Guarding the Nest

Loggerhead turtles have been laying eggs on Georgia’s barrier islands for hundreds of years. Now local residents are working to ensure the threatened species’ survival.

Photographs by Kendrick Brinson

Beginning this month, typically in the dead of night, pregnant sea turtles weighing as much as a Falcons lineman will emerge from the Atlantic Ocean, spend an hour digging holes with their rear flippers on the beaches of Georgia’s barrier islands, deposit a hundred or so eggs, repack the sand, and head back into the ocean. Over the course of the summer, a prospective mother might nest up to six times. It’s Georgia’s version of March of the Penguins.

The turtles that make it this far have already defied the odds, evading obstacles both natural (sharks and whales) and man-made (nets, boats, polluted waters). Not that their eggs have it much easier. Raccoons and feral hogs dig them up for a snack. Not long ago, children would dare one another to eat them raw. And in the past locals considered them something of a delicacy. Things got so bad that by the early 1960s, many nests on Little Cumberland Island would produce no viable hatchlings. In 1978 the loggerhead was listed by the federal government as threatened, on the cusp of being endangered.

By then, though, the loggerheads of Georgia had started to benefit from a conservation effort that has afforded their species a measure of protection and care unlike any other in the state. Part official and part grassroots, the work is reflective of the loggerhead’s iconic status along the coast, as a symbol of the region’s leisurely rhythms and strong connection to the sea. But the turtles’ value is more than just symbolic: They’re a sentinel species. They serve as a bellwether for the health of coastal ecosystems. And according to many of the locals I spoke to, they have a keen ability to let us as humans know when our ambitions and activities are putting the animals we share the land and sea with at risk.

A baby turtle leaves its nest on Jekyll Island.

Spend an hour or two on St. Simons, Tybee, or Jekyll islands and you’ll quickly realize that the sea turtle is the coast’s unofficial mascot. They seem to be everywhere—well, not the turtles themselves, but their image. Parking decals for Jekyll feature them. The signs pointing out Tybee’s lighthouse are in the shape of loggerheads. They appear on shop signs and restaurant menus. And numerous races are run in their honor. The Last Song, a 2010 movie featuring a still wholesome Miley Cyrus, was set on Tybee and included a scene on the protection of a sea turtle nest using an overturned shopping cart. (Note: Shopping carts aren’t standard tools in turtle conservation.)

On Jekyll Island, there’s a whole facility dedicated to them. Part animal hospital, part ad hoc aquarium, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, founded in 2007, was the brainchild of veterinarian Terry Norton, who wanted a place to rehab injured turtles that had washed up on the beaches. Housed in a renovated power plant, the center has treated 430 sea turtles to date and released more than half of them back into the wild. Norton estimates that 20 to 30 percent of the turtles that come to the center are victims of collisions with boats. Others get caught in recreational fishing lines and the nets of the coastal shrimp trawlers or wind up at the center after eating plastic that’s been thrown into the ocean.

Georgia is home to one of the oldest loggerhead conservation projects in the world—South Africa has one that’s a few months older. When ecologist Jim Richardson, considered the father of sea turtle conservation in Georgia, began combing the beaches of Little Cumberland Island in the summer of 1964, turtles would rarely wash up on the shore. But by the mid-1970s, with shrimping boats deploying up to four nets at once, spanning more than 300 feet under water, there was nowhere for turtles to go. Strandings—dead or incapacitated turtles—soon became regular occurrences.

Egg poaching was also an issue in those early days. Along with the animal predators that would get into the nests, people were the biggest threat to eggs. Locals knew that turtle eggs made for moist cakes. “For men,” Richardson says, “if you slurped down a few raw ones, your masculinity would last a little longer that night.”

One volunteer who protects nests on St. Simons Island sees her work as atonement for an indiscretion during her childhood in Brunswick more than a half-century ago. At the age of ten or eleven, Gloria Ramsaur, now in her early seventies, ate a raw turtle egg on a dare. “Knowing now what I did not know then certainly guided me into this interest in the turtle program,” she explains. “It makes me very conscientious about it.”

Biologist Mark Dodd at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources shacks on Ossasbaw Island

At 5:30 on a tuesday morning in August
, Mark Dodd, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, leaves his Brunswick office in a forest-green Ford Super Duty. The truck tows a twenty-one-foot Privateer boat. He drives sixty miles up I-95 to Richmond Hill, twenty miles south of Savannah, then east ten miles, following the Ogeechee River to a boat ramp at Fort McAllister State Park, where the Privateer goes in the river.

Soon, Dodd is swerving between marshy reeds in an estuary where the Ogeechee and the Atlantic Ocean mingle their fresh and salty waters, intersecting boulevards of blue-gray waters lined with vegetation. To me, there’s no obvious way to get your bearings out here, but Dodd knows exactly where he’s going. It takes nearly twenty minutes of winding through the network of creeks to get to our destination, Ossabaw Island.

Ossabaw is about as undisturbed as 26,000 acres of Georgia land can get. There’s almost no development, beyond a cluster of small outbuildings that DNR uses, some ancient slave cabins, and a pink house belonging to Sandy West, the elderly heir of the family that once owned the island. (Ossabaw was sold to the State of Georgia in the late 1970s for $8 million.) These days, it’s most frequently known as a place where sport hunters come to winnow the feral pig population that’s run amok on the island’s ecology since the Spanish brought them over in the sixteenth century.

During the summer, two DNR interns live on the island and carry out dawn patrols to identify, monitor, and protect new loggerhead nests. When we get to the dock at Torrey Landing on the northern end of the island, the interns are waiting for us, anxious to take the boat to Savannah for groceries and human interaction. The women have been on the island since early May and will stay until late September. Dodd runs the beach one day a week to give them some time off-island.

Dodd and I jump on a Kawasaki Mule ATV and strike out toward the beach, about eight miles away. We motor down a path cut through what’s called a climax maritime forest, unique to the barrier islands of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. Up high are expanses of live oaks (broken with the occasional pine), while palmettos fill the lower reaches.

This is Dodd’s fifteenth year leading Georgia’s Sea Turtle Conservation Program. The state funds only DNR’s game programs, like those for managing deer, hog, and waterfowl populations. Those departments also make money from taxes on sales of guns and ammunition used for hunting. So, as Dodd puts it, his work “is like an NGO within the state government.” DNR’s sea turtle team of two full-time employees—Dodd and his technician, Ashley Raybould—is supplemented by the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative that they coordinate, which includes up to ten full-time staffers from other research and governmental groups as well as 120 trained volunteers. The non-game departments of DNR make money from federal grants, a fundraising event called Weekend for Wildlife held in the winter, and the vanity license plates that some Georgia drivers sport emblazoned with bald eagles, hummingbirds, or wildflowers. The turtle conservation program’s budget is $180,000 a year, with $100,000 coming from federal grants and the remainder from donations to the Wildlife Conservation Fund.

Dodd is responsible for monitoring turtles on thirteen barrier islands where they nest. He is tall and classically handsome with an athletic build and olive complexion, proof of time spent in the sun. His dark brown hair has distinguishing gray highlights. His character blends elements of rugged outdoorsman and curious scientist. One moment, he’s dispensing the sort of relationship advice you’d expect to hear from the guy at the next barstool; another, he’s recalling an article about a long-extinct human ancestor.

Dodd was born fifty years ago in rural Ohio, but his family relocated to Dunwoody, where he went to high school. His mother was a teacher; his father worked construction. After graduating from the University of Georgia with a zoology degree, he took a job in coastal South Carolina working with turtles. “It was really fascinating to me, being offshore, tracking sea turtles,
trying to figure out their movement patterns, and seeing how they interacted with their various threats,” he remembers. “I never looked back. It was a species that needed help.”

Like giant pandas and manatees, turtles are relatively easy to rally around. Perhaps it’s the species’ loner status or its ability to live both on land and sea.

When Dodd began in sea turtle conservation twenty-five years ago, little was known about turtles’ life cycles. Even today they’re still somewhat mysterious. What’s known is largely limited to what humans can easily observe, which amounts to just a fraction of a turtle’s lifespan—mostly when females approach a beach to nest. Tagging the flipper of the turtles, which for years was done using the same metal alloy tags you’ll occasionally see in cattle’s ears, helped researchers learn repeated behaviors. Today teams on a few beaches, like Jekyll, still tag, though now with microchips. But on most islands, one egg from each nest has its DNA sequenced, helping scientists learn the mother’s identity so they can track who comes back over and over to nest.

Newborn hatchlings come out at night and make their way to the ocean guided by the reflection of the moon on the water. They typically float along with the currents and live near the surface of the sea, since, like humans, they poke out of the water to breathe. Not long after they reach the ocean, the Gulf Stream current carries them northeast until they enter the North Atlantic Gyre, a clockwise current that can carry them for the first ten years of life up to Newfoundland and then over toward the Iberian Peninsula and west Africa and then back to the southeastern U.S. via the equator. Around age ten, they head to warmer waters like coastal bays and lagoons, where they can find a constant supply of food. Turtles swim hundreds of miles between where they forage for food, like mollusks and crabs, and where they nest. Loggerheads reach adulthood and sexual maturity around thirty to thirty-five years of age. Females typically return to the beach where they hatched to lay their eggs. Scientists believe female hatchlings can return to the beach where they were born using “natal homing,” detecting subtle differences in the Earth’s magnetic field to return to the waters off the coast of their birthplace to live and then nest there. “They’ve been around a long time and have behaviors that are like a computer program—they run again and again,” says Dodd. “And over time, they’ve been successful.”

But when a female turtle emerges on a beach, it’s a startling sight even for people with ecology PhDs, like Kimberly Andrews, who runs the Georgia Sea Turtle Center’s research program on Jekyll. “Even though we work with them, we never get over them crawling out of the ocean,” she explains. “And then there’s the evolutionary history. These animals are literally dinosaurs!”

Sea turtles are 200 million years old, but the species we know today evolved over the last 60 million years. On the Georgia barrier islands, you’re unlikely to see more than two or three females hit the beach at once, and they’re likely oblivious to one another, running a biological algorithm that’s tens of millions of years old, spurring them to drag their enormous shells—up to three feet long—onto the shore. They move haltingly, taking seven or eight lumbering steps in succession and then resting for fifteen seconds. They repeat this lurching pace until they find a spot in the dunes where they think their hatchlings will be reasonably safe. Then they start digging.

Dodd with a nesting loggerhead turtle, which can reach weights of up to 300 pounds

Over the course of the next six hours
, we move north from the middle of Ossabaw’s eastern shore up and around the horn at its northeastern end so that Dodd can inventory hatched loggerhead nests. In Georgia, volunteers inventory nests five days after hatchlings have begun to emerge—an occurrence signaled by several trails of flipper marks leading to the ocean. Florida and the Carolinas examine nests earlier, but aside from that, the four states run largely identical sea turtle monitoring programs. Dodd and his team sometimes move turtle nests into the dunes if they are vulnerable to being washed over by the tide. If the water doesn’t percolate out, it can prevent the embryos from getting enough oxygen, effectively drowning them.

Excavating a nest to inventory a hatch is a dirty job. First, Dodd pulls up a roughly four-by-four-foot swatch of plastic mesh staked to the sand. The mesh has one-and-a-half-inch-square holes in it that easily allow hatchlings to pass through. It protects the nest from hogs and raccoons that could dig down and swipe some of the eggs.

Next, Dodd starts digging up sand with his hands. He doesn’t stop until he’s produced an almost two-foot-deep hole that obscures his arm up to just above his elbow. From that depth, where the hatchlings break through their shells and make the slow ascent to the surface, he typically produces around a hundred large pieces of eggshells from which hatchlings have emerged. They look and feel like torn, damp Ping-Pong balls. At least a few whole, unhatched eggs are usually found in each clutch. The leathery spheres hold embryos in various stages of arrested development.

As we walk down the beach, cartoonish ghost crabs, with their elongated black eyes perched atop their bodies, skitter across the sand, seemingly locked into moving in only two dimensions. Occasionally the crabs will make off with an egg or two. Dodd says he doesn’t worry about ghost crabs. Some of his volunteers, however, have developed an unnatural hatred of them. “You’ll be with this nice, sweet volunteer walking down the beach, and they’re telling you about their grandkids,” Dodd says, “and then a ghost crab runs out, and they smash it.”

A few times during his excavations, we would find hatchlings that didn’t make it out of the nest, often due to developmental difficulties, like partially formed flippers. “They either get out or they don’t, which is the way it’s supposed to be,” Dodd says.

I would suddenly find myself trying to counteract nature’s will, scooping up a grayish-black, sand-covered hatchling that fit easily in the palm of my hand and setting it down a few feet from the ocean. The hatchling would hobble toward the water. If it made it to the surf, Dodd would look for its front flippers to “power stroke,” like a swimmer doing the butterfly. Often the little tyke would stop and float and be carried back to us by the tide. Even with our help, these guys wouldn’t live much longer.

Dodd knows that his job borders on tampering with natural selection. Moving nests and thwarting raccoons and hogs with plastic isn’t exactly what nature intended. But, he reasons, neither were commercial fisheries, recreational sailors, and shrimp boats.

Or climate change. Sea level rise is wiping out beaches where the turtles have nested for years. According to Gale Bishop, cofounder of St. Catherines Island’s sea turtle program and professor emeritus of geology at Georgia Southern University, the beach he patrols on St. Catherines, just south of Ossabaw, is disappearing at roughly ten feet per year. The percent of the island available for nesting has dropped to 11 percent from 25 percent. Further, four of the past five summers are among the top ten warmest since 1950, a trend that could throw the loggerhead sex ratio out of whack. The temperature in which the eggs incubate determines the sex of hatchlings. In warmer conditions, loggerhead hatchlings are predominantly female; in cooler ones, the babies will be mostly male. Typically, female loggerheads engage in a sort of mating square dance in April, collecting and storing sperm from several males to fertilize the 500 or so eggs they’ll eventually deposit on the beach. Sustained higher temperatures could in time force turtles to seek out more temperate beaches north of the barrier islands. But if the pace of the temperature change is too sudden, it could lead to a shortage of male turtles available to fertilize the females’ eggs.

That might have been what happened to nest seventy-eight. There were 138 eggs underground, and not one hatched. As Dodd reached in to examine the nest, he noted that none of the eggs had developed at all and that the sulfuric stench that accompanied the morbid scene was, to quote the writer Joseph Conrad, “the primeval smell of fecund earth.”

Researchers and volunteers with the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island inventory turtle nests.

Luckily, nest seventy-eight
would prove to be an aberration this season. In fact, 2013 was a record year for nesting on the Georgia coast. Over fifteen beaches, loggerheads laid 2,289 nests—up forty-one from last year. It’s the fourth year in a row that the number of nests has increased, after years of yo-yoing that included a nadir of 358 in 2004.

“It’s pretty damn exciting,” says Dodd. “If you had asked me ten years ago, ‘How likely is it that ten years from now you’ll see a recovery in population?,’ I would have said the chances are not very good. The more consecutive increases we get, the more confident we are that we’re on the road to recovery.”

Dodd notes that word of the uptick could actually bring some new challenges for turtle conservationists to navigate. He worries that shrimpers, for instance, might ask for looser restrictions on their activity, arguing that measures to save turtles have cost them some of their catch. Since 1991 the federal government has mandated that shrimping boats use so-called turtle-excluder devices in their nets. TEDs are a grid of bars at one end of the net that allows shrimp to pass through but serves as an escape hatch for larger marine life, like loggerheads, that initially get caught up in the net.

The recovery could also lead to complacency, allowing the relaxation of development restrictions that are designed to protect the species. Part of DNR’s mandate is to review new projects and mitigate their possible impact on turtles. For instance, resort lights that shine on the beach can disorient hatchlings when they’re heading for the ocean. When buildings are erected too close to the shore, revetments and other barriers, like rock walls, become necessary, eating up beach for nesting. Jekyll, Dodd says, has lost about a third of its oceanfront to development.

Still, that four-year growth is welcome news in the face of what can seem a cruel numbers game. After all, it’s estimated that only one in 1,000 hatchlings will ever reach maturity. From Richardson’s data on Little Cumberland Island, the average female loggerhead might have four to six nesting seasons, which come once every two or three years. If she lays about five clutches with an average of 120 eggs per nest, she’ll lay 600 eggs per season. If she comes back every two to three years, she’ll lay 2,400 eggs in a decade. If half of those are male, then it will have taken the turtle ten years simply to replace herself. Richardson says that as a conservationist, you have to avoid a defeatist mind-set. “You just do it.”

These people do it because of the sea turtle’s role in the ecosystem, as an ad hoc indicator of its overall health. Dodd said to me several times on Ossabaw, “The turtles are telling us something.”

“To me, ultimately, the big-picture story is that of endurance. That’s one of my favorite words,” Dodd told me. “It means to sustain without yielding, and that’s what this program is all about—not unlike turtles themselves.”