Tybee turtle time 

Trot will kick-off the 2009 sea turtle nesting season

 Blizzard and Snowball are two lucky turtles.

After being cold-stunned off the North Carolina coast, the loggerhead turtles were taken to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island for treatment. Now that they’ve recovered, Blizzard and Snowball will be returned to the sea when they are released April 25 at the conclusion of the 2009 Tybee Turtle Trot.

Dr. Terry L. Norton is the director of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. The turtles were sent to the center last December after the water temperature got below 50 degrees.

Turtles are cold-blooded, which means they depend on external sources for heat. "When they get into cold water, they sort of shut down," Norton says. "The folks in North Carolina got overwhelmed with too many turtles, so they sent them to us."

A green turtle named Chilly Willy also made the trip. Cold-stunning can result in serious conditions such as pneumonia and bone infections, but all three turtles responded very well to treatment.

The center, which opened in June 2007, has plenty of other patients. "Right now, we have the most we’ve ever had," Norton says

A lot of turtles have been treated in less than two years. "We’ve had 354 turtles in 14 different species," Norton says. "We’ve released 188. Right now, we have about 70 turtles at the center."

Of those, 60 percent are loggerheads and 30 percent are green turtles. Turtle treatment can be tricky, Norton says. "It definitely requires a saltwater tank, which is why there aren’t many facilities," he says. "You have to have staff with expertise. We’ve done a lot of innovative stuff."

Most turtles at the center are being treated for injuries. A major area of concern is the increase of turtles with boat-propeller and ship-strike injuries.

Some that come in are called "floaters" because they can’t dive. Norton says those turtles may have air in their body cavity, which can be caused by a tear in a lung from a boat strike or other trauma, pneumonia or a blockage in the gastro-intestinal tract.

"We’ve seen two turtles who couldn’t open their mouths, and we suspect red-tide toxicity," Norton says. "We also see a lot of turtles that have been hit by cars."

Others suffer from Debilitated Sea Turtle Syndrome. "Often times, we don’t get to the bottom of that," Norton says. "We’ve had a recent event with juvenile green turtles from St. Augustine up to St. Simons. We’ve had 10-15 come in in the last month and half, which is really unusual."

Some of the turtles have organisms growing on their shells. "One came in with over a pound of sea squirts on its shell," Norton says. "We’ve been able to turn those around, but we’re still investigating the cause."

More information about the center can be found at www.georgiaseaturtlecenter.org. The center also does interactive education, going to schools and encouraging visitors to come to the center.

"We recommend people coming to see all the turtles," Norton says. "We have an elevated walkway, so it’s not like people can touch the turtles, but they are visible. There are windows so people can see into the hospital. Usually, people are very excited when they come."

Mark Dodd is a wildlife biologist and coordinator of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Sea Turtle Program. "The primary species we consider our turtles in Georgia are loggerheads," he says.

Over the past 40 years, the loggerhead turtle has declined 1.2 percent annually. "Down in South Florida, their population is declining pretty dramatically," Dodd says. "We’ve sustained a long-term decline, but our population seems to have stabilized."

There are a lot of threats to sea turtles. "The primary threat is commercial fishing," Dodd says. "Once we had a large shrimp fleet and the turtles would drown in the nets.

"In the early 90s, shrimpers were required to use a turtle exclusion device that helps turtles escape," he says. "They weren’t as efficient as we’d hoped they would be, so we still had some mortalities."

A hatchling may emerge in Georgia, but is unlikely to stay. "They spend a lot of time in areas outside our area of jurisdiction," Dodd says. "The small hatchlings spend 10 to 15 years out in the ocean, outside U.S. territorial waters. There are many threats from commercial fishing activities."

Outside the U.S., swordfish and tuna fishing are largely responsible for turtle mortality. "When they come back to us as juveniles, they run into the shrimping industry," Dodd says. "Other threats include coastal development and loss of nesting habitat. We’re seeing an increasing number of turtles wash up with propeller wounds."

The Georgia DNR sponsors a conservation program with several components, including nest protection and management. "We coordinate a group of 13 nest protection projects," Dodd says.

"On all the barrier island beaches, we have people who survey the nesting activity. Once they locate a nest, they mark it and protect it during the incubation period.

"Once they hatch, they dig up the nest and determine how successful it was," Dodd says. "They’ve done an excellent job collecting data to access the population status."

The DNR is trying to make sure that turtle reproduction is successful enough for the population to recover. Research is being conducted to learn where turtles go and what they interact with. Volunteers on Tybee Island will start surveying beaches on May 1, Dodd says.

Loggerheads that manage to avoid disaster can grow to weigh 200 pounds. Scientists aren’t sure how old they can get, although there are some clues.

"From genetic research, we know there are some mother and daughter pairs on the Georgia coast," Dodd says. "They’re not reproducing actively until age 35, so if one female deposits an egg and it grows up and starts nesting, the older turtle must be at least 65 to 70 years old. Based on what we’ve seen with other turtles, they probably live a lot longer."

The Turtle Trot is an exciting event because it celebrates the conservation of loggerheads. "It’s a hopeful time," Dodd says. "In Georgia, we have a long history of conservation of turtles.

"It takes a long time see the fruit of our work," he says. "It’s heartening to see an increase in nesting. The Turtle Trot is sort of a celebration of that."

Sea turtle activity is monitored from May 1 through Oct. 31. Volunteers called cooperators conduct daily Dawn Patrols at 6 a.m. to look for evidence of turtle activity.

Sea turtle crawls, or tracks, are an indication that a turtle may have nested. When a viable nest is confirmed, it is roped off and posted.

In 2007, cooperators on Tybee Island monitored 11 nests. Out of 1,183 eggs, 1,021 sea turtles hatched and 935 hatchlings made their way to the sea. The remaining 86 hatchlings were disoriented by artificial light, and crawled The sex of loggerhead turtle hatchlings is temperature dependant. Warmer temperature will produce female hatchlings and cooler temperatures will produce male hatchlings.

The eggs incubate for about two months. Once the hatchlings emerge, they head to the water where they spend up to seven years drifting, feeding on plankton and plants in the oceans of the world.

The 5th Annual 2009 Tybee Turtle Trot will be held April 25 in front of the Tybee Island Marine Science Center.. Sign-in will start at 7 a.m. and the run/walk will begin at 8 a.m. The sea turtle release will be held at about 10 a.m.

The trot is a fund raiser for the Tybee Island Sea Turtle Program. The cost to run/walk is $25, and forms are available at TybeeTurtleTrot.net, says Maria Procopio, executive director of the Tybee Island Marine Science Center.

During nesting season, artificial light shining on the beach discourages nesting and disorients hatchlings. Proceeds from the Turtle Trot will help support the TIMSC Lights Out program.

That in turn helps support the TIMSC’s mission to promote stewardship of coastal Georgia’s marine ecosystem through education, conservation and research. "If we didn’t have the sea turtle project in areas that are vulnerable, we would have less viable nesting and less sea turtles," Procopio says.

Turtles also are treated at the University of Georgia Aquarium on Skidaway Island. A threatened sea turtle named Oliver arrived at the aquarium as a two-day old hatchling, and on May 22, will be released at the age of 3 1/2 years.

Biologists from the Caretta Research Project took Oliver to the aquarium with the cooperation of the DNR and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.

The hatchling had been determined to be a "straggler." He has been on display at the aquarium to help promote sea turtle conservation.

"Loggerhead sea turtles are on the threatened species list at both the state and federal levels," says aquarium assistant curator Karin Paquin.

If you see a nest, stay away. "Remember never to approach or interfere with nesting loggerheads or emerging hatchlings," Paquin says. "They are protected by law."

An education program is being offered on May 22 from 8 a.m. to noon, and participants will accompany Oliver to Wassaw Island National Wildlife Refuge for his release. The cost is $15 per person, and the program is limited to just 14 people.

For information, visit www.marex.uga/edu/aquarium/ or call 598-FISH. The UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium has been collaborating with the Caretta Research Project for years to rescue stragglers like Oliver and to promote conservation of sea turtle.

"The mission of the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium is to develop the public’s understanding and appreciation of Georgia’s coastal marine environments and to foster respect for their beauty and complexity," Paquin says. "Caring for a loggerhead sea turtle allows the Marine Extension Service to create educational activities for students and the public that emphasize the importance of conserving not just the animal itself, but also the animal’s environment and food sources."







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Linda Sickler

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