By David Steen, GSTC Research Ecologist
The waters off Jekyll Island will soon be full of giant marine reptiles. We expect the Loggerhead Sea Turtles in our region to begin crawling onto our beaches in May to lay their nests, something they can do up to eight or nine times in a season. These animals have lived for decades, are protected by the Endangered Species Act, and are some of the biggest and most charismatic animals in the world. You might think that there is little left to learn about them but what do we really know? Most sea turtles probably live their lives without ever bumping into a human being, although with a little luck maybe you’ll see one poking its head out of the water to breathe while you’re boating or fishing around the Golden Isles. If you’re strolling along the right stretch of beach during a summer night, you just might cross paths with a sea turtle; after they hatch, it’s the only time in their lives they will be on land. These moments on the beach with a sea turtle are just a brief blip in time for these long-lived creatures, but they represent our best chance to collect data that allows us to learn more about their biology, their health, and their conservation.
Studying the Loggerhead Sea Turtles that nest on Jekyll Island is the responsibility of the Research Department of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and each spring we are proud to extend this project, one of the longest-term studies of its kind, by another year. With many miles of beach and only about 120 nests each year, we have to cover a lot of ground to maximize our chances of finding a turtle before it finishes nesting and disappears into the sea. And that is where our beach utility-terrain-vehicles (UTV) come in; our UTVs allow us to safely and efficiently patrol thousands of miles of beach each year and generate the information we need to help conserve sea turtles. This year we will be taking blood samples to assess levels of endocrine disruptors, examining carapaces for evidence of injuries from boats and fishing gear, and taking skin biopsies that allow our collaborators to identify turtles by their DNA. There are only a couple programs north of Florida that work with adult Loggerhead Sea Turtles and that is because it is demanding work that requires significant support. What makes us unique, and what affords us the opportunity to continue this program, is the generous support of The Jekyll Island Foundation. Come on out with us!