Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sandy Toes Learns about Loggerhead Sea Turtles on Edisto

GFP Note: Loggerhead Sea Turtles are an endangered species. Thanks to efforts up and down the east coast, these guys are being given a fighting chance for their survival. The Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island is a great place to learn more about these graceful creatures. Click here to visit their site and see how you can become involved.

Having just arrived at our destination, we were quick to grab our swimsuits and fall out the door onto the sand of Edisto Beach, South Carolina. Slather on some sunscreen and let the vacation begin. While our expectations were high for the week, we stumbled across other finds that show us high hopes for the future.

Surrounding our beach house on the water side were two areas of orange tape. Looking closely, we could see indentations in the sand and the signs placed by the volunteers who watch the Loggerhead Sea Turtle. We sat smack down in between two turtle nests. One had been there for about 40 days and the other one about 10 days according to beach patrol Gary. Gary, who patrols the beach and is a volunteer loggerhead watcher, was eager to teach us landlubbers about the turtles.

The gracious ladies who come ashore to lay their eggs between May and August are coming home to the island of their birth. These gentle creatures can be up to three feet in size and weigh several hundred pounds. They come ashore at night to lay the ping pong ball sized eggs. Their flippers serve as a shovel and it can take an hour or more for the female to complete her nest. A typical nest will contain approximately 60-180 eggs.

The turtles are easily distracted from the work at hand. Should there be lights on the beach, or animals in the vicinity, the turtle may just crawl up and crawl back, thus exhibiting a "false crawl," whose track shape resembles a horseshoe. Gary told us she would then just abort the eggs into the ocean. A "true crawl" is one where the volunteers who walk the beach at night can locate the nest, and it has two distinct tracks.

Our second morning on the beach was thrilling. Here were new turtle tracks. Our trusty guide Gary showed us how to read the turtle tracks. In front of the nest was a huge "x" as in "x marks the spot." Gary explained the turtle patrol who had watched the turtle during the night placed the "x" to alert him of a new nest. He then placed an orange flag in the center of the nest.

Over the incubation period of the next 50-60 days, Gary and the other turtle watchers will keep a close eye on the nest. As time nears for the eggs to hatch, the sand will start to settle. A shell is then placed on top of the nest to show how much it is sinking. Experienced eyes can read those shells and determine about when the hatchlings will make their appearance. The hatchlings will boil out of the nest and head towards the ocean. The watchers are there in hopes that all of the young will make it there. Imprinting happens as soon as those hatchlings emerge. They follow the light of the moon to the ocean. If there are any lights on at the houses, the little tykes become confused and head towards the road.

Once the turtles go into the water, the males will never again touch land. Only the females will return in about 20 years or so.

Gary explained the process where the turtle watchers verify a nest. The nest will be about 18 to 24 inches down in the sand. A stick is used to verify the eggs' location. From the explanation, a gentle hand is used during this process.

Sometimes the eggs are too close to the high tide mark and have to be moved. Should the nest be moved, each egg must be individually moved without rotating the angle at which it was found. If the eggs are turned, the turtles will not hatch, or they will be deformed. While we were there, the oldest nest in front of our house had to be moved. There was an extremely high tide one night and the front part of the nest would not have been above the water line for more than a few days at most. The patrol moved the eggs about 30 feet. While this nest only had a few weeks left to go in its incubation phase, it was the only way any of the eggs will have a chance to hatch.

According to Gary, the female turtles will come ashore three or four times during the season to lay their eggs. The survival rate of the little tykes from the laying to adulthood is only about 1 in a thousand.

These animals can survive for close to 200 years. Full of grace and beauty, they are on the endangered list. Survival from predators who are natural and non-natural have severely depleted this turtle population. Over development on beaches and the loss of sandy beach for their nests have also taken their toll.

Protect the sea turtle. Give them hope. Give us hope.

Until next time,
Sandy Toes on Edisto

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