Loggerhead Turtles Draw Georgia Tourists
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
It's nesting season for loggerhead turtles along the eastern seaboard, and that's a big draw for tourists at Jekyll Island, Georgia. For $10 people can walk the beach with experienced guides and also support the new turtle center on the island. Susanna Capelouto of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.
SUSANNA CAPELOUTO: About 30 people meander through the displays at the new Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island. Tour guide Anita Crocket(ph) holds up a big turtle shell.
Ms. ANITA CROCKET, (Tour Guide, Georgia Sea Turtle Center): The loggerhead has an enormous head. It has very strong jaws because it cracks shells. Where would you think their brain might be?
CAPELOUTO: After her night-time presentation, the group heads to the beach carrying red glowing flashlights. Jekyll Island is the only accessible Barrier Island in Georgia with a substantial number of turtle nests each year. That's because it's owned by the state and only a third of it is developed. That leaves enough unlit beachfront to attract nesting female and tourists looking for them. If they see one, they're instructed to stay quiet. But tonight there are only turtle nest predators.
Ms. CROCKET: But these ghost crabs can dig down into the nest, eat eggs. They don't usually damage too many. But they can also catch the babies.
Unidentified Child: Will the hatchlings and the parents ever meet up again?
Ms. CROCKET: Not that they know of. They wouldn't know each other if they did.
CAPELOUTO: Shannon Dill(ph) from Atlanta brought her kids to the quiet island this summer because she wants them to learn something.
Ms. SHANNON DILL (Resident, Atlanta): We'd love to go to Disney World, but we also think it's important to do things like this - to expose them to ways, you know, that they can help the environment in ways they can make an impact.
CAPELOUTO: About 130 sea turtles wash up on Georgia's beaches each year. If they're still alive, tourists can visit them at the center's turtle hospital. One of the more recent and critical patients is called Nick. The turtle was found on nearby Cumberland Island with his head almost split in half by a boat. Nick is about the size of a trashcan lid and sits in one of nine small pools lulled by the hum of filters and pumps. Bill Irwin is the director of the turtle center.
Dr. BILL IRWIN, (Director, Georgia Sea Turtle Center): When he first came in, didn't move very much at all. We were very concerned about him. We didn't even think that he would survive very long.
CAPELOUTO: In the past, Georgia's stranded turtles were taken on long drives to centers in Florida or the Carolinas. Sometimes they didn't survive the trip. Irwin says now they are welcome in a $3 million center he called state-of-the-art and unique.
Dr. IRWIN: It was the first facility that was ever designed and built specifically for sea turtle rehabilitation, research and education.
CAPELOUTO: The Georgia Sea Turtle Center is a nonprofit and plans on donations, grants and admissions from about 100,000 visitors a year to make ends meet. Biologist Mark Dodd with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources says it's a welcome addition to the state's turtle conservation efforts. Dodd tracks Georgia sea turtles and says the greatest threat, however, is outside of his control.
Mr. MARK DODD (Georgia Department of Natural Resources): The small hatchlings that leave Georgia beaches actually end up in the North Atlantic jar, which is a circular or current system in the North Atlantic. And so even if we do everything right in Georgia, we recognize that that may not be enough to maintain nesting populations here. We're going to have to be involved in fishery management issues in the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, and in fact in the whole of North Atlantic.
CAPELOUTO: Only one in 4,000 sea turtles makes it to adulthood. This year's Jekyll Island crop will hatch later this summer, and that will give turtle tourists another chance at seeing one of the endangered animals.
For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto.
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