A remote island off the coast of Georgia with no paved roads, sweeping sand dunes and a maritime forest rich with wildlife and history is where I am spending my summer. Cumberland Island National Seashore is a protected island inhabited only by a few members of the park service and a handful of families that still own property on the island.
I was placed at Cumberland Island as a sea turtle intern through the SCA, the Student Conservation Association
. My job is to help out the sea turtles that nest along the 17 miles of beach here on the island by protecting their nests. I locate the nests, and if they are in a good location, I cover them with a wire screen and mark them with a white post. If the nest is in danger of being washed over by high tides, I dig it, removing each egg individually, and relocate them to a better site. Each day, I check on the nests to make sure they haven’t been disturbed.
This island is a prime nesting site for endangered sea turtles because there is no development along the beach. By the end of the nesting season, which runs from May to October, there can be up to 300 nests. Loggerheads are the most common to nest in this area, but occasionally leatherbacks, Kemp's ridleys and green sea turtles nest here.
The nests that I have relocated so far have had over a hundred eggs each, and an individual turtle nests several times a year, usually in two week cycles. After all of this, only about .01 percent of each hatch make it to be successful mating adult turtles.
Sea turtles have a lot going against them at every stage of their lives. As eggs, they make a delicious meal for hogs, raccoons, ghost crabs, and in some parts of the world, humans. Similarly, the little hatchlings are easy prey to many animals both on the shore and in the ocean. If the turtles aren’t equipped with an adequate navigation system, they can be swept into ocean currents that can be fatal.
Commercial fishing presents another obstacle because turtles get caught in the nets and drown because they can’t surface for air. Already, I have seen a dead loggerhead washed up on the beach with what looked like a propeller wound cut through its shell. It’s almost impossible to spot a turtle surfacing for air in the rolling waves of the open ocean.
If a female turtle survives to mate and nest, she has the task of finding a suitable beach. Turtles normally return to the area that they hatched to lay their own nests. However, lights, noises and people on the beach can deter turtles. With more and more development along the coasts, potential nesting sites are declining.
I’ve only been here for about a week, and so far we have 12 nests. It amazes me how much energy must go into laying nest, and I am happy to help make the most of the turtles’ efforts to continue this neat species.