Watching giant turtles nesting by the seashore was a new experience for a local resident.
Sue Vater Olsen of Scandinavia learned about the sea turtles from her aunt, Barbara Vater.
Her aunt was part of the Caretta Research Project which collected data about hatching loggerhead turtles in September 2012.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the loggerhead sea turtle, Caretta caretta, is threatened in Georgia and endangered in other regions.
“When she shared her photographs and experiences, I knew that I had to learn more about it,” Olsen said. “Barbara’s Christmas gift to me included the book ‘Sea Turtles of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States’ and her scrapbook of photographs of Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge.”
The Caretta Research Project has monitored more than 3,000 nests and tagged more than 1,200 loggerheads over the last four decades.
Data collected by the research, conservation and education program is used by a variety of scientists to learn about sea turtle nutrition, nesting behavior and reproduction.
“The active use of collected data was another incentive for me to participate,” Olsen said.
She began planning and studying for the nesting season.
It was her choice to visit Wassaw Island early in the season.
“The weather was likely to be cooler and it didn’t conflict with summer library programming at Scandinavia Public Library, where I am library director,” she said. “I had no idea that the weather would be unseasonably cold during our time on Wassaw Island. I ended up wearing all of my clothes – up to five layers of them – and borrowed a fleece hat and neck gaiter.”
Despite the cold temperatures, she said the experience was great.
Kawasaki mules were used to patrol the beach at night as the volunteers watched for turtles or their tracks. They moved in complete darkness, except when traveling through the boneyard of dead trees and stumps, when the red-filtered headlights were used.
“The new moon was on May 9, so we had an excellent sky for star gazing,” Olsen said. “Kris Williams (of the Caretta Research Project) pointed out constellations during breaks in patrolling, and we watched the skyscape change as the night progressed, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.”
“The drastic change in my sleep schedule led to some silly thoughts,” Olsen said. “One night the constellation Cassiopeia was rising on the horizon. I thought to myself ‘That might be Cassiopeia, but maybe it isn’t because it might look different in Georgia than at home.’ When I laughingly told Barbara my thoughts, she commented that we might be in a different universe. It certainly felt like it to me with the palm trees, dolphins, alligators and different bird songs.”
At about 2 a.m. one day, Olsen and the four other women in her group discovered a loggerhead on the south end of the island. They approached the turtle as it began laying her eggs, a process which puts the animal in a kind of trance.
“Spending time with the huge loggerhead turtle was an amazing experience,” Olsen said. “The turtle was laying eggs when we found her, so that we were able to collect data such as the size of her upper shell, her physical appearance and skin biopsies.”
She described the turtle as beautiful with a smooth clean shell, no scars from shark bites, and just a few barnacles.
“Bio-luminescent plankton were present on her shell so that when she was touched that area glowed with a soft blue light,” Olsen said. “I was surprised at the amount of soft tissue exposed between her upper and lower shells.”
“When the turtle was done laying her eggs, she methodically covered them with sand and disguised the nest by tossing loose sand over it. (The turtle) moved quickly towards the water, with a few stops to rest,” she said. “It is likely that she will return to the area several more times this season to lay more eggs.”
By checking its implanted PIT tag, the group discovered this particular loggerhead was previously seen on nearby Blackbeard Island in 2003, once making a false crawl and another time trekking up the beach to nest.
In the 10 years since, she has not been recorded again.
Researchers will use the genetic information gathered by Olsen’s team to match the turtle to nests laid on the Georgia coast since 2006, when the genetic sampling of an egg from each identified nest began.
Loggerheads typically nest every two to three years once they reach maturity in their late 20s or early 30s.
Wassaw Island, one of Georgia’s coastal barrier islands, was designated a National Wildlife Refuge on Oct. 20, 1969. Unlike many of Georgia’s Golden Isles, little development and few management practices have modified the 10,053-acre island’s primitive character.
The threatened loggerhead sea turtles visit the beach at night to lay their eggs.
For more information about the Caretta Research Project, including week-long volunteer opportunities and adopt-a-turtle projects, go to www.carettaresearchproject.org. Or visit the project’s Facebook page at Caretta Research Project.