Sunday, August 7, 2011

SEA TURTLES NEED US: Relocating Nests on St. Catherines Island, Georgia

SEA TURTLE HATCHLING (art by Hallelujah)

Hallelujah for SEA TURTLES and SEA TURTLE EGGS! Aren’t they mysteriously fascinating creatures? Hallelujah for SCIENTISTS like Gale Bishop, who are passionately dedicated to assisting SEA TURTLES survival by monitoring their nests on St. Catherines Island, Georgia, four-and-a-half months every year. 113 precious sea turtle eggs were laid in the 159th nest on Friday night, July 30, 2011, when I was there with my Chiboogamoo. And I got to help protect them!
Gale Bishop

While my Chiboogamoo was researching alligator dens on the island’s inland ponds, I accompanied Gale and a visiting team of paleontologists from Montana State University (MSU) to the coastal dunes to relocate the eggs from this 159th nest. The focus of the MSU scientists was to study modern sea-turtle nest structures in order to increase their understanding of fossil ones. On this sizzling hot day with temperatures soaring into triple digits Fahrenheit, we were glad to guided by an expert. Gale has been monitoring sea-turtle nesting for 21 years through the St. Catherines Island Sea Turtle Conservation Program.
Dan Lawver

Once we were at the site of nest 159, Gale guided Dan Lawver, an MSU paleontology graduate student, to carefully remove its surface sand. This nest had been discovered and marked earlier in the morning at sunrise when Gale and his intern patrolled the beach looking for the iconic trackways made by a mother sea turtle. To lay eggs, she must leave the safety and fluidity of her ocean home to pull herself forward with her flippers on this foreign land of her birthplace. Her movements recorded in the sand look cumbersome, persistent, and rhythmic. Dan worked slowly with the shovel edge, eventually revealing the damp oval outline of the place where the mother turtle had deposited her eggs, then compacted the sand on top of them. Tentatively, with his fingers, Dan loosened and removed handfuls of the sand until he uncovered the bevy of more than 100 eggs.
AN EASILY RECOGNIZED PATTERN: Sea turtles leave a distinctive trackway.  This particular sea turtle did not succeed in making a nest. Imagine her pulling herself along the beach, using her flippers, only to turn around and leave mission unaccomplished. (photo by Gale Bishop)

Successful Sea Turtle Trackway: The mother sea turtle who journeyed from the ocean to the dune succeeded in making a nest. (photo by Gale Bishop)

These eggs must be moved for two primary reasons. First of all, mother sea turtles are laying eggs too close to the shoreline, and the forces of the ocean will erode the nest away. Then there are the predators. In addition to moving nests to higher ground away from the surf, protective screening is placed over the nests to protect them from persistent predators such as raccoons, ghost crabs, and feral hogs.

Predator Raccoon: This opportunivore was captured at the site of a sea turtle nest. (photo by Gale Bishop)

Predator Ghost Crab: Eating is essential for every living thing. Ghost crabs prey upon sea turtle nests. (photo by Chiboogamoo)

Predator Hogs: Hogs do not belong on the Georgia barrier islands. They destroy habitats and love to eat turtle eggs. Reproducing at such rapid rates, hog populations on the islands are impossible to control. (Photo by Gale Bishop)

Urged on by Gale to participate in this magnificent conservation effort—even though I was slightly nervous about damaging the eggs—I began scooping them out of the nest by twos and putting them in a large, red three-gallon bucket. Each time I touched an egg, I worried that my fingers would puncture it. Instead, the egg yielded to my touch, allowing me to ease it out of its earthy sandy womb. How did the yolk of the unborn turtle stay intact? Each egg seemed a tiny miracle of Mother Nature!

WOW!: Hallelujah holding a sea turtle egg! (photo by Gale Bishop)

ELEMENTAL LIFE:  Sea Turtle Eggs Re-nested. (photo by Chiboogamoo, photoshopped by Hallelujah)

Once reburied in a much safer location in the dunes, these white durable leathery eggs, a little larger and softer than ping-pong balls, will hatch in approximately 54 days. The hatchlings will erupt from this human-made “protected” nest with a clear and direct sense of how to reach the sea. Each newly minted sea turtle will leave a small undulating trackway perpendicular to the beach, something that won’t be repeated again until its reproductive maturity twenty years later. And that will only happen if the 3-inch-long female hatchlings escape all the hazards of being a small animal in a very large and competitive ecosystem. Is it really possible that out of every ONE THOUSAND sea turtle hatchlings, just ONE survives to reproductive age?
SEA TURTLE LIFE! (photo by Gale Bishop)

Of the 113 eggs from nest 159, one egg was collected for DNA testing. Gale calls this a necessary “sacrifice” so that the mother turtle can be identified. For example, on one short stretch of the beach, the DNA testing revealed that the same mother sea turtle had nested six times. Do the math! One mother, six nests, each nest comprising approximately 113 eggs—that’s 678 hatchlings from just one turtle ambling towards the sea! Perhaps one of them might make it to maturity! But then again, what percentage of the nested eggs will actually hatch? That’s another story, for another time.

Has the sea turtle always faced such great odds at survival? Who knows! When we consider deep time—sea turtles have been in existence since the Early Cretaceous, for more than 100 million years. If they have survived this long, won’t they continue? Simply answered, NO! Today, their nesting habitats are severely threatened by human development, invasive species, and the changing environment, such as global warming. Because of these conditions, all species of sea turtles are on the endangered list. Sea turtles need our assistance if they are to continue being on this glorious and wonderful planet.
HATCHLING CRAWLWAY: The babies knew which direction to go. Did they feel the call of the sea? See their trackways? (photo by Gale Bishop)

Over the 21 years that Gale has been monitoring the sea-turtle nests on St. Catherines Island from mid-May to the end of September, he has come across and relocated 2,355 nests and thus assisted approximately 142,672 sea turtles at the beginning of their life cycles. He has helped train 256 teachers in St. Catherines Island Sea Turtle Conservation Program, therefore impacting the sea turtle conservation knowledge of 270,227 students.

Hallelujah for EDUCATORS and SCIENTISTS like Gale, and the SEA TURTLES they serve. Hallelujah for STUDENTS who are our FUTURE SEA TURTLE CONSERVATIONISTS. Food for thought—if it takes ONE    THOUSAND or more hatchling sea turtles for ONE to become a mother, how many students educated in sea turtle conservation does it take to produce a sea turtle protector?

That’s COFFEE WITH HALLELUJAH! Write me and tell me why so many of us just absolutely love sea turtles and feel connected to them! SOUL BLOG with me and explain to me the mysteries that entwine us with these magnificent creatures of the sea!

SUNRISE AT ST. CATHERINES ISLAND: Sunday morning on July 31,  Chiboogamoo and I went out with Gale on his morning patrol to check for newly made nests or hatchling crawlways to the sea.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Hallelujah sings praises of Gale Bishop, professor, paleontologist, ichnologist, educator, and turtle conservationist extraordinaire. He is generous and gentle in his science instruction. He really loves people as much as he loves sea turtles and his black cat, Abbie. And, he can bake the best dinner rolls ever! Thanks to the Montana State University crew, who let me tag along. And, as always, thanks to my Chiboogamoo, who takes to me the Georgia Coast. 


  1. Hopefully the relationship of student to sea turtle protector is 1 to 1. 1000 to 1 would be a dismal score. Hallelujah to all mothers and fathers and the struggles they accept to continue life on this planet.

  2. See See, you are so right! Hallelujah to those who foster life in the midst of struggles!