By Breanna Ondich
JIA GSTC Research Specialist
“Throughout the summer months (May – August), the beaches of Jekyll Island become more than just a place to stroll, collect seashells, and catch breathtaking sunrises. During the evenings, these beaches are visited by female loggerhead sea turtles determined to lay their eggs without interference. About 60 days later these same beaches are paths to a new life for hundreds of loggerhead hatchlings.”
If it were 1999 you could have picked up a brochure with these words, encouraging you to learn more about The Jekyll Island Sea Turtle Project’s “Adopt a Loggerhead” program, which would have allowed you to follow the progress of the enormous sea turtle you saw while on a guided tour the night before. Long before the inception of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, many dedicated Jekyll Island Authority staff and volunteers helped raise money for their sea turtle monitoring and conservation work by allowing visitors to symbolically adopt a nesting loggerhead sea turtle. For $35, your adoption would have included an official certificate, photograph, hatching announcements, turtle sticker, key chain, and a poster! One of the turtles you could have adopted twenty-one years ago was Althea, and she returned to nest on Jekyll Island last summer.
Althea is the oldest known turtle we have on our growing list of nesting mothers, based on the fact that we know she was given her first set of flipper tags in 1992. You have got to give this turtle some credit, not only because of her longevity but also because of her ability to overcome the odds in a sea full of threats. Althea has five healed parallel lacerations bisecting her carapace from an unfortunate, but luckily non-fatal, interaction with a boat propeller. Boat strikes are a top threat to sea turtles in coastal Georgia, and while many sea turtles do not survive interactions with vessels, Althea pulled through on her own and is now a key data point in our ongoing study assessing injuries among the sea turtles that visit Jekyll Island.
The deep, permanent scars on Althea’s back remind us why we are working tirelessly around the clock to study these ancient animals. When the days are long, our research team feels grateful for the gears that keep us rolling forward, such as our UTVs. This summer Jekyll Island is expected to be busier than ever, not only with booming tourism but also with nesting sea turtles like Althea! Our team covers many miles every day and every night in the course of our education and conservation work, and it is all thanks to the support of the Jekyll Island Foundation and its network of donors.