As Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas on September 1, causing extreme destruction that left several dead and missing and at least 70,000 homeless, those living along the Georgia coast anxiously kept a close eye on where the then-category 5 hurricane would head next.
After Governor Brian Kemp issued mandatory evacuations along the Georgia coast that Sunday, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island went on alert. Founded in 2007, the center dedicates itself to the care, rehabilitation, and study of sea turtles and protection of their environment. It’s the only center of its kind in the state, and with the storm looming, the injured and sick turtles housed there needed to be evacuated.
The team first released seven patients that were ready to return to the wild after months of rehabilitation. Terry Norton, director of the center, says that it is often in the best interest of the animals to release them ahead of storms, as long as they’re ready.
“Studies have been done to look at how turtles respond in weather events, and they know what to do. The ones we felt were ready would be a lot more comfortable in their natural habitat than driving up to Atlanta in a tub,” Norton says.
Three vans loaded the other 90 turtle patients, including four loggerhead sea turtles, for the evacuation caravan from Jekyll Island to Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium.
Grabbing each turtle from its tank, the team loaded them into plastic tubs—similar to the ones that house your holiday decorations—full of towels and padding. The turtles are able to spend several hours outside the water, Norton says.
Many turtles to pack up. pic.twitter.com/mPjEPuY3X2
— David A. Steen, Ph.D. (@AlongsideWild) September 2, 2019
The team arrived at the aquarium on September 2 and set up a mobile turtle hospital on-site, where the aquarium staff was ready to lend a hand in caring for the creatures.
“They had room for us to set up shop and use some of the bigger tanks for the sea turtles. We had access to all of the saltwater and freshwater we needed,” Norton says. “Their staff worked with our staff to care for the animals.”
Day II. This is what a mobile sea turtle hospital looks like. pic.twitter.com/z0TF13WxpA
— David A. Steen, Ph.D. (@AlongsideWild) September 3, 2019
On any given day, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center looks after animals brought in with skull or jaw fractures, buoyancy issues, flipper trauma, and other ailments. Boat strikes account for 20 percent of the cases they see. Fish hooks injuries and Fibropapillomatosis, tumors caused by the herpes virus, are some of the other issues they see. One of the seven turtles released before the evacuation, named Manicotti, was among those riddled with tumors, but he responded well to a series of surgeries and was able to return to the wild.
As of this past weekend, the staff has returned to Jekyll Island. They will clean the tanks and ready up the center for the return of the turtles. Fortunately, the Center suffered minimal damage after the passing of Dorian and will be open to the public again soon. While the center is primarily a turtle hospital, it has an exhibition gallery to teach the public about the turtles and their habitat, and also allows visitors to see some of the turtles in rehab.
“We use the individual turtles that are patients to engage visitors and let them know about the bigger picture issues [in their environment],” Norton says.
A few turtles came home to Jekyll Island with the staff, with the rest to follow in the coming weeks.
The team feels positive about the community of wild turtles in the area too. The nests hatched earlier this year, so they’re hoping few were impacted by the storm. “It was a great year for sea turtle nesting on the Georgia coast,” Norton says.