Welcome to The Georgia Sea Turtle Center, located on Jekyll Island.
The center opened in 2007, thanks to the help of many, but it was the determination of veterinarian Dr. Henry Norton that got it off the ground.
Dr. Terry Norton
But it has definitely been a community effort - the walkway up to the front door is built of thousands of bricks that bear the inscriptions of those that have contributed to this place. This place is much like the Birds of Prey Center in Awendaw SC, but the focus here is sea turtles.
The waters of the Atlantic grew cold quicker than normal this year, leaving many turtles stranded. The condition is called cold stunning, and it is deadly to many species of turtle. This year over a thousand were found disoriented on the beaches of New England, and many have been brought here to be nursed back to health. A couple of tents have been erected outside the facility to handle the increase of 50 turtles in the facility.
John Marr, General Manager of the facility was a big help getting us "behind the scenes" for photographs of the facility today. He has a doctorate in Environmental Science and Biology from Minnesota. He came here because of the opportunity to showcase an endangered species and to educate the public on stewardship of our natural resources. And come the public does. Tens of thousands visit this place each year, and a big part of the Center's mission is to educate those folks on what they can do to become better stewards of our marine environments.
John Marr PhD
There are several sections to the facility, the largest being the holding area. Better than a dozen holding tanks are erected in this section.
Many of the tanks have their own isolated filtration systems.
This allows an individual that comes in infected with a virus or other condition that is contagious to be isolated from the rest of the population.
They make their own "sea water" here, relying on sea salt that comes in cartons on skids. They have a separate mixing tank outside the facility. Since a large turtle will dirty these tanks quickly, the center goes through a lot of this in the effort to keep the tanks clean. Ozone is used also to help keep bacteria growth down. The tanks are kept warm - in the 70 degree range - to help keep the turtle's metabolism up. This helps the body process the various medicines and whatever wounds they are recovering from to heal more quickly.
Immediately adjacent to this section is the nutritional area. The diets of the different species vary widely, so a lot of work goes into keeping the appropriate foods on hand. Only restaurant quality seafood is used, and depending on its needs, each turtle gets 1 - 3 % of its body weight in food per day. The center has even developed its own formula for vitamin pellets that are given to the turtles.
Here Ameri-Corps volunteer Shawn McMahon readies the food for the 4:00 feeding. This is Shawn's fourth year working as a volunteer for the Corps.
Education of the public is a high priority. A walkway between the tanks allows visitors to view the turtles. Several times a day various employees and volunteers will give talks about various aspects of the turtles existence and the center's efforts.
Another area of the center is the section where the medical condition of the turtles is addressed. Blood work is analyzed and the turtles are x-rayed. In cases where it is necessary, the local hospital allows them to bring the turtles for MRI's and CAT Scans.
There is a separate surgical suite for the most difficult of situations. It even includes a machine designed to do laser surgery.
Here Dr. Norton is working on an unusual case. This particular turtle appears to be a rare hybrid of two species. The turtle has numerous abrasions, probably from being battered about by the surf as it was unconscious from the cold stunning.
The wounds are treated with either a silver based cleaner or honey. Honey has unique characteristics that kill bacteria and speed the healing process. Most of the honey is local, but because of its superior qualities a type bees process from the nectar of the Manuka tree is imported from New Zealand.
After the wounds are scrubbed out and the antiseptic is applied, a substance is used that acts as a framework for the cells to re-grow on.
Then a paste is mixed up that resembles plaster. This hardens into a bone-like material that helps the body in its efforts to heal.
A large number of the staff act as educators for the public. Guide Katie Higgins explains the various turtles that the center helps.
There are five species of turtles that visit the Georgia coast. First we have the Leatherback.
The Leatherback is the largest living sea turtle, and is the world's largest reptile besides the crocodile family. One of its ancestors grew to Volkswagen proportions - with a shell ten feet wide and an overall size of twenty feet with its flippers. Average shell size of a mature adult is about five feet long with a weight of up to three quarters of a ton.
Jellyfish are the staple of this turtle's diet, and the leading cause of death is blockage of the digestive tract by floating plastic bags or balloons that they mistake for their favorite food.
Next up is the Loggerhead turtle.
The average mature Loggerhead has a shell about three feet long and weighs around three hundred pounds, although there have been a few found that pushed a thousand pounds. These animals so not reach sexual maturity until about 35 years of age. When they hatch the swim madly out to the cover of the Sargasso Sea, a large seaweed bed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
They then wander about for about fifteen years, then return to the area they were born and bottom feed for about another twenty years. After this their reproduction cycle kicks in, and they return to the precise spot where they were hatched to lay their eggs. No one knows exactly how they navigate so precisely, but it is known they use the earth's magnetic field to some degree. Chemical clues in the water caused by the erosion of unique rock and plant material may also help their accuracy.
The Loggerheads feed on crabs and other invertebrates. One unique feature of Loggerheads is that the females are the ones who fight over the males when breeding season comes around. And here I thought that only happened on Jerry Springer and Maury Povich.
Next we have the Green Sea Turtle.
The Greens are similar in size to the Loggerheads. The unique thing about the Green Sea Turtles is that the Pacific population and the Atlantic population do not mix.
Here is the Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle.
This is the smallest of the sea turtles, and also the most endangered. Mature adults reach about a hundred pounds. The vast majority of the females return to one beach - Rancho Nuevo - in Mexico to lay their eggs each year. Kemp was the name of the fellow who first identified the specie, but no one seems sure what the Ridley part refers to.
And the fifth sea turtle that graces these shores is the Hawksbill Sea Turtle.
The Hawksbill reaches about three feet in length and a mature adult is usually around 180 pounds. The vast majority of their diet is sponges, but they will eat sea anemone, jelly fish, algae and man-o-war. These are a critically endangered specie. For years they were over-hunted by the Japanese who valued their shell for things such as eye-glass frames. All of these turtles take a long time to reach breeding age and are not that prolific at producing offspring that mature to adulthood. It is estimated that only one in two thousand reaches sexual maturity, so things like drag nets and trash that they ingest has all of them teetering on the brink of extinction.
However, just in the last few years the Loggerhead data kept in the state of Georgia shows a small come-back in the number of nesting sites happening. The data has shown a steady decline for thirty years, so maybe the efforts are finally paying off.
Then there is the Terrapin.
Although not technically a sea-turtle, the Terrapin live in the tidal marshes that surround this area. When mating season comes, the females head to high ground to breed. Well, here that means the roads, and a lot of them get squished.
Efforts to harvest the eggs from injured and killed females have had some success. Below are some juvenile Terrapins.
And, now and then, the Center is asked to help local fresh water species. This is a yellow bellied slider, who along with the box turtle is a common resident at the center. They help other reptiles too - even the occasional snake can be found here.
And the goal? To rehabilitate and set back into the wild as many turtles as possible. Here is one with a satellite tracking system attached to its back heading for the waters of the Atlantic.
The center has rehabilitated and returned hundreds of turtles to the wild so far, and from the looks of things these men and women will help many more over the years to come. Thanks to them all for their efforts.
There are a lot of people who have fallen in love with Jekyll Island. In fact there is a saying here that if your feet hit the sands of Jekyll you are destined to return.
Meet Lydia Thompson.
Lydia, a volunteer, has been instrumental in several of the Island's efforts to preserve the birds that call this home or stop here during migration.
She had me meet her at a small area that locals turned into a wild bird feeding and viewing area in the local campground. Swings are installed, and it is amazing the number of people that stop by during the day to just sit and observe for a while.
The sanctuary is nestled in an area where thick underbrush and vines nestled beneath grand oaks serve as the perfect safe haven for wild birds.
There are a dozen or so feeders, designed to help birds of specific sizes. These feeders are for smaller birds - notice the cages that keep out crows, grackles and other larger birds.
It is a dark area, so my equipment struggled to get decent photos. Chickadees, cardinals, doves and other species came by during the hour I was there.
You might have noticed the inverted bowl shapes atop the feeders. Well, where there is a free lunch to be had you can bet there is a large population of squirrels trying to get at it.
Lydia was instrumental in bringing several nesting shore birds to the attention of the Jekyll Island Authority. These birds build their nests on the open beach areas, and if visitors are not aware they will cause the death of the chicks. Steps have been taken to recruit volunteers to act as interpreters and educate beach goers during the nesting season.
I had the pleasure of taking a short hike with Lydia. She is a neat person - deeply connected with this land and the animals. She took a pilgrimage at age 29 - she spent a year living in a van with the specific goal of traveling and observing various bird species.
More recently she is battling cancer - a fight she says she is winning. Surgery and chemo are over, but she is still undergoing the rigors of radiation treatment. It took a lot of effort for her to get over to the island and spend the time showing me the sanctuary today, for which I am grateful. Perhaps keep her recovery in your thoughts and prayers.
And for today's parting shot - a t-shirt in a local curio shop.
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