Everyone loves baby sea turtles! The shape of their little flippers, their geometric-patterned shells, their big eyes and smiling faces are all visually appealing. Their tiny size and struggle to run to the ocean bring out our maternal instincts, inspiring us to say, “Awwwww!” The oldest known sea turtle fossils are estimated to be about 150 million years old, so they are remainders of the dinosaur era. Seeing the baby turtles or the majestic adult creatures is a wonderful experience and one that you will never forget.
It’s rare for anyone to deliberately hurt a sea turtle, but unfortunately, there are many seemingly innocent things we may do that could cause them harm, or even death. During turtle nesting season, from May 1st to October 31st of each year, we should all limit any bright lights on the beach, including porch lights, flashlights, vehicle headlights, and campfires. If you want to use a flashlight on the beach, get one that has a red-filtered lens, or put red headlight tape on your regular flashlight’s lens. Lights can interrupt a female turtle’s nesting efforts and cause baby hatchlings to run towards the light instead of towards the ocean. Turtles look for reflected moonlight and phosphorescence from the ocean to find their way back to the water. It’s also important to contain your litter at all times, because land and sea animals can get entangled or choke on pieces of litter. If you dig holes or build sandcastles on the beach, please level the sand again before leaving the beach. Turtles can fall into the holes and get injured by the fall or by predators attacking the turtle while it’s trapped. Don’t release helium balloons, because they might end up in the ocean. Sea turtles mistakenly eat the balloons and die. Please don’t leave your chairs, tents, umbrellas, etc. on the beach at night. Those items can block the turtles trek from the ocean to the dunes and back. Since sea turtles cannot retract their legs or head into their shells, like land turtles do, they are especially vulnerable to injury from boat motors, underwater debris, and predators. Please watch for them while boating in the coastal waterways.
The Tybee Island Sea Turtle Project coordinates the volunteers who patrol our island at dawn each day, looking for turtle tracks, which indicate a female may have laid eggs overnight. When a nest is found, it is marked with wooden stakes and tape, so humans are aware that it is there. Unfortunately, someone recently hung their clothes on the barrier stakes! It is against federal law to interfere with sea turtles and their nests, because all six U.S. species are still listed under the endangered species act. The volunteers also watch the nests when hatching time arrives, then help guide the newly hatched turtles to the ocean. Incubation is from 45 to 70 days, so many hours are spent turtle-nest watching! If you ever encounter sea turtles on the beach and there isn’t a project volunteer nearby, DO NOT TOUCH THE TURTLES, and call the Tybee Marine Science Center (912)796-5917 and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (800) 272-8363. If you spend time boating, fishing, or beachcombing in this area, please put these numbers in your phone.
As of July 26, 2015, there are ten sea turtle nests on the beach on Tybee. They are all loggerhead nests, but we may also have a leatherback nest. In June, volunteer Kristin Peney found a huge leatherback (the largest sea turtle in the world) and this one is estimated to be 1,600 pounds! They aren’t sure if the turtle laid eggs, but the volunteers will continue to monitor the area where she was seen.
One of the Tybee loggerhead nests hatched recently and 90 babies emerged. After a nest hatches, the volunteers carefully excavate the area to look for babies who haven’t emerged yet (and there was one in that nest) and collect data about the nest and the eggs.
The Tybee Sea Turtle Project is managed by Tammy Smith, a local educator who is passionate about protecting our wildlife. She and her volunteers, along with the staff at the Tybee Marine Science Center, do a terrific job! You can assist them by following the above guidelines, educating others about how to protect turtles during their beach visits, and visiting the center (on the beach near the pier and pavilion). Together, we can all help protect these wonderful creatures!
Links for more information:
- www.seaturtle.org has a database listing all turtle nests in Georgia
Pics courtesy of sea turtle protection non-profit groups. Please LIKE the TYBEE ISLAND SEA TURTLE PROJECT facebook page and consider making a donation to this project.