest away.

“If you can put up with that for a week, the turtles are amazing and you’ll be so happy you helped,” Carroll says. You’re one of the true turtle folk.

“The people, especially the ones who have been around here for a long time and are still doing the work, have similar characteristics as the turtles themselves,” says Dodd. “They are people who are not easily deterred. They are very strong-headed. If they see a problem, they are going to go at it head first and stick with it until it’s fixed. … One of my favorite words is endurance, which means to sustain without yielding. That’s the way I would probably describe turtle folk. They see the long game.”


HOW TO HELP

Minimize beachfront lighting during nesting season. Turn off, shield or redirect lights. When walking the beach at night, don’t use flashlights or flash photography. They can deter turtles from coming ashore to nest or cause them to abort nesting.

Observe quietly. If you encounter a sea turtle on the beach — including hatchlings — remain quiet, still and observe them only from a distance.

Leave turtle tracks undisturbed. Researchers use them to identify the species and mark nests for protection.

Properly dispose of your garbage. Turtles may mistake plastic bags, Styrofoam and trash floating in the water as food.

Protect beach vegetation. It stabilizes sand and the natural coastline.

When boating, stay alert and avoid turtles.

Report any dead or injured sea turtles to the DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME.

Donate and volunteer. In addition to hands-on research support, Caretta Research Project seeks volunteer captains to transport people and supplies by boat to Wassaw Island during turtle season (May through August). For more information or to be a volunteer captain, visit carettaresearchproject.org/captains-for-caretta.


This story and more in the July/August issue of Savannah magazine. Get your copy today.