It’s dawn on Sea Island, Georgia, a small, beachside resort famous for its nostalgic southern charm and family atmosphere. But this year, Sea Island is also attracting an increasing number of mothers of another sort—loggerhead turtles who are arriving in droves to lay their eggs. Loggerhead females have already made more than 80 new nests—twice the number of last year—and the season still has more than a month to go. It could be a record-breaker, which is great news for this endangered species.
Early every morning, a squad of Sea Island naturalists and vacationing volunteers patrols the beach looking for telltale turtle tracks. We were out by 6 a.m. and scoured the beach until we found the unmistakable markings of a turtle mother’s trek from the ocean to the dunes to lay her eggs.
We found two nests—an extraordinary thrill for me, but not so uncommon this summer. The tracks of the mothers were still visible. We followed them to their end point, and our guide gently tapped the sand with a pointed stick until he identified the nest. He took GPS readings so that each nest’s location would be documented, and then he assessed the site to determine its suitability. Both nests were too close to the high tide mark, he concluded, and would not likely survive.
That’s when the real fun began.
We burrowed with our hands until we uncovered the mother lode of eggs in the nests—more than 110 in each—about a foot below the surface. One egg was removed for genetic testing to identify the mother turtle, but then we took all the others out and laid them into a bucket containing some cushioning sand until they filled the whole thing to the top. Turtle eggs are each about the size of a golf ball, but smooth and a little bit squishy. They are relatively hard to break, which makes the transplanting easier.
Then we found a good spot to re-plant the eggs—a bit farther back and tucked into the edge of a relatively flat sand dune. We dug a hole just like the one the mother had made with her hind flippers. For the turtle mother, it can take up to thirty minutes to dig her nest, but human hands made quick work of the task. Carefully we laid the eggs into the nest one on top of the other, excited by the possibility of each new turtle life.
In about 60 days, these babies will hatch and hopefully wiggle their way into the sea. And with any luck, maybe a couple of the females will make it back to this beach to lay their own eggs in about 20 years.
Ghost crabs scurried across the beach, raccoons lurked in the nearby brush, and shrimpers plied the waters off shore—all these threats are evident to us and will make survival a huge challenge for the loggerhead babies. But we weren’t thinking about that as we happily placed sand on top of the eggs and then marked the nest’s new location with yellow stakes. The experts at Sea Island will be keeping tabs on the nests, waiting and watching for the new babies to emerge.
For me, helping to save these turtles was more than just conservation; it was cathartic. My youngest child is about to leave home for good—my own nest is almost empty. It felt great to be helping another mother’s offspring have a better chance of survival, even as my own is about to enter the uncharted waters of adulthood.
If you want to “adopt” a loggerhead nest, contact the Sea Island Foundation.