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Endangered Sea Turtles Find a Safe Haven on Ossabaw Island

Sea turtles and their eggs are considered to be delicacies in many parts of the world, including Southeast Asia and Latin America. But in the United States, it's actually illegal to eat sea turtles, because the animals are facing extinction. In fact, the Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to limit human contact with the turtles in America's coastal waters. But as VOA's Maura Farrelly found out on a visit to Ossabaw Island, Georgia, humans aren't the only thing threatening the sea turtles.

Ossabaw Island is considered by many biologists to be an absolute haven for sea turtles. One of more than a dozen barrier islands along the coast of the southern state of Georgia, Ossabawwhich is about twice the size of Bermudawas privately owned until 1978 by an environmental enthusiast who left the land basically undeveloped.

That owner eventually sold the island to the state of Georgia for half its estimated value. In exchange for the bargain, the state agreed to turn Ossabaw into a nature preserve. It's now a permanently undeveloped piece of land along a coastline peppered with hotels and restaurants. Because of that, says Krystal Westfall, a researcher with Georgia's Department of Natural Resources, sea turtles hatched on the island have a better chance of survival than do those on the mainland.

"These beaches are wild, so you don't have the lights of hotels and cars and everything going past, so the sea turtles can't get, you know, oriented in the wrong position. You know, moving inland, instead of going out to sea," Ms. Westfall said.

When the turtles hatch, it's usually at night. They climb out of their nests in the sand and scurry down the beach toward the ocean, using the reflection of the moon on the water's surface as a guide. Artificial lights can mess up their sense of direction, and every year, thousands of baby turtles along the southeastern coast of the United States die without ever making it to the sea. But on Ossabaw, lights aren't the problem. It's wild hogs that eat the eggs before they hatch, because they're high in protein.

"What we have here are just little pencil rods that hold this screen down, and it's pretty effective, so the hogs can't get in to root in the nest. The only real problem we have with rooting is the raccoons. They've got pretty small little arms. They can get down there," she said.

Krystal Westfall spends the months of June, July, and August combing Ossabaw's beaches, searching for Loggerhead Sea Turtle nests in the sand, so she can cover the nests with screens that make it harder for hogs to get in and eat the eggs. She says she usually doesn't have any problems finding the nests. She just has to look for the turtle tracks.

"A Loggerhead is a very distinct crawl. They make a, I mean, it's like a bulldozer coming up. I mean, they have a huge crawl. You can't miss it when you're walking down the beach," Ms. Westfall said.

Loggerheads are the most common kind of sea turtle found along the southeastern coast of the United States. But that doesn't mean there are many of them. Loggerheads were first placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1978. They were listed as "threatened" back then and that's the still the case. Hunting and coastal development are only part of the problem. The turtles also get caught in shrimp nets frequently and drown. That's why scientists want to make sure the turtles born on Ossabaw Island make it safely to the ocean.

The hope is that many of them will survive through adolescence and return in about 25 years to lay more eggs. Krystal Westfall says in addition to protecting the nests from hungry hogs, she'll also occasionally move nests when she finds them in areas that get flooded by high tides. Ms. Westfall says it's important to find the nests shortly after they've been made, because within a few hours, moving the eggs can be a bit tricky.

"Within the first, I think it's like six hours, you can move them, and you don't need to worry about the orientation of the egg. After that, you know, you have to be very careful, because they've already attached themselves to that particular side of the egg that they were laying on. So you have to put them on the correct position, you know, when you put them back in," she said.

Ms. Westfall said, in general, it's not a good idea to mess with nature, and if the sea turtles weren't facing extinction, she'd never disturb a nest not even one that had been dug in a tidal area. But the turtles are facing extinction largely because of human activity.

And so Ms. Westfall says she has no qualms about doing what she can to reduce the natural dangers turtles face. But she also points out that when she places a screen over a nest, she really isn't protecting the turtles from a so-called "natural" danger. The wild hogs on Ossabaw aren't indigenous, like the turtles are. They're descended from pigs that were placed on the island in the 16th century by Spanish explorers.