July 3, 2019
Sea Turtles in Georgia- A Reason for “Shell-abration”
Posted by: Nate Ramey
*Photos by Nate Ramey
It has been an “egg-citing” year here at Little Saint Simons Island. Loggerhead sea turtles have been nesting since May, and it seems that we are on track to break some records. The last record-breaking year was in 2016 when the island had a grand total of 223 nests. Right now as this blog is being written we are out pacing 2016, and if trends hold true we could break 250 nests on the island for the first time since monitoring of nests began in Georgia! This is all thanks to some wonderful conservation work being done here on Georgia’s coast. Some might ask, “Why do sea turtles need protection? What’s so hard about laying some eggs?” Well, hopefully I can shed a little light onto the situation and you can leave with a greater appreciation for these awesome creatures and the incredible feats they go through just to “lay some eggs”.
Imagine you’re a baby female loggerhead sea turtle that has just hatched in the nest. You’ve spent the past two months in your egg, developing into a perfect miniature of your parents. You’ve finally hatched out from your cramped egg using a small tooth-like projection on your beak, aptly called an “egg tooth”, which has now fallen off. You find the conditions outside of the egg not much better. It’s pitch black, with no room to move, and you feel other “things” around you squirming around. A claustrophic’s worse nightmare. Those “things” are your brothers and sisters. Sometimes over a hundred of them, all jammed packed into an underground chamber the size of a small basketball. You are all waiting for a cue to emerge from the sand. You’re near the top of the pile so you can feel the sand above you. It has started to cool down, signaling that the sun has set and night is upon you. That’s the cue you’ve been waiting for! You begin working you’re way up through the sand along with a few of your siblings. Your siblings below you notice your movement and begin to move up as well. Pretty soon the whole nest is trying to make their way out of the chamber. As many things are with turtles, this is a slow process. You notice the sand begin to warm again. A signal that the sun has begun to rise, so now you rest to wait for the next night (this whole process can actually take several nights).
Finally, after digging and pulling yourself through the sand, you break the surface into the night air and take your first breath above ground. But this is not a time for resting, now you need to make it to the ocean, your true home. But where is it? It’s night and while you can hear the ocean, you can’t really tell where it is. Your little eyes encrusted in sand attempt to scan around, and you notice that one part of the horizon is slightly brighter and you lock onto that. You are seeing the ever so slight light of the night sky being reflected off the ocean. Sadly, some of your siblings caught the sky-glow from a nearby coastal town behind the nest and begin crawling towards that. A fatal mistake as they will not make it to the ocean before predators or dehydration take their toll. You begin a mad dash for the ocean, along with what remains of your siblings who are still boiling out of the nest behind you. Uncharacteristically, there doesn’t seem to be any predators like raccoons or ghost crabs around tonight but that is not the case for many other hatchlings from other nests on the beach who are easily gobbled up. You continue your long, arduous crawl down the beach to the water, which unfortunately, is several hundred yards away tonight due to the low tide. You occasionally stop to rest, but then you see one of your siblings suddenly pulled down into a hole. A ghost crab has caught its next meal. This gets you moving again and finally, you make it and hit the breaking waves. The whole process has taken just about an hour to reach the water.
Now that you’ve found the water you begin orienting yourself perpendicularly to the wave action, the orientation you inherently know will get you out to sea. Unfortunately, there are more predators here and many of your siblings are snapped up by large fish, sharks, and crabs. After making it through another gauntlet of predators and past the breakers you are now in deeper, calmer water. Somehow, through a mechanism that still has scientists scratching their heads, you imprint on the area’s unique magnetic signature. You’ll use this many years later in life when the time comes to return. Now though, it is time to swim, so you start swimming non-stop for 20 long hours. Dodging more predators along the way, until you finally find an offshore current with patches of floating seaweed called Sargassum. There, you finally stop and rest and begin drifting and swimming with the currents. Here you will spend the next decade of life.
All of this has happened in the first few days of your life. A headcount would reveal only about 20 of the original 100+ hatchlings have made it this far. A tough start for such a small creature. The odds seem unfairly stacked against you, but yet you continue on a journey that if you’re lucky, could last a century or more. Hopefully, by viewing this through a sea turtles eyes you have begun to see some of the hurdles that these amazing creatures have to face in their early stages of life. In next month’s post we’ll experience the “lost” years of a sea turtle’s life, then finally adulthood, where we will see the whole cycle begin anew.