Lending a Hand to the Loggerhead

October 2001

Lending a Hand
to the Loggerhead

It is a summer night in Georgia and threatened loggerhead sea turtles are emerging from the sea as they have done for thousands of years. A female pushes her massive body, weighing as much as 400 pounds, slowly up into the dunes. Using her back flippers to scoop a hole in the sand, she can drop as many as 150 golf-ball sized eggs. Once these are safely covered with sand, the turtle’s maternal duties are done. She makes her way back down the beach and disappears beneath the rolling surf of the Atlantic.

What appears to be a solitary journey for this marine reptile is in reality quite the opposite. Watching from the night shadows are the volunteers and staff of the Caretta Research Project (caretta is the scientific name for loggerhead). Now in its twenty-ninth year, it is one of the oldest sea turtle monitoring projects in the country, and the only one that welcomes volunteers to spend a week assisting both the turtles and the scientific research.

Some of the volunteers are awe- struck by the huge creatures from the deep. As one of them told a reporter from the Savannah Morning News, “I’ll never see a turtle the same way again.” The volunteers’ duties include tagging the mother turtle, taking blood samples, and making observations. After the turtle returns to the sea, they install a screen over the nest to protect the eggs from marauding raccoons and other predators.

This population of loggerheads, which nests from northern Florida to North Carolina, has been severely impacted by coastal development and commercial fishing. Sand compaction, loss of nesting beaches, night lighting, and fishing nets have led to the deaths of thousands of turtles, and also interrupted their reproductive cycles, thus compounding the losses. Even the required turtle extruding devices on shrimp boats are not fool-proof and remain controversial with commercial fishermen.

By 1975, the federal government had named the loggerhead a threatened species. Monitoring the health of the turtles and the stability of the population was essential, and it was here that the Caretta Research Project was able to play a critical role. From the beginning, volunteers have been an integral part of the project. They have provided the manpower to protect the turtles, to keep the data flowing, and to educate others about the loggerhead.

Every week, from May through September, six volunteers show up on Wassaw Island, one of Georgia’s coastal barrier islands. The island is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national wildlife refuge with about 200 acres at its center in private ownership. Little has changed there since the time of the earliest settlers. Rolling dunes, live oak, slash pine woodlands, and wide expanses of salt marshes combine with 7 miles of beaches and 20 miles of dirt roads to make a virtual paradise in the eyes of many volunteers.

On the other side of paradise is the rustic cabin where the volunteers bunk together in cramped quarters. Kris Williams Carroll, the executive director and driving force behind the project, makes sure the volunteers have all the facts before arriving on Wassaw: “There is no electricity, no air conditioning, and no TV. We don’t entertain, but we have a great time.”

She also lets volunteers know they are working the night shift. The turtles come ashore under cover of darkness to lay their eggs and then, beginning in late July, the hatchlings emerge in the cool of the evening and clamber down to the water. Volunteers patrol the beach all night long in small golf cart-type vehicles looking for the telltale tracks that signal a female turtle has come ashore. As for the hatchlings, it may take several days for them to work their way out of the nest, but once they reach the surface, the race to the sea is on. Volunteers must be ready to escort them to the water, providing protection from owls, hogs, minks, and, of course, raccoons.

During the summer, Carroll and the one other project employee, assistant director Mike Frick, who started as a volunteer, are on the island nearly every day. But during the winter months, Carroll is holed up in her Savannah office crunching numbers and writing papers.

She is also responsible for fund raising from foundations and corporations. The volunteers help out here too. Each one pays about $500 for the opportunity to work with the sea turtles. Some years, it has been that money keeping the project afloat and even today, those funds make up half of the project’s annual budget.

The project is making a difference and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recognized that contribution with its Environmental Hero Award for 2000.

Another mark of its success is the volunteer corps—2,000 strong, with one-third making return visits. Some come every year, Carroll says, including Girl Scout troops, retirees, father-daughter duos, high-powered attorneys, and people from every walk of life who just want to make a contribution.

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